Trigger warning: this blog post addresses sexual violence and may be traumatizing for certain readers.
My phone screen lightly beeped me the news: "Doug Jones wins a tight Senate race in Alabama." I paused, noticing the relief in my chest and ignored the rest of the article as a vivid memory flashed through my mind.
My introduction to working in the mental health field began when I volunteered as a Sexual Assault Victim's Advocate during college. I had never been sexually assaulted but was horrified by the number of friends and acquaintances who had. They whispered their stories to me on walks between classes, at the entrance to my dorm room, late at night when they explained why they were scared to walk home alone. I wanted to do something, to somehow make the world safer for these women, for myself. So I became an Advocate and after months of training, I was called to my first emergency room visit early one morning before the sun had fully risen.
The dispatcher who briefed me on the incident reported that the victim was young, but when I walked into the ER room I realized that fact was sorely lacking in detail. Young is the early twenties, maybe even adolescence. The person in front of me with pink pajamas holding a teddy bear was not young. She was a child.
For the next twelve hours, I sat with this nine-year-old girl, her six-year-old sister, and their distraught parents. In between talking about Justin Bieber and getting her to giggle, I informed the family of their rights, held her mother's hand as I explained what a rape kit is, and firmly reminded law enforcement officials who needed to be making the decisions in that particular moment (the family). By the time I left the hospital, the younger sister through listening to all of the conversations happening in the room had climbed into her father's lap and whispered, "Me too." Even as my heart was shattering, I looked at her and repeated what I had told her sister.
"Thank you for telling us. You are so brave. What he did to you was not your fault. It was wrong."
Over the course of my career, I have sat with too many people as they shared their sexual assault stories. In ER rooms, over the phone late at night on crisis lines, by their deathbeds, on college campuses, in church sanctuaries, on vacation, at family reunions, in a San Diego club, in graduate school, in my therapy office. The stories are everywhere.
As the #Metoo movement spreads throughout national consciousness and men from Hollywood to Capitol Hill face real consequences for perpetrating acts of sexual violence and intimidation, I remember every single person that shared their story with me. But tonight, as the Alabama special election results cover the front page of every news outlet, as polls show that 98% of Black women and 93% of Black men voted for Doug Jones while 63% of White women and 72% of White men voted for Moore despite the many sexual misconduct allegations against him, all I can think of is that little girl. Pink pajamas and a teddy bear.
If you are a survivor of sexual violence, this might be a very overwhelming time. The news is never-ending, the possibility for flash-backs is high and the American President is slut-shaming women for speaking out about what he did to them. This is a time for self-care. That might mean sharing your story, becoming a Sexual Assault Victim's Advocate yourself, or working for cultural change in your workplace. But know that self-care right now can also mean sobbing, not looking at social media or the news, or taking time to ensure you feel safe. It is your decision.
If you are a loved one of someone who has shared their story of sexual violence with you, this also might be an overwhelming time for you. Know that you have similar options. When you have the choice, let survivors take the lead. They were violently stripped of their agency and part of their healing will be regaining the power to make decisions for themselves. You can speak out against sexual misconduct though remember that you should never disclose someone's story unless they give you permission. You can, however, speak powerfully about your own experience. You can become an Advocate in many senses of that word and you, too, can lament. Take care of yourself.
And whatever you choose, whatever your story, please know this: You are so brave. What happened to you was not your fault. It was wrong. Thank you for sharing what you can, when you are ready.