In this episode of What IFF? we are joined by two trauma-informed experts to break down the misconceptions about sexual assault, trauma recovery, and patterns of serial perpetration. Katie Mai, LMSW, is a therapist with the Sexual Assault Services program at MUSC. Lyn Maples is an outreach coordinator and victim advocate with Tri-County S.P.E.A.K.S. Together, we analyze data on victimization to better understand what’s happening in our culture. Then, we use that knowledge to create supportive practices for survivor healing and improve educational tools to change social attitudes about gender-based violence.
To speak with a victim advocate, call the Tri-County S.P.E.A.K.S. 24-hour hotline at 843-745-0144 or the National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE.
Music by Clean Mind Sounds
** To view all works cited, please visit the transcript page.
- INTRODUCTION -
Welcome to this episode of What IFF? A podcast where we imagine intersectional feminist futures and talk about the role social activism plays in our everyday lives. I’m your host, Bria Ferguson, and content warning - today, we are discussing sexual assault, patterns of perpetration, and intersectional marginalizations that can impact trauma recovery. April is sexual assault awareness month, and it was important to not only amplify this but create a resource that’s accessible year-round. This episode is a bit of a departure from our usual campus-centric focus, but the practices discussed here can foster a pedagogy approach to hope for survivors anywhere. So, let’s take a deep breath and dive in.
Our piece of it is mental health care. We provide immediate interventions after sexual assault to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and we also offer mid-term interventions as well as trauma therapy.
That’s Katie Mai, she/her pronouns, licensed clinician, and a therapist with the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina. She has a master's degree in social work, and we have another trauma-informed specialist here with us.
What I do is get out in the community. If we don’t educate about sexual assault and how real it is, we’re not going to make a difference.
That’s Lyn Maples, she/her pronouns, victim advocate, and an outreach coordinator for Tri-County S.P.E.A.K.S. - which served as South Carolina’s first rape crisis center back in 1974. They remain a crucial resource for Charleston today. We believe it’s important to create a space to have conversations about trauma and recovery through a queer lens because, so often, that’s a major piece of this puzzle that’s left unattended. So how does gender identity, sexual orientation, class, race, and ethnicity factor into the disparities of sexual violence?
- SOCIOECONOMIC DATA ON VICTIMIZATION -
What we see in our clinic as far as race goes, the data that we have is from January 2020 to February of 2023, and about 90% of the people that came through who completed a medical forensic exam also completed our immediate intervention that we have for sexual assault. 51% were white, 29% were African American, 10% were Hispanic, Latino, Latinx, Latina, and then there were 5% of people who identified as something else (checked the ‘other’ category), and then another five that were missing. What we noticed was that Black or African American survivors were more likely to report not having insurance, they were more likely to report having concerns about meeting their basic needs, and they were more likely to report that they were presently experiencing homelessness. So, we can deduct from that that our African American population is experiencing financial stress.
So experiencing compounding trauma and survival in many senses of the word.
Of course, yeah. And not having health insurance is a really big deal in life. Not having a home. These are basic needs. For the LGB clientele, they showed higher levels of traumatic stress symptoms compared to heterosexual survivors, and they also reported higher use of drugs and alcohol. So they were more vulnerable to that. Those are some issues in our clinic that we see just here in the Tri-County area. On a national rate, this statistic is including transgender people, LGBT are nearly four times more likely than non-LGBT people to experience violent victimization. That includes sexual assault. So, that’s troubling.
Those statistics are from a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime, which also found that transgender survivors are 66% more likely to face repeat victimization during trauma recovery.
And as far as gender goes in our sample, we don’t see enough transgender people in our clinic to have data on, which is also concerning cause we know that transgender people experience four times the rate of victimization. It’s not that people are not being raped here; it’s that there’s a barrier there that we’re not seeing that we need to address. That we don’t know what it is.
I’ll self-disclose that in the military trial for my assault, my sexual orientation was repeatedly used against me by the defense counsel. They reinforced harmful stigmas rooted in homophobia that alluded to this idea that the assault must somehow be my fault because I openly identified as queer and the perpetrator identified as a cis-gendered, heterosexual, quote-on-quote “family” man. They used that privilege to try and evade his accountability. So a lot of projections about promiscuity and targeted slut-shaming and victim-blaming, despite the proof of me saying no, many times. That was consistently glossed over, and they used that same rhetoric to try and discredit the queer witnesses as well… and all of this was allowed by the judge.
One of the things that we’ve got to realize is a perpetrator will try to put the guilt on the victim. ‘You made me do this.’ You know, you look at yourself if you’re a victim going, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s telling me what I wore,’ and it’s just revictimizing. It’s hurting the victim, and the worst thing is this perpetrator is going to go out and do it to somebody else.
- PATTERNS OF SERIAL PERPETRATION -
Yeah, and to add to that - thank you, Lyn - people don’t always look at the background of the perpetrators. They usually focus on the statistics involving the victims or the survivors (which I think is probably a more empowering terminology to use). But, you know, remember that sexual assault and rape really begin with the perpetrator. And there are models that explain why perpetrators behave the way they do. It’s called the confluence model of sexual aggression, and basically, what it states is that a sexual perpetrator grew up in an environment that included violence (parental violence) in child abuse which contributed to delinquency. And from there, it goes through two paths. One, you have early sexual promiscuity before the age that others would begin doing that. And then the other path is attitudes which support violence because they’ve been exposed to violence and they have a culture that’s telling them that this is the way they need to be. The sexual promiscuity route leads to sexual aggression. The attitudes supporting sexual violence lead to ideas of what is called hostile masculinity, and that then leads to sexual violence. It’s interesting, too, because most perpetrators of sexual violence are male. That’s just a fact. It’s an uncomfortable one, but it’s true. I’ve seen statistics that range everywhere from 75% to 90% of all sexual perpetrators being male. The other part of that that’s interesting is that of all men who are out there, 3% are sexual perpetrators. So it’s a small group of men that are perpetrating multiple times.
That data is pulled from a report published by the U.S. Air Force in 2010 after a congressional mandate required the Department of Defense to investigate its ongoing failures to prevent and respond to crimes of sexual violence. Nonetheless, over the past last decade, the frequency of sexual harassment and assault has increased by 13%.
They’re serial offenders that our system doesn’t have mechanisms to pursue or catch, even when people try to. Even when you do report. That’s really where the issue is when it comes to stopping sexual violence. It’s not changing the behaviors and the attitudes of the people who have been victimized; it’s changing the behaviors and attitudes of the perpetrators. That’s why it’s important to note that sexual assault is always the fault of the perpetrator, no matter what.
- SOCIAL ATTITUDES AND RAPE CULTURE -
I just learned this a few minutes ago - we were learning about rape culture. And found that boys - twelve to thirteen years old - all of them had been exposed to rough sex pornography, and this is what they’re learning, and it’s as early as eight years old where they’re exposed to it. So the majority are exposed to rough, you know, strangulation in a sexual act. This is what they are learning. So you look at former Calvin Klein ads that have a female with four males, no shirts, jeans down, laying across them - what is that telling you? That’s okay. So just looking at some of these statistics is just really blowing my mind.
Our culture historically has not viewed sex in an empowering way for everyone. There is a lot of pressure on some people in society to have many sexual partners beginning at certain ages, and I think that there are some people who feel their self-esteem is tied to that, and they experience a lot of stress. And so there’s a lot of pressure that they put on themselves to have multiple sexual conquests, which is in opposition to this idea of fostering a healthy relationship with someone. This idea that sex can be empowering for all people involved. Misconception is rooted in fear, and it’s rooted in ideals that really were never good for anyone necessarily. They’re not good for anyone. They’re not good for the person that feels that way, and they’re not good for everyone else, either. But it’s this belief that gets repeated over and over again and reinforced over and over again, and it can be tough for others to contradict that or challenge that.
Absolutely and I am a female assigned at birth and from the South. Grew up, I always called them June and Ward Clever. Perfect family, perfect house, the dog, everything is great. And, uh, for me, it wasn’t. I am a survivor. You know, ‘you’re going to be the cheerleader, you’re going to go to piano lessons, you’re going to do dance, you’re going to do all these things.’ And they had a picture in the seminar I was in this morning, and it was showing a little girl in a shirt that said, “I can’t wait to be a trophy wife.”
Yikes. Oh, that’s not good.
No. And I am looking at this picture, going, ‘That is not okay.’ We go back to what does culture think? And that is not okay. And then, it showed a picture of a young boy that said, “I’m only going to marry a model.” We’ve got to stop that messaging. I mean, that’s horrible. Our culture does this. We’ve got to speak up.
My mother had an in-home daycare business throughout my childhood, and I remember some parents found it hilarious to get their newborn a bib that would say something like, ‘I’m a boob guy.’ I have my personal beliefs about non-consensually assigning gender to children, but at a bare minimum, we should be working together to slow down and think about how subliminal messaging impacts everyone’s future. Clothing items like that are commonplace, and I know I’ve laughed at something like that in the past without considering any of the ways it normalizes acts of hyper-sexualization. It may not be perceived as a joke by everyone a child comes into contact with. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 93% of children who are victims of sexual abuse knew their abusers as family members or close family friends. Less than 10% of children are sexually abused by a stranger. Interactional norms are a significant component of complicity. We desire to fit in and want to make a good impression, especially if it’s someone we respect and seek validation or approval from, but what are others learning from our words, our actions, and our lived examples about what we’ll tolerate?
The perpetrator that have been studied include sexual behavior, deficits in interpersonal skills, gender-related attitudes and cognitions (so ideas about gender), and perceptions about attitudes of their peers regarding their sexual behavior. So this idea that there’s this social pressure to have conquests. There’s a pattern to their perpetration, too. It’s a three-stage pattern. They spend some time thinking and fanaticizing about the act, and then they commit the act, and then afterwards, they make excuses that justify in their own minds the act. And those are called cognitive distortions because it’s irrational thinking. And a lot of those cognitive distortions are about assigning erroneous blame to the survivor and absolving themselves of responsibility for their actions. That is the cycle that keeps going with them. The areas that people have worked on as far as intervening with perpetrations - they use feminist theory, actually, which is trying to change their attitudes about gender specifically. Those are the interventions that are used with intimate partner violence as well.
It’s about control. The perpetrator wants to control. They want to control a victim. It gives them power. You know, once again, if we do not educate the community… if we do not educate students going to college, and things of what to see and what to suspect…
Yeah, most people don’t know that. The perception about rape and sexual assault is that it’s a guy, and he just pushed the lines a little bit too far, and that’s really not what’s going on. One of the things I read today was actually about sexual assault perpetrated at bars (or hunting, they called it at bars). You know, the mindset is that you have your perpetrator. He’s feeling sorry for himself in some way. And so, in order to break that, he goes to a bar and gets drunk, and sees an opportunity. And that’s really what it is for some people. Some people plan it out; others act more impulsively. But either way, you should be able to go to a bar and not be raped. Period. A victim should not have to engage in extra safety behaviors to keep themselves safe. It should be - should, and isn’t - that we stop rapists, really. Cause we would all love to be able to go out there and live our lives freely. I grew up being told all sorts of things about how I’m supposed to behave in order to not be raped. And I don’t remember, ever, anyone saying to boys, ‘Don’t rape anyone.’ To your point with the health class, no one said that. So, I question advice given to people to protect themselves because I think we all want to protect ourselves. I think we all go through life trying to protect ourselves, and when you’re born in the body of a woman or girl and you grow up, we have to look at the world differently because of that. That is something that is an injustice. And it’s also false.
Yeah, that’s not even true. If dressing more stereotypically masculine prevented sexual assault, then, in theory, I wouldn’t be harassed anymore as a genderqueer-identifying person. Or at least the harassment would be less frequent than when I identified and presented as a cis-gendered woman. It’s so much worse now. I get more catcalls that are both misogynistic and transphobic. So, I think this goes back to people being raised with certain beliefs that we never re-interrogate as adults - even when life becomes more complicated than we thought it could be. One in four Muslim women in New York are being pushed on subway platforms for wearing hijabs. “Modesty” is not the moral issue behind gendered violence.
It is not okay, and it does not need to be tolerated, and it is not accepted for any culture. This is something that is recognized as an international movement.
Remember, too: it is not a decision to be raped; it is a decision to rape. There are a lot of people out there who experience painful childhoods and do not grow up to perpetuate violence of any kind. In fact, there are more that grow up that do not perpetrate violence of any kind than do. So it’s not something that can be reduced only to that. There are other factors involved.
- RE-TRAUMATIZING RESPONSES TO SEXUAL ASSAULT -
You have two football stars that are amazing. Professional football players. That’s just everything that the community was about. They actually were accused of rape. They were found guilty, but how did all of this get out? Social media. People Instagramed her rape. This went out to everyone, and that evidence helped from bystanders because she had no idea what had happened to her from it being drug-facilitated. So she was out. The only reason she knew something had happened was seeing it out on social media. So that’s what it’s taking to get a guilty verdict.
Lyn is referencing the Steubenville High School rape case in Ohio from 2012. Here, two football players raped a 16-year-old girl, and the community tried to cover it up. Despite the unquestionable evidence presented in court and the guilty verdicts, this case was largely unpopular nationwide. Even mainstream news outlets focused on the heartbreak of the perpetrators’ no longer getting their promising star-football careers. They expressed sympathy for the rapists instead of rallying support or resources for the survivor. And, beings both perpetrators were minors, their sentencing was less than two years, and their sex offender registries were eligible for reconsideration upon turning 21. This case helped shed light on the continuum of harm that can happen to survivors throughout investigative and judicial processes. Several adults, including school officials, coaches, and parents, were indicted due to their failures to report despite knowing about the rape and covering-up other cases of student sexual assault.
Yeah, but the perpetrators thought they were not at fault. As Katie said, it’s always the perpetrator’s fault. So imagine the trauma the young girl went through this happening. They speak about it, the family speaks about it, and how difficult that was for her. The responses, so many people in the culture were saying, ‘Oh, you should’ve just let it go. It was no big deal.’ It is a big deal. And we need to change that. We need to work with our law enforcement, with our prosecutors, with the community. That’s why I love outreach so much, and educating on - this is a very real subject. This is happening in our community, and if we don’t educate ourselves and teach our children what consent is, and no, and the signs… You know, once every 73 seconds someone is sexually assaulted is now 68 seconds. If we don’t do a better job of education and people accepting it, that number is going to go to 65 seconds.
According to the American Psychological Association, the average perpetrator sexually assaults five different victims. And a study done by Darkness to Light, which is a leading organization in sexual abuse prevention, found that serial perpetrators may abuse as many as 400 victims in their lifetime.
I think it’s probably not well-known that you can be traumatized by someone’s response to your sexual assault too. I see that a lot as a therapist. ‘I told this person that I trusted and loved that I had been raped, and they told me that I was lying.’ ‘They called me all kinds of names.’ ‘They expressed sympathy for my perpetrator.’ You know, I’ve heard all of that, and that alone - that all by itself - is traumatic for people. So that has to be teased apart in therapy too. You can recover from that, too, but don’t underestimate how painful it is for someone to approach someone they love and to experience disbelief or to experience that attacking response. The single most important factor in whether or not someone gets PTSD from sexual assault is social support that loves you, believes you, is understanding, is supportive, and is on your side. That does more to prevent PTSD than anything else. It’s hard to go through this and feel completely alone.
Full disclosure… Ya’ll; I shut down during this part of the interview. Things got a little too close to home, and I completely froze. I couldn’t think of a single question to ask and was stuck staring blankly at my computer screen. Luckily Katie and Lyn are trauma-informed experts. So they walked me through some ways to cope with that experience in real-time.
- COPING THROUGH PANIC ATTACKS -
Yeah, let yourself feel it. The more you try to stuff it down, the more it’ll pop up. So if you just let yourself feel it in the moment, it will resolve.
And I did learn we were talking today with panic attacks. And I have a panic attack just going into Walmart. I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have like fifty items, and I’m going to have to do the self-check, and I’m going to be so slow.’ You feel, as a victim, PTSD sparks something in your memory, and you start having a panic attack… The one thing you need to tell yourself is, ‘This will end. It’s not going to give me a heart attack. I’m not going to pass out.’ It’s going to absolutely do the opposite because your blood is going to start pumping, and it’s so amazing to know there’s going to be an end to this. And then, you can work with mental health professionals and your therapist, call and talk to an advocate on our hotline that can help you through deep breathing. And getting in touch with your senses. Your senses are one of the most powerful things; the touching, tapping, and smelling. You know, cook some popcorn. Hear it popping. Smell it (if it’s something that is a good trigger for you). And I love popcorn. There’s nothing like microwave popcorn, and you’re going ‘yes!’ And, you know, how it tastes. So, if you’re able to focus on your senses, it kind of gets you grounded. But panic attacks are very common for victims and survivors.
- POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER -
Oh yeah, absolutely. And you know, that mindfulness that you were just describing is perfect for that. It’s totally, completely normal to feel overwhelmed after being sexually assaulted or raped. Like, that’s a normal human response to an abnormal life event. It’s the life event that’s not right, not the person that’s not right. And PTSD takes about six weeks or so to solidify, which is why some of the stuff that we do is preventative. Because if we can catch it within that six weeks, we can keep that person’s life on track, wherever it was going to go before. And if that doesn’t happen, that’s okay too; we have therapy that can resolve PTSD, too, and put it into remission. You know, people think, ‘I’m going to be suffering like this for the rest of my life.’ And they don’t have to; it’s not true. You can go through a lot; you can go through an awful lot and recover and be better for it because you’ve gone through the process of recovery and become a better person from it all. That’s the real ray of sunshine in all of it. It’s not that your perpetrator made you a better person because you were… that’s not what I’m saying. You became a better person for yourself. You did the work. They did something terrible to you, and you did something great with it.
So on the hotline, we do get calls from survivors of childhood sexual abuse. We do help with that. We refer those calls; an advocate will reach out to them. We help give them resources, support groups, but you may have pushed something way down, and then all of a sudden, you have a smell. A certain cigarette. ‘Marlboro, I can smell it a mile away!’ You know, just anything. And all of the sudden, you break out in a sweat. You don’t know what’s happening. You can call here. We’ll help calm you down. But PTSD can be triggered at any time, and you may not fully have a recollection of why this is happening or what is happening, but there is help. PTSD is very powerful, and it can take a lot of work, but you have to work to be the champion over that.
The field of PTSD studies is actually relatively new. When you think about how long humans have existed, trauma has always existed. PTSD has always existed, but we didn’t know what it was or what to call it. The study of PTSD actually began after WWI and then began again after WWII studying it in people that came back from war with PTSD, but they called it other things. It’s really been in the last 30 years or so that we’ve learned as much as we have about PTSD and developed treatments for it. So when you have this issue of trauma going through the generations, we have to remember that there wasn’t anything for people back then. But there is now, there is now, and you can take advantage of that. Having PTSD is like living inside of a cage almost, with the worst moments of your life constantly repeating, constantly coming up, constantly disabling you. And it doesn’t have to be that way. But understand, too, that treatment is required for PTSD. You know, the fight, flight, freeze or appease (another word for that is fawn, but I prefer appeasement). That is a neurological response to a traumatic event. And the thing about PTSD is when you go through this event - whether you were a child or an adult - that physiological response is turned on, and it stays on. So what you have is kind of this smoke detector in your mind that is always going off, whether there’s a fire or not. And so, it’s kind of difficult to live like that when you have this sound blaring in your ears all the time. And, if there is a fire, you might ignore that smoke detector. And if there’s not a fire, you might think that there is one when there isn’t one. So it can be very disorienting and confusing. All the therapies that we have address that. When you go through a traumatic event, it turns on certain parts of your brain, and it turns off other parts of your brain. The reason being is that when you’re in an emergency situation, your body and mind go into emergency mode. One of those things that turn off is your frontal cortex which is how you think. So, memories are fragmented. If you have memories, they’re not connected in a narrative, and they’re stored as sensory information. And so, you might have that smell - that cigarette smell that comes up - and all of a sudden, you’re slammed with all of these emotions from that traumatic experience. And, every time you smell that cigarette, that comes up. And it’s because those memories, that sensory information, has not been integrated into your brain. Your memories are like a filing cabinet, and when you go through a traumatic experience, things don’t get filed away in a way that you can find. It’s like there’s all this paperwork just scattered around the floor. So therapy helps you put all of that paperwork where it’s supposed to go inside of your mind so that way you can go into it if you need to and leave when you need to as well.
You know, the one thing that’s so great is there’s more information. People are waking up, and I think that’s so important that we’re able to have all of this data. Cause I’m a data person. So, when I go speak to communities and speak to a ton of different groups, it’s just, you know, we’ve got to interlock as an intersectional group of humans. We’ve got to be there to support and help each other.
When I was in school for social work, getting my master's degree, reflecting on privileged identities versus targeted identities. You know, most of us have a little bit of both. Some of us have all one or all the other, but I have one targeted identity, and that’s that I’m a female assigned at birth/I identify as a woman. When I went through that process, I learned about all of my privileged identities that I had been ignoring. And thinking that all of those identities were just normal or the default status, and a lot of people do that. And so, having the opportunity to reflect upon that in school was critical for me to be able to consciously see that and be aware of that. Which I need to be in order to work with all different kinds of populations. To loop back to the victim-blaming that we talked about earlier, you know, there is culturally this agreement that we’re all raised with that ‘good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people.’ So if something bad happens to you, it must be your fault. And, of course, we can all come up with examples of how that’s not true. We can all think of bad things happening to people that we think are good and good things happening to people that we think are bad. But it makes us feel safe if we look at the world in that way. It gives us this false sense of control over our own destinies, and the reality is that sometimes there are things that happen that are not our faults that we had no control over, that are just tragedies. Sometimes there is a hurricane, and it’s no one’s fault. That is a bad thing happening to good people. Sometimes someone you think is morally reprehensible has a whole lot of wealth; that’s just another example. It can be scary for us to acknowledge that there are things in this world that are confusing, not controllable. A lot of people would rather believe in a false world that makes them feel more comfortable than look at the world as it truly is.
- THERAPY AND RECOVERY -
What are some ways that people can walk through the world more realistically with the mentality that humanity is far more complex beyond the “good” or “bad” binary? And how do you help people create a healthy sense of safety and stability amidst the chaos?
Yeah, so that’s a great question, and you know that’s part of the trauma therapy that we do. Cause when you come in, and you have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a lot of people come in with histories of multiple rapes - they, justifiably, feel very unsafe in the world. And part of the therapy is helping them see the times in their lives when they were safe/when they did feel safe. Or if they’ve never felt safe, there are some people who come in that have literally never felt safe in their whole lives. And so, we try to get them to loosen their thinking a little bit because what you’re describing is called black-and-white thinking. It’s extreme thinking and the reality is that there’s a lot of gray in the world. Sometimes you can be safe. Is it possible or likely that you’ll be attacked when you go to the grocery store today? Most of the time, it’s not likely but it is possible. Right? And so, getting them to see that there’s more to it than just an ‘if-then’ kind of thing. We actually call those stuck points. And so, you know, trauma is kind of like this big sticky knot that has to be pulled a part and teased a part through cognitive processing therapy. We do that layer by layer by layer. Safety is one of the core layers on the inside, so we actually kind of have to pull apart all the stuff on the outside first to get to that part. But by the time we do pull that stuff apart, they’re ready for it.
I think it’s very important that a victim - and from what we see as advocates for victims in accompaniment to the hospital, through the safe exam with law enforcement, through prosecution - it’s very important that we focus on the victim and they’re autonomous. You make the choice. If you feel uncomfortable at any point, you decide. So the services we offer with the amazing advocates that we have, the support groups, the therapy referrals that we work together to have, and just being there. With victims, it’s very important that you make the decision; if you don’t feel comfortable with this point of the exam, you don’t have to do it. You’re in control.
We have several different types of therapy that we do. I do cognitive processing therapy, mostly, and it is always patient-driven. So patients are at the center of their own care, they get to make their own decisions, and I’m helping them through it. I’m not dictating for them. That’s not what this is; this is supporting someone’s self-advocacy - it is not imposing my will on someone which would be understandably triggering. And that’s important for every provide that’s had someone with a sexual assault in their life, is to put them at the center of their own care. Is to respect their own decisions that they make. Some of the pushback that I get from time to time is, ‘well, I don’t think they’re making a good decision for themselves.’ My response to that is, ‘well, they have that right.’ They’re the expert of their own lives, so they might know something about themselves that you don’t. People actually are well-equipped to make their own decisions about their lives. To the whole point of victim-blaming, culture will ask, ‘oh, what kinds of decisions were you making up to the point you were assaulted?’ and it’s like, that’s not really it. That’s another thing that we do in therapy too, is we get them to look at the fact that they’ve actually likely have made a lot of good decisions in their lives that they’re not looking at in that moment because everything that they see in the world is colored through this lens of trauma.
And as advocates from Tri-County S.P.E.A.K.S., we are going to be there to help you through. We have our 24/7 crisis line. You can call us anytime. We are here, and we can get you to services like the therapy services with Katie.
You do need help, and that’s okay. We want to help you. Having that compassion and empathy for oneself is just as important as having that compassion and empathy for another human being too. And I find that survivors have a very difficult time with that. Some of that is internalized cultural pressures, and other things that have to do with that are just the nature of post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the techniques that are used when training people for forensics is to stop, take a break, and look for something beautiful. When you have these books that have image after image after image of violent victimization, there’s an image that breaks it up that’s just like flowers and beauty and peace. We have to remind ourselves that those things exist in this world because you can drown in it. And I have to continuously remind myself that the beauty and love that exists in this world is far greater than the horror. The horror is there, but there is still a lot of love and beauty, and wonder. It’s healthy to lean into that.
I’ll say for me, I love walking and running, and that’s always been a passion. I am a beach girl and a water person - I’m a Scorpio - so, I love water. If I just go sit at the beach or go take a walk at the beach, water is a really good thing for me. I am now just getting into yoga, yeah. I’m not one to really ever relax, doing a little bit of yoga, but one of my biggest passions is photography. So, I am able to kind of express myself through that as well. But do not have me do art, though art therapy is great for a lot of survivors and victims of sexual assault. I can’t draw a stick person, but I can do photography and digitalize it and talk. Talk to my husband, I talk to my friends - not about anything, cause everything is confidential that we do here - but I just about how I’m feeling and they know with the work I do, I love my friends, they love to check in on me. ‘Hey, are you good? Do you want to go for a coffee?’ I’m like, ‘Sure!’ And that’s good. I think it’s really important that when you’re a victim or a survivor, you make your own journey. You weave it. I think that’s really important and allow yourself time. I was very, ‘I need to get it done now, I need to heal now, I’ve got to do this, I’ve gotta, I’ve gotta, I’ve gotta.’ And it’s okay. You are the creator of your journey.
- DEFINING CONSENT -
We are nearing the end, but we still need to talk about consent. Can you define the word for me as if I’m hearing it for the first time?
So consent, we go with the FRIES acronym - which is freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, and specific. One of the misconceptions about consent is that it’s a one-and-done. It’s not. It’s an ongoing thing. That’s what the reversible means. The freely given, it is not coerced. Informed means you know what you are consenting to, you have a discussion with your partner, and you work out the things that you’re interested in doing and the things that you’re not. It’s enthusiastic, so it’s not reluctant. And it’s specific, a discussion about the specific things you’re going to be doing before you do them.
No means no. There is no in-between. We often hear how there is drug-facilitated sexual assault that occurs because someone had had too much to drink or something had been slipped into the drink. It’s thought that ‘Oh, well, it’s okay.’ It is not okay. If a person is incapacitated, that is sexual assault. They do not know. They do not have the capability of saying yes and consenting. Incapacitation means no. If to have special needs and have a disability and are not able to speak for yourself, that is a no. No means no, and I think people need to understand that consent, as Katie shared, you have to talk about it. You have to have specifics. And if those are not in there and it is forced, it is not okay, and it is sexual assault.
Affirmative consent is what we’re going for, and that is different than no. It’s not pushing it until you get a no; it’s get a yes. Talk and get a yes, and if that person does not say yes - then you don’t have sex, and that’s the end of it. There’s a difference between trying to convince quote-on-quote someone because that’s not really enthusiastic. And to Lyn’s point, drugs, and alcohol - that’s not consent, either. If you’re under the influence, you’re not in a position to be able to do that. And so, the idea of affirmative consent, people are resistant to it because they think, ‘Oh, that’s not sexy.’ And I would really challenge that belief because I think that there are a lot of people out there that find it very sexy when someone is interested in how they are feeling, how they’re doing, and how much they want it. I think it’s sexy to want to be wanted, to know that you’re wanted; I don’t think that it’s sexy to try to hurt someone. We’re not talking about playing games or anything like that because that’s consensual. We’re talking about nonconsensual stuff. It can be a good thing, and it can be a way to enhance your relationship and your level of intimacy to talk about what you like with the other person, and that doesn’t have to cut into the sexual tension or any of the interest.
Absolutely, it’s actually very empowering to say no. I’m not ready right now. You know, ‘I’m glad we’re talking about this. I’m not sure where I want this relationship to go.’ And this is for every person. You need to be comfortable with yourself and have your boundaries. And saying, ‘No, I’m not ready now,’ and discussing this piece about consent is extremely empowering for actually both people in the relationship because the other person can be like, ‘Well, I thought we were heading another way, and we’re not.’ And them going, ‘Okay. They’re not ready for this. Let me take a step back.’ The person that said, ‘No, I’m not ready in the relationship,’ if you start seeing the coercion and the, ‘But, we’ve been together for six months, and you need to be doing this, this, and this.’ Go, ‘Hey, do I really want to be in a relationship like this? This is pressure. This is not healthy. This is not safe. My boundaries are not being respected. I don’t want this relationship.’ And walk away.
Yeah, I mean, it sounds like it gives a lot of clarity for both parties, no matter the outcome. Or however, many parties are involved.
And you bring up a good point that I do want to say cause there can be more than two people involved in the relationship, and there’s actually a lot of conversation about that. And, you know, it’s safe for everyone. Talk about it. Talk about, ‘No, I’m not comfortable with this.’ ‘Yes, I am comfortable with this.’ Make it specific.
Thank you both so much for this interview today. It was very cathartic and different than the typical sexual assault conversations I hear that are often oversimplified and exclusive.
I think it’s very important that we have these conversations. I’m thankful today that you are here having this conversation with us, and I hope there are some listeners that will hear it. They will call the Tri-County S.P.E.A.K.S. sexual assault center hotline at 843-745-0144. We’re here to create a safe space for you and to give you the help you need, and it is not taboo. Thank you for letting us share and get this word out.
Tri-County S.P.E.A.K.S. is also hosting a reoccurring poetry circle for survivors and advocates to have a safe place to share, listen, and process our experiences together. You can find more information about upcoming events on their Facebook, Instagram, and official website. I’d also like to shout out the Students 4 Support services on campus, which provide free texting emotional support to students throughout the semester - as well as two trauma-informed, women-owned, and gender-affirming practices in Charleston. Thank you, Dr. Paige Peltier, at Vibrant Chiropractic, for teaching me the interconnectedness of my nervous system and how to start believing in my body’s ability to heal. Thank you, Chelsea Green, at Anu Beginning Therapy, for helping me see new perspectives through abstract processing groups called Community Constellations. These are accessible and donation-based meetings. And last, but most certainly not least, I’d like to thank my partner, Corey, for believing in me as a survivor, as a human, and as a companion. I quite literally would not be here today if it weren’t for your love, light, and advocacy. If you’re a bookworm, I’m going to add a survivor reading list to the transcript on Buzzsprout, where you can also find the full works cited in this podcast. I’m your host, Bria Ferguson. Thanks for being vulnerable, listening, and learning with us today.
- SURVIVOR READING LIST -
- WORKS CITED -