Rights v. Safety: Exploiting Survivors of Child Molestation

03/26/2016 12:03 am ET Updated Mar 26, 2017

They seem like unlikely leaders in the dozen-plus states where proposed legislation would effectively keep transgender people out of public restrooms, but there they are: sexual assault survivors.

Their stories are heartbreaking. As a child, Kaeley Triller Haver loved the man who used to watch her while she showered, and yearned to be closer to him when he moved away. Gretchen Flores was repeatedly abused by a man in a locker room when her mom dropped her off for swimming classes. Janine Simon's abuser started grooming her at 8 and raping her at 9.

Each survivor shows long-term signs of trauma. Flores has been "waking up sometimes with cramps in my legs and that feeling of terror again." Simon "recently experienced her first panic attack in the last decade." Triller Haver is still trying to come to grips with a picture of her when she was a 10-year-old holding a felt cutout of the state her abuser had just moved to.

Even more tragically, decades after they were first harmed, these survivors are again being exploited. Those who are promoting their stories, including the Heritage Foundation, are claiming they want to "protect" them. Actually, however, like these women's original abusers, these "helpers" are acting only in their own interests. In this case, their interest is ensuring transgender people are not guaranteed rights to privacy and safety.

This is far from the first time people have used the specter of sexual assault as a political tool. Politicians have demonized many American minorities over the centuries as rapists and/or child molesters, using those charges to whip up opposition to granting those groups respect, dignity, and rights. Those so targeted have included (but by no means are limited to!) African-Americans, young Japanese men, Jewish Americans, gay men, and, most recently, Mexican immigrants.

I, too, am a sexual assault survivor. I also work with sexual assault survivors professionally, both helping them heal and training others how to help them, as well. So I am in a position to know who is really helping us make progress, and who is just using us.

Part of the evidence these survivors are being used comes from the jurisdictions that have already protected transgender individuals' rights to pee and change clothes in peace: all of them report that there has been no increase in sexual assaults in bathrooms or locker rooms (see, for example, "15 Experts Debunk Right-Wing Transgender Bathroom Myth").

More importantly, perhaps, is the list of what the Heritage Foundation and other politicians who are using sexual assault survivors are NOT doing:
• They are not leading the effort to support the growth and funding of programs working on the prevention of sexual assault, such as the Violence Against Women Act. The Heritage Foundation in fact opposed the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act).
• They are not acknowledging that both men and women can be survivors, and that both men and women can be perpetrators. Instead, they are picking out just the one type of sexual assault that meets their needs and enforcing silence about all the others. How would they protect boys who shower or toilet with men? Is anyone talking about the needs of women and men whose female relative or babysitter molested them?
• They are not visibly demanding follow-up of the hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits that are gathering dust in evidence rooms nationwide.
• They are not conducting public education campaigns to tell people the facts of who abusers are and how they behave, so that people can start identifying and addressing actual dangerous situations.
• They are not proposing legislation to change statutes of limitations so that adults can prosecute the people who molested them as children, or backing other reforms that might change the fact that 98 percent of rapists never serve a day in jail.
• They are not funding or advertising quality trauma-treatment programs that can help survivors re-integrate into the world without carrying a debilitating fear of half of its inhabitants.

Healing from sexual assault is very hard work. In my situation, the rapists were police officers, at least one of whom still patrols my community. More than a decade after the assaults, I am still working on transforming the instant nausea and full-body quaking I experience whenever I see a law enforcement official. While my fear is understandable, it doesn't serve me any more than Janine Simon's panic attack serves her. For my own sake, I am working to get to a place where I can still think and function in the presence of police.

Unfortunately, no one seems to be helping Trilley Haver, Flores, and Simon focus on this kind of healing. Although all of their abusers were - like 82% of all rapists and 90% of all child molesters - known to them, their stories are being used to focus on controlling strangers. Instead of educating parents about child molesters' grooming behaviors so they can be better guardians of those children, the people using these women's stories imply parents are "protecting" their children by knowing the genitals someone has, or what is on their birth certificate, or, for heaven's sake, what their chromosomes are (for an article on proposed legislation that would mandate transgender youth to reveal these very personal private facts, see "Gender is Not Just Chromosome and Genitals"). Instead of working to strengthen programs addressing sexual assault, some politicians are cynically arguing that banning transgender people from certain public spaces will somehow protect people from child molesters. Even Flores, the survivor who was molested in a locker room, doesn't claim her abuser was transgender.

As a society, we have already chosen: rather than using public policy to "protect" one group from another that they fear is dangerous, we have affirmed civil rights and worked instead to change stereotypes. White people who fear Blacks no longer have a right to a whites-only bathroom or water foundation. An employer can no longer fire a pregnant single mother because one of her co-workers finds her "immoral." A restaurant owner can no longer refuse to serve a Muslim patron because some other diner believes all Muslims are terrorists. It is time we now protect transgender people from those who mistakenly fear they are -- or can be used by -- child molesters and rapists.

Resources:

o To locate local services for sexual assault survivors, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit https://rainn.org/get-help/national-sexual-assault-hotline

o To learn how to effectively protect children from child molesters go to http://www.stopitnow.org/

o For information on male survivors and female perpetrators see "When Men Are Raped," at http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2014/04/male_rape_in_america_a_new_study_reveals_that_men_are_sexually_assaulted.html

o To learn more about or join the effort to reduce the untested rape kit backlog go to http://www.endthebacklog.org/backlog/what-backlog

o To learn about efforts to change sexual assault statutes of limitations check out https://verdict.justia.com/2016/01/07/sex-abuse-statute-of-limitations-reform-2015-year-in-review

o To keep track of legislative and executive actions related to sexual assault and domestic violence, consult http://4vawa.org/