Category Archives: Inspiration

Five life lessons inspired by sexual assault survivors

Most of the sexual assault survivors I have come to know in the process of researching and writing Unsafe On Any Campus? were teenagers when they were raped. For many, the assault turned their world upside down, sending them into a downward spiral of self-loathing, distrust, and cynicism. Fortunately, for most, resilience won out. In fact, a few have even found a new center, a renewed sense of self, and an element of peace.

This begs the question: What life lessons can we learn from these trauma survivors? Here are just five:

  1. Live in the moment. In all too many cases, the rape was so traumatizing that victims dropped classes, withdrew from school altogether, or completely shifted their everyday lives inward. Their depression was fueled by continually reliving the events and the assault. Their transition from victim to survivor often began with a renewed and deeper appreciation for the moments of support, beauty, and dignity they experienced each day rather than reliving the horror of the assault. This allowed many to reclaims their sense of purpose and recapture the dignity that makes them human. 
  2. Draw strength from community. Eighty percent of women who have been raped never disclose the assault to university or law enforcement officials. The figure is even lower for men. The trauma is so personal, so devastating, that many victims are afraid to tell anyone, even their closest friends and family. Reaching out to those cared for them most intimately, those who gave their unqualified support, started them on their path toward recovery. Without the support of those friends and family, survivors say they wouldn’t have had the courage to acknowledge let alone go public with their assault. This close knit group because their rock, their community, and a foundation stone for rebuilding their lives. 
  3. We each have our own journey. Each survivor has their our own personal journey to recovery. The more survivors I met, the more obvious it became that each rape (and assault) was different, each circumstance was unique, each consequence personal. I have met women who were able to move on quickly, and others that struggled to leave their home. The depth of their trauma is highly individualized, making their journeys equally diverse. Survivors are deeply respectful and tolerant of the importance for individuals to chart their own course, to discover their own path, to recovery. This inward reflection leads to a recasting of identity and understanding of self that is inspiring strong and purposeful. 
  4. Each journey has its own path. Not all survivors choose the same road to recovery or healing. The physical and emotional nature of a violation through rape triggers deep wounds that are often invisible, even to those that experience it. Thus, the paths are as varied as the journeys and require many more decisions than paths available. These paths can seem like they shift under their feet, and often become illuminated only after they have been trodden. Survivors on a healing journey are remarkably resilient. They understand the nature of emotional barriers and the difficulties of overcoming them. They are patient and empathetic. They persist with grit and determination. 
  5. Forgiving yourself is essential for healing and stepping foot on our path. Often, this self-forgiveness begins when we acknowledge the truth of a seemingly trite, but essentially true, mantra: “It’s not your fault.” Many of the men and women I came to know became victims through no fault of their own. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and unaware of the threat standing right next to them. Yet they blame themselves first and this weight drags them deep into depression. The path toward healing begins with forgiving oneself. Indeed, this may be the most important lesson of all because this self-forgiveness releases one from the self loathing and guilt that keeps victims in the past, focused on the past, and their paths dark.

These teenagers became women far too soon, their innocence stolen in a matter of minutes. They were forced to “grow up” and become adults far faster than any parent would want for their child. Fortunately, many survivors find a place where they can accept themselves again and embark on a path of self re-discovery. These stories—their journeys of recovery and healing—are almost never told. They don’t make it into make it into the headlines. Yet, as these survivors pivot on their path, they often find a light others may never know.

They also inspire me.

By bearing witness to their trauma, we can take inspiration from their journeys. By allowing ourselves to hear, we can understand the struggles that come with trauma. If we understand, we can support those who are on their path as well as those struggling to find it.

Perhaps, if enough of us understand, sexual assault and rape will become relegated to a dark part of our social history and banished from our present culture.

 

Permission to reprint and distribute this blog post is given with attribution to the author, Samuel R. Staley, Unsafe On Any Campus? College Sexual Assault and What We Can Do About It (Southern Yellow Pine Publishing, 2016)

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College rape and the power of words on a bathroom door

These messages formed a multi-day conversation on the effects of college rape on young women

These messages formed a multi-day conversation on the effects of college rape on young women

I still remember the day my business manager came into my office and said “you have to see what’s on the women’s bathroom door.”  What followed changed the course of my life, personally and professionally.*

Written in permanent black marker was a heartbreaking question: “How do you get over being raped?”

Having someone ask the question in person is wrenching enough, but for a young woman to feel the desperation acutely enough to use the anonymity and randomness of a stall door was worse. We were in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy, a far cry from any victim support services or law enforcement. For Ruth, a campus rape survivor, the question was rattling enough.

Even for those like me, who had not experienced that kind of soul-tearing assault, could feel the pain, confusion, and emptiness implied in the words and act.

But what happened over the following days was more extraordinary. Other women responded, spontaneously, sincerely, and constructively. Based on writing styles, ink colors and consistency, I estimate that between 14 and 18 women contributed to what became a conversation across the entire door.

At first, women provided information about institutional support: the FSU police department, office of the victim advocate, and emergency numbers were listed. Then, the conversation turned to the human tragedy.

A spontaneous response to a rape victim's query on how to get over being raped.

A spontaneous response to a rape victim’s query on how to get over being raped.

In this anonymous, sterile, empty physical space, women provided heartfelt personal support and counsel. “I was raped, as well,” a new contributor to the discussion testified. “Just know you’re not alone sweetheart.” Another inked in elegant handwriting:“Your value and dignity as a woman are unchanged” followed by a heart symbol (emphasis by original author).

And the support kept coming,

  •         “be strong”
  •         “Remember, its (sic) not your fault. You re (sic) perfect, you are worthy. You are beautiful inside and out. Never forget, your sisters are here for you.”
  •         “This does not define you. Look to the future, allow yourself hope and ambition. Set goals, you are amazing.” (heart symbol)

And they still encouraged her to call the police—“Sisters help each other. Making that call is scary”

A rape victim's response to her supporters on the bathroom stall door

A rape victim’s response to her supporters on the bathroom stall door

In a powerful statement about to the ability of humans to connect through personal tragedy, the initial victim responded: “You guys are so nice to me. Thank you for that.”

Remarkably, the maintenance and cleaning staff at FSU let the conversation flow and did not clean the door for days (perhaps weeks). Perhaps they sensed the importance of the conversation for the woman who asked the question, the women who provided support to her and other survivors, and for raising awareness about the pervasiveness of the problem and the desperation of women caught in its vortex.

I don’t know if the young woman sought counseling, or took advantage of the university’s counseling services, or ever met the other dozen or so women that provided support to her.

The effect on me, however, was powerful. These brave, anonymous women allowed themselves to become vulnerable, confessing their own soul wrenching experiences while providing unsolicited, spontaneous support for their sisters. No other event showed how important sexual assault and rape were as events that shaped campus culture and the experiences of women on campus.

Prior to this, I had born witness to individual survivor stories. These were personal relationships. As a social scientist and public policy analysis, they were anecdotes. Now they were no longer anecdotes. I saw a pattern. This conversation convinced me that this issue needed a voice that could raise awareness about its depth, grounded in the emotional experiences of survivors, and think through the hard problems of coming up with a solution even if they were controversial.

A woman's spontaneous encouragement to a rape survivor's testimony

A woman’s spontaneous encouragement to a rape survivor’s testimony

I don’t know if I am that voice, but the product of my personal revolve to address this problem on college campuses and wrestle with the public policy implications led to blogging and eventually writing Unsafe on Any Campus? College Sexual Assault and What We Can Do About It. The book’s cover incorporates some of the photos of this conversation taken by Ruth, and used with permission, to provide testimony on the emotional toll sexual assault and rape take on young men and women on our campuses.

I want to give a shout out to Judy Williams Kirk for suggesting I figure out a way to incorporate these testimonies into the cover and to Gina B Smith for her provocative and heartfelt cover design.

Read Ruth’s discussion of this event on her blog, Reclaiming Lost Voices.

Read more about Unsafe on Any Campus? College Sexual Assault and What We Can Do About It.

Unsafe On Any Campus?

Unsafe On Any Campus? College Sexual Assault and What We Can Do About It

Buy the book at Southern Yellow Pine Publishing. (Contact me at sam@srstaley.com or Southern Yellow Pine Publishing for larger order discounts of 5+ and 25+. Pre-orders can be purchased with a $3 discount using the coupon code READ.

*Note, an earlier version of this article misidentified Ruth Krug as the woman who brought the messages to my attention. In fact, my business manager, Judy Kirk, alerted both of us to the words. Ruth, a campus rape survivor, worked for me at the time, and she was the one who chronicled the conversation through photos each day as the contributions lengthened.  

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Unsafe on Any Campus? Available for pre-order!

Available from Southern Yellow Pine Publishing

Available from Southern Yellow Pine Publishing

Unsafe on Any Campus? College Sexual Assault, and What We Can Do About It is available for pre-order from Southern Yellow Pine Publishing with an official release date set for July 28, 2016! The retail price is $14.95. Discounts begin with orders of 5 or more (25%) with orders of 25 or more receiving a 40% discount. Contact SYPPublishing for more details.

Unsafe on Any Campus? is an unsparing and unflinching look into the reality of today’s campus life and why it puts students at risk for sexual assault and rape each year. Sam Staley examines in depth why current strategies that rely on the U.S. court system to achieve justice fall short of achieving meaningful resolution, tapping into the personal stories of rape survivors, recent academic research, and his experience as a self-defense coach to frame a bold strategy for dealing with this ongoing scourge. His conclusions challenge the conventional wisdom of advocates, campus rape deniers, and many in the law enforcement community. Long-term success, he contends, requires a comprehensive plan that builds a trauma-centered framework on four pillars—human dignity, personal and bystander empowerment, accountability for offenders, and a narrow and more effective role for the criminal justice system. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the problem of sexual assault on today’s university and college campuses.

  •  How many students are sexually assaulted each year on today’s college campuses?
  • Are today’s students victims of a sexually permissive culture, sexual predators, rampant misogyny among fraternities, and insensitive college bureaucracies?
  • What anti-sexual assault programs really work?
  • What are the six questions every incoming freshman and parent should ask their university or college administration?
  • What are the ten proactive steps parents can take to reduce the risk that their children will experience sexual assault and rape when they enter college?

“This book signals a turning point in addressing rape and sexual assault in college and university environments. It is innovative, practical, and empowering. How we address rape and sexual assault needs to change, and this book will take the reader through the process of understanding human sexuality, rape, trauma, and how we can help ground a new approach that will eliminate this scourge on campus life.”

Ruth Krug, campus rape survivor

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RPLA win raises visibility of little people in mainstream society

One of the more gratifying aspects of winning 2nd place in the Royal Palm Literary Competition was that the it happened in October. This month is Dwarfism Awareness Month, and as readers of St. Nic, Inc. know, little people–dwarves–play an important role in the story and plot. I think my fictional characters mirror the roles real dwarves play more generally in our society, even though they are not always recognized or acknowledged. I am pleased that the RPLA award have given greater public visibility to this novel and, by extension, little people.StNicInc,COVER

Someone recently observed that all my novels address a social justice issue of some sort. In the Pirate of Panther Bay series, the stories focus on interpersonal violence and human dignity. In Renegade and A Warrior’s Soul (the Path of the Warrior series), the issue is bullying and sexual assault. In St. Nic, Inc., prejudice and discrimination are critical elements of the plot and storyline. In fact, I can honestly say. without giving too much away, little people are an indispensable element to the story–the story just wouldn’t be the same, and not nearly as interesting, without them. Dwarves are full-fledged, multi-dimensional characters with their own ambitions, courage, fears, skills, and competencies, and their choices as individuals determine the outcome of the story. In no way are they tokens.

Just who are some of these central characters?

  • Rowdy, the software engineer turned businessman, who company’s revenues power the North Pole to achieve its social mission;
  • Ron Cutler, the seasoned corporate attorney turned civil rights lawyer
  • Lisa Patten, the chief of surgery at the North Pole hospital
  • Fred, a professional nurse who befriends one of a lead average-sized characters

Several other characters play smaller but important cameo roles.

RPLA_2ndPl_BadgeImportantly, St. Nic, Inc. is not a story about little people. Rather, it’s a story about the North Pole, and what it might look like if it really exists. Little people make up about 25% of the North Pole population. Average-sized people play prominent roles as lead characters, but, like all societies, this is an ensemble story with different characters on different paths and arcs.

So, why do little people exist at all? Good question. St. Nic, Inc. was written in part with an eye on broaching a broader discussion about prejudice in mainstream society from a different perspective. I have a lot on my website discussing these issues, and the role of little people in the development of the story as well as their role in the novel, including:

So, thank you RPLA for helping me bring this discussion to a broader audience!

For more information on Dwarfism Awareness month, click here. Support Little People of America by either joining (here) or buying St. Nic, Inc. through the LPA’s web site (under the section “Fiction with dwarf characters”).

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Knowing Terror

By SR Staley

I now know why people die in riptides. And the experience was my first confrontation with sheer terror. I have known for a while that I am not a strong swimmer, but I thought I had taken all the appropriate measures to protect myself in the surf. In fact, I had swum safely in similar waves numerous times that day (and the day before) under the same conditions. What made this experience different was a wrong step–literally about twelve inches–where I unexpectedly found myself in water over my head.

The swimming in the ocean–just 30 feet from shore–seemed so normal. I didn’t realize I was caught in the riptide until several minutes later when I tried to swim back to the beach. After several minutes, I realized I wasn’t making any progress. This riptide had the effect of keeping me in place. All those tips about letting the current take you out to sea until it releases you, and then swimming toward shore? No help here.

That’s when I panicked. The waves were breaking over my head and I couldn’t touch the sand below. I was tired because I hadn’t recognized I was caught in the riptide until after several minutes of vigorous swimming. My wife was less than 10 feet away, but I couldn’t call to her thinking at the moment that I would just pull her into the same quandary. The lifeguard was easily a football field away–watching the busier parts of the beach. In these moments, I suddenly realized one poorly timed gasp of air, or one unexpected break of a wave, would send saltwater gushing into my lungs. I wouldn’t be able to cough it out. I would go under, and there was nothing I could do. I would drown. I was going to die.

Obviously, I survived. Why am I here? It’s not because I became a miraculous swimmer, or experienced a surge of adrenalin that gave me super human powers. And it’s not because others recognized I was in severe trouble, or I was saved by a lifeguard. I did not experience the direct hand of God, or an angel. In the moment, I foolishly thought no one could help me.

No, I’m here for other, more mundane reasons far more relevant for a life that is not so terror stricken:

1) I recognized that I was trouble and resolved to do something about it,

2) I recognized that I was panicking, and took mental steps to calm myself. I owned my mental state, accepted it for what it was, and resolved to move forward. I was quite surprised at how simply acknowledging that I was in a panic actually helped calm me down and settle my mind. Acknowledging and embracing my emotional state gave me clarity and rationality because I could compartmentalize it.

3) I stopped using the strategy that didn’t work–swimming toward shore. Instead, in a move that probably saved my life, I decided to go nowhere by treading water. This bought myself time and allowed me to physically regroup.

4) I remembered what all that life saving advice from the educational flyers about riptides. Even though it would have been a lot easier to be in a riptide they described–one that was taking me out to sea rather than the one I faced that kept me in a perpetual state of high water–I understood the principle. I stopped fighting the tide. I paid attention to the waves and the direction of the surf. I used this knowledge to rise with the breakers and claim inches that seemed like millimeters toward the shore and safety.

The entire episode probably didn’t take more than five or ten minutes, but I have never felt the level of intense, overriding fear that I experienced in those moments. I believed Death was literally coming from underneath to grab me and pull me from this life. I have experienced extreme, even life threatening physical trauma in the past, but I have few memories and no feelings from it because my brain shut down. I have learned that this is normal for trauma survivors and it’s part of the defensive mechanism of the human body.

Terror is different, I have now discovered. It’s so visceral, so overwhelming, that it sticks to your insides in a way that reshapes your body and mind. I doubt that feeling of being overwhelmed by nature, of helplessness, will ever leave completely. But having survived this trial gives me a confidence, self-awareness, and personal strength that makes me stronger and, with a little luck, wiser. (Note to self and others: No more swimming when the red warning flags are up, no matter how many people are in the surf!)

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