Category Archives: empowerment

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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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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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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