Stay Informed, Help Your Friends: A Survivor’s (Super-Abridged) Guide to Things You Should Know

I’ve spent much of the week wondering what to write to close out this spree of blogs for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I thought about writing about how doxxing and internet threats can endanger women’s lives. I thought about writing about the fight/flight/freeze mechanism (which will definitely come up later, I promise). I thought about making a list of ways in which my assault consistently changes my life and worldview. All of these would make great posts, but as we round out the month, I think it’s important to talk about things going on in the greater public consciousness that we should all be aware of. Some of these things involve policies that directly affect survivors’ wellbeing, and others are high-profile events that have produced significant negative side effects. In putting them all in one place (though there are undoubtedly too many others to name in a reasonable amount of column space), I hope you can start to see how policy and society at large work to limit women in ways that can have permanent, potentially fatal consequences for women.

  • Federal gun laws still make it possible (and entirely legal) for domestic abusers to possess firearms.This is called “the boyfriend loophole,” and it continues to endanger the lives of women across the US. As this article explains, “The Lautenberg Amendment only keeps guns out of the hands of convicted domestic abusers who are currently—or were at one time—married to their victim, live with their victim, have a child with their victim, or are a parent or guardian of their victim.” This enables ex-partners and stalkers to continually buy and own guns despite a criminal record of domestic violence. Now, let’s take a moment to look at the stats: the overwhelming majority of women murdered by men are killed by someone they know (commonly using a gun), and as the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence points out, the presence of a firearm in a domestic violence situation makes the abused woman five times more likely to be killed.
  • High-profile assault coverage, like the Cosby trial and the Kavanaugh hearings, can flare up our trauma responses without us realizing it. The first time I experienced this for myself was in 2016, when the Access Hollywood tape came out. I felt ill, tired, withdrawn; I didn’t want to go out; I displayed symptoms that were entirely unlike where my body and mind usually are at that time of year. This Vice Tonic article isn’t the one I originally read on the subject, but it’s a great read and highlights that the PTSD and PTSD-esque symptoms experienced by survivors can make keeping up with the news cycle difficult. Even though we can’t dictate what the news does and doesn’t report, we can keep this knowledge in our minds and hearts to shape how we treat our friends and family members who may be more mentally unhealthy when news does drop.
  • The Trump administration just gutted a UN resolution dedicated to ending sexual violence in war. Just this week, the US threatened to veto a measure designed to further define and disavow rape as a war crime. Their reasoning? A sentence in the resolution could be read as support for abortion. The wording of the phrase in question is as follows: “Recognizing the importance of providing timely assistance to survivors of sexual violence, urges United Nations entities and donors to provide non-discriminatory and comprehensive health services, in line with Resolution 2106.” In other words: when people are raped as a result of war, help them.The Trump administration has made it repeatedly clear that abortion access and preventative reproductive care is among their primary targets, despite its necessity for uterus-having people everywhere.
  • Speaking of the Trump Administration, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently tried to tweak Title IX rules—in favor of rapists. We all know Title IX has issues, particularly for those of us working in the arts whose contact with peers and professors is wildly different from folks in engineering or business. However, DeVos’ guidelines mandate live hearings on college campuses (essentially turning schools into courts) and allow attackers’ representatives to cross-examine their victims during these hearings. The proposed guidelines also redefine sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.” In short, by DeVos’ new rules, you have to be unable to go to school to term any threatening behavior sexual harassment. This inherently limits women’s right to an education and places the desires and actions of our male peers above our own right to personal safety. (It is worth mentioning that the odds of men being sexually assaulted are significant as well, so this doesn’t just affect women; however, as longtime readers know, I tend to speak from the standpoint of my own gender as it’s the only one I have experience in.)
  • Assault and rape survivors die by suicide. Our experiences are constantly dismissed and belittled; we’re expected to just shrug off the pervasive harassment that takes a whole new light in the aftermath of our assaults; we’re frequently disbelieved and silenced by the people in power we trust the most. I don’t have to tell you any of that. But remember that people like Khensani Maseko, a South African student who died by suicide days before she was supposed to return to school to meet with officials investigating her rape, don’t make it out. People like Megan Rondini, a University of Alabama student who reported her rape and was framed as a suspect for the things she did to escape the situation, don’t make it out. When I say not all victims are survivors, this is what I mean. The weight of our own realities and the cost of seeking justice, even when it’s just to keep an attacker from doing the same thing again, can cost us our lives. I highly recommend reading this article from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center to familiarize yourself with factors that can put assault survivors at increased suicide risk and how to help if a friend or loved one finds themself in that situation.

I think I’d like to close out with a line from this great essay by Katie Simon. About halfway through, Simon writes, “My friend once told me, ‘surviving rape made you brave and strong.’ But that’s not true. I was brave and strong before somebody raped me.” We as a public need to realize that women and victims of these crimes are not strong because of what happened to us; we are strong despite what happened to us. Our assaults may change our perspectives, but they do not define our personality. (This is a truth I still grapple with and probably will for a long time.) And despite all the efforts by our own governments and colleges to keep us silent and complicit in our own destruction, we are still here, making noise. If you have an assault survivor, victim, or casualty in your life, I hope you’ll take the time to listen to their words and truly understand what they need from you as a loved one to make their world a little less scary.

(this essay is ending on a somewhat-uplifting note, but many of my stories do not. stay tuned as we dive into some of the gnarlier, more nuanced discussions in the coming months.) ♦

Hello! If you’ve come this far with me during Sexual Assault Awareness Month (or if you’re just discovering this now), thank you for sticking it out with me. It’s been an incredibly taxing month for me as a human and a musician, and I’m so glad to have heard from many of you about what you gained from these posts. I’ve recently started doing informal, almost mini-vlogs about bite-sized assault/harassment/respect topics on my Instagram Stories (tentative title: Misogyny Mondays?). If you’d like to hop on and see what that’s about, follow me @honestlyeris. As always, if you’d like to read more of my assault blogs or listen to some of my assault music, check out my project, Letters from the AftermathNow, if you’ll excuse me, I need to close some tabs and go to sleep.