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Featured Image for Interview: Centering the Voices of Young Survivors in Columbia

Hi, my name is Iris Barber and I am a high school senior. During the past few years, I have volunteered with SCCADVASA and STSM. Through my experiences with these organizations, I have learned a lot about the heartbreaking statistics on sexual assault in the United States. This past fall, I was really upset by watching and reading all the news about the Kavanaugh hearings. The seriousness of sexual assault was treated as a partisan political issue rather than a critical issue that impacts millions of people. I believe that if we want to end sexual violence, we all have to find a role we can play in bringing attention to the issue and developing solutions. I decided that for me, a good way of doing this was to interview and write an article with survivors’ stories so, maybe someone reading this could see how assault affects a survivor immediately and how it stays with them forever. I would like to thank the five young women who were brave enough to trust me with their stories and would like to thank my Mom and SCCADVASA for giving me the platform to present my message. I hope everyone who reads this takes the time to think about their stories and can join the movement to bring an end to assault permanently. 

Youth Survivor Q&A
Please note: This interview includes transcripts from five young survivors in the Columbia metropolitan area. Out of respect for their confidentiality and safety, the identities of the survivors will remain anonymous. 

Q1: What age were you assaulted?

Survivor 1: I was in middle school.

Survivor 2: I was seven years old.

Survivor 3: I was sixteen and seventeen through the time of my assaults.

Survivor 4: I was fourteen.

Survivor 5: I was fourteen the first, and fifteen the second time.

Q2: How old was your perpetrator at the time of the assault?

Survivor 1: He was in upper high school, so around 17 or 18 years old. 

Survivor 2: One was twelve and the other was thirteen.

Survivor 3: He was the same age as I was.

Survivor 4: He was 14 as well.

Survivor 5: He was a year older than I was, so fifteen the first and sixteen the second.

Q3: What is your relationship to the perpetrator?

Survivor 1: He is an extremely close family friend. My parents love him like a son as he loved both my sister and myself as daughters. I even saw him as an older brother in every way up until the assault.

Survivor 2: They were my brother’s best friends.

Survivor 3: He was my first love and during the time he was my on and off boyfriend.

Survivor 4: He was my best friend. Always had been up until that day.

Survivor 5: He was a family friend. His family lived in Spain, so the first time he came to my house for two weeks during the summer as an exchange program kind of—and the following year, I went and stayed with his family for two weeks in the summer.

Q4: What were your immediate thoughts and feeling after the assault?

Survivor 1: I was filled with anger, confusion, self-hatred, and self-blame.

Survivor 2: In the first couple of minutes following I felt good, but I only felt good because my perpetrators had told me over and over again it was okay and I was doing the right thing and that people would be proud of me for it. So, after they left my room I went down stairs and told my mom what I had just happened because I thought she would be happy and proud of me just like my perpetrators had told me they were. Then I watched her begin to cry and I realized what had happed was not a good thing. In that moment, I felt ashamed and like I had done something wrong. I was confused because I had two older boys tell me that I was good and did a good thing by letting them do what they did, but then there was my mom sitting in front me crying and I was seven years old. I didn’t understand any of it.

Survivor 3: After I was assaulted, every time—whether it had been sexual, mental, or physical— I blamed myself. In my mind, I would excuse him because he loved me and I loved him, and he would never hurt me. Even though he did, it was my fault because I pushed him to by not agreeing with him and being a bad girlfriend. And honestly when I would feel sad or hurt by what had just occurred. I’d brush it off and say “I love him” and that “it’s just a rough patch” and that “he’ll grow up and things will get better”. Time after time I brushed it off, ignored it, blamed myself, and never held him accountable.

Survivor 4: “Everyone was right”—“Girls can’t just be friends with boys”, and “I shouldn’t have gone to his house”. “I did it to myself!” Those were only a couple of thoughts I had. Not to mention the betrayal I felt from being assaulted. I had trusted with everything my entire life.

Survivor 4: I think because I pushed it to the back of my mind and just tried to deny the truth of it for so long—and I mean years—the days I hear his name, hear a trigger word— I can be caught up in it and it be all I think of for days and days. I have regrets of not perusing legal action a lot and then I think about the girls I know who have and have perused legal action, and for so many of them it did not work out and their perpetrator walked away free. And from there, my regrets just turn to anger. But it’s no longer just anger for myself. Now it anger for everyone who has ever been assaulted in any way and now have to live with regrets and fear. I don’t trust really anyone because of it and I feel a strong sense of disconnect from almost everyone—which is especially hard because I use to get along and feel happy and safe around everyone. 

Survivor 5: The first time I brushed it off because we were talking and well that’s what people do in relationships so, I kind of felt like I was wrong for saying “no” over and over again because it would have happened eventually anyway. The second time, however, we weren’t together and it was fully forced on me. So, I felt different… this time I could admit that what he had done was rape and it made me think back to the summer before where he had done it and I saw that this was the second time. My mind started twirling with thoughts once I realized this. I blamed myself and was pissed at myself because all I could think was if I had just admitted to myself what had truly happened the summer before maybe it wouldn’t have happened this time. And then I thought, no, he did this to me I didn’t to this to myself. I said no and fought back and he pushed and hurt me and forced me to a point where I couldn’t fight back physically in anyway. And that’s when I realized he hurt me and he didn’t care and this was his fault, it was his lack of control and respect for me. That’s when I got really angry with him, but even for than that I was scared no terrified I had to live the next two weeks with him, in his family’s house, in another country.

Q5: How many people have you told about the assault not including myself?

Survivor 1: Only older sister who was very understanding and stood by my side through it all.

Survivor 2: I told my mom as I said before, doctors, police, lawyers, and a couple years later someone who at that time I considered to be my best friend and thought always would be. And I never told them, but obviously my older brother and my dad know as well.

Survivor 3: Two of my closest friends

Survivor 4: I told my mom right after, the doctors who gave me the rape kit at the hospital, an police officer who was a complete ass about it, and someone I thought was a friend until she told me, “You deserved it by thinking you could just hang out with him and not be expected to do at least something with him”. 

Survivor 5: I told my mom once I got home, one extremely close friend a year or so later, and his older sister right before I left Spain in hope she could say or do something. I don’t know if she ever did though.

Q6: What have been your lasting thoughts and feelings?

Survivor 1: I often times feel very afraid around men and when I still see him on rare occasions, and because of this I don’t think it is a cause, but it is defiantly one of the reasons I now identify my sexuality as gay. I no longer trust people whether it be in a romantic relationship or friendship. Especially after talking to my friends and they tell me about things that happen in some of their relationship that really make me think about and notice how often sexual assault happens. I have days where it is the only thing on my mind and I keep reliving it. I also worry a lot about people finding out about the assault and how they will view me because of it.

Survivor 2: I have felt very closed off and not trusting towards everyone especially guys I am in romantic relationships with. I feel very desensitized to any type of sexual activities. I often times catch myself thinking about it and wishing I had understood then what my perpetrators were doing to me and I start feeling regret for not telling my brother then that it was not his fault and there was nothing he could have done. Now, I still suffer from paranoia of it happening again especially when I hear anything about them or I start to have feelings for a guy or even when I’m just alone with one.

Survivor 3: Disappointment in myself for letting it happen to me over and over again just putting up with it. A hypocrite for telling my friend and giving them advice when they’re in bad relationships to get out and yet I had stayed all that time.

Survivor 4: I think because I pushed it to the back of my mind and just tried to deny the truth of it for so long, and I mean years, the days I hear his name hear a trigger word I can be caught up in it and it be all I think of for days and days. I have regrets of not perusing legal action a lot and then I think about the girls I know who have and heard have perused legal action and for so many of them how it did not work out and their perpetrator walk free. And from there my regrets just turn to anger, but it’s no longer just anger for myself. Now, it’s anger for everyone who has ever been assaulted in any way and now have to live with regrets and fear. I don’t trust really anyone because of it and I feel a strong sense of disconnect from almost everyone which is especially hard because I use to get along and feel happy and safe around everyone. 

Survivor 5: To say I don’t trust easy would be an understatement. I find it very hard to make friends and keep a healthy relationship because I am scared of being betrayed and hurt. I still have days where the memories of it overwhelm me and I feel a great wave of sadness and confusion about why it happened and why it happens to anyone.

Q7: Did you ever think about or go through with pressing charges? Why or why not?

Survivor 1: No, I did not press charges because I felt like all it would do was make me relive the assault and, at the time, all I wanted to do was to forget about it. I also did not think anyone would believe me because of how close he is to my family. He was, at the time, respected by many of his teachers and coaches. He is one of those guys who everyone loves. However, now with the time that passed and the lasting effects—I wish I had. But, I feel like it’s too late.

Survivor 2: My family did press charges on the two perpetrators because they needed to be punished for they did to me in a legal way. However, because they were only 12 at the time, they weren’t held as accountable for their actions as an older perpetrator maybe.

Survivor 3: No, I never thought about it because he was my boyfriend and I had felt like if I went to the police, I would be hurting him. Honestly, I didn’t even think it counted as assault because it was mostly mental and because when it was physical or sexual, he was my boyfriend. I thought—“well if I am dating him, then was it really an assault? Or was it just a thing that happened?”

Survivor 4: Yeah, I mean—I went to the hospital to get a rape kit done so I could if I wanted to, but after my encounter with that specific police officer, why would I want to bother and continue to be treated that way by people who are supposed to listen and believe me? Not to mention, he’s one of those guys everyone loves--- teachers, parents, guys, and girls, literally everyone. I felt like I didn’t stand a chance in a court room.

Survivor 5: No, not really. The first time, we were kind of together so I dismissed it and just pretended like it never happened. And the second time, I was in another country one where I didn’t know anyone but him and his family. So I felt like there was nothing I could do.

Q8: From what you know about how the legal system handles assault cases what is your opinion of it?

Survivor 1: I know that often times the prosecution and the cops attack the survivor and just focus on questions about what she was wearing that day or what and how much she was drinking. [They] use those answers as reasons to make it seem as if the perpetrator’s actions are almost justified if that is the right word.

Survivor 2: Well, from my experience it is horrible. It was very scary for me and very hard on everyone in my family. I was constantly asked to retell the event over and over and over again. First to the doctors at the hospital—where I got the rape kit done—then to a police officer—multiple times—and another police officer—multiple times, and another, and then again to multiple lawyers. It just made me relive the actions from it again and again. As a child, there were too many adults—adults I did not know or trust—asking me a thousand different questions. It was terrifying, especially with the pressure they placed on me over it. And when telling someone about being sexually assaulted, the survivor should not feel pressured or scared. They should feel safe, understood, believed, and heard.

Survivor 3: It is long and hard for many people to go through. Women who go through it are blamed based off their clothes or blood-alcohol levels. And Men who go through with it are laughed at because people don’t believe that it can happen to a boy or a man, and therefore—they are then feminized. And honestly I don’t blame people who don’t through with legal actions because why should they if they are not going to be taken seriously and instead be judged and shamed for the actions someone else took to hurt them. 

Survivor 4: It’s terrible. Women are constantly put in a circle of having to relive that day over and over in their mind—the entire process. And then it’s very unlikely that after they’ve gone through everything, to even see their perpetrator brought to justice. On top of that, I also think of the men and boys who have been assaulted and aren’t taken seriously because of their gender. The entire legal system claims they are there to help, but with the way it’s set up, a majority of the time it only hurts the survivor more. 

Survivor 5: The whole legal system is messed up, “what were you wearing?”, “how much and what were you drinking?”, “oh, but you said yes before?” It’s all bullshit! It doesn’t matter what a girl wears, drinks, or what she’s done before if she said no, she said no. She has been through hell and back again and again and again, and now her perpetrator is being excused for his violent action *scuffs* no wonder women don’t report.

Q9: As a survivor what is your opinion on how the government handles sexual assault cases?

Survivor 1: As a survivor, I believe all the women who stepped forward were, and still are, telling the truth. Regardless of that though, I also believe the allegations alone should show what type of man he is and—with allowing him to be confirmed—sends a message to perpetrators that they too can get away with it and live out their dreams with no negative repercussions from their horrible actions.

Survivor 2: The government handles sexual assault like it’s a game or a debate—and it’s not. It’s something that is very personal to everyone who has to suffer from it. This past fall, the government took it and made it a political issue between democrats and republicans—and it’s not a political issue. It doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green party, or however you politically align yourself. It can happen to you and probably has happened to someone you know. Survivors are normal people in everyday life from all political, racial, ethnical, gender, and religious beliefs. Sexual assault is not something to debate over. It’s something that needs to be stopped and the government needs to see that and address that.

Survivor 3: The government tends to make it a political issue when it’s not, and treats it like is not a big deal. All that does is push women away from wanting to report and go through the long legal process because with the way it is treated, the women and men who do report the violence against them—whether it be sexual or physical—will be judged in some way shape or form.

Survivor 4: Pshh, a joke! I can’t say I am surprised about it though because they’re not going to take it seriously unless it effects one of them directly. And I don’t think government officials really want to admit that it happens. If they did, then they would actually have to work together to bring an end to it. With the way everything is now, everything has to be a political debate all the time. That can be seen in the Kavanagh hearings. It was publicized so much for views and to get everyone to debate on an issue that’s not a debate. It’s a real problem that needs to be fixed not over time, but immediately.

Survivor 5: It makes me so angry. The government treats sexual assault like it’s a game and survivors are all worth questioning because no one, especially men in power, would use that power as a way to get what they wanted from a women. “You didn’t want that! (said in sarcastic manner). They excuse. You can see that the government makes for a man who makes “locker room talk” like “grabbing her by the pussy” okay—and it makes me sick to my stomach. For a government based off of freedom of speech, they sure are doing a good job of pushing survivors away from telling the truth about what happened to them. 

Q10: Why did you decide to participate in this?

Survivor 1: I am hoping that this will help other survivors who are going through hard times know that they are not alone in this, and that this issue is both worth it and needs to be addressed on a greater scale.

Survivor 2: Sexual assault is an issue that needs to be addressed, not only in this country, but all over the world. I saw this article as a good place for me to help with that.

Survivor 3: To let those who are being abused in any sort of way know that they can reach out for help and they do not have to put up with what I did for so long. No one deserves to be treated that way—and if what I say can even help one person get out of a relationship where they are abused or assaulted in any way—then at least I would have helped in some way. And even if no one reads this and finds my story helpful, at least I would have tried and I will never have to regret it.

Survivor 4: Because it’s an issue that does need to be taken seriously and I am hoping that my speaking up about what happened to me will help in some way, shape, or form.

Survivor 5: I saw this as a good platform to draw attention to the subject; to let other survivors know they are not alone. To let other readers know the truth and have just a glimpse into how a survivor thinks and feels about the subject.

Q11: If you could say something to someone who had just been through an assault what would you say?

Survivor 1: Report it. Because if they aren’t held accountable for their actions, the perpetrator may and most likely do it again. I do not want you to feel and carry the regret that I do from not reporting. But most importantly, just because this happened to you, it does not define who you are and you can choose how you handle. If not, how it handles you.

Survivor 2: If you have been sexually assaulted, you should seek legal action and expose your perpetrator(s) if you can because they should be held accountable legally for what has happened to them. You have been hurt and will feel hurt from the assault for the rest or your life, so they deserve whatever should come to them from the legal system.

Survivor 3: Be strong. It’s hard to recognize when it’s from someone you love. And know—yes it’s going to hurt letting go—but you don’t need him/her in your life like I thought I did for so long. You’re worth so much more than you know and all those horrible things they did to you are not true. You will be happy one day without them, I promise.

Survivor 4: Don’t change the way you live. Not everyone is going to hurt you. It’s going to be a dark time for a very, very long time, but you can’t change who you are or how you live because of your perpetrator. You didn’t deserve for this to happen to you and you don’t deserve to have to live in fear for the rest of your life. You should talk to someone about it because—as you talk more about it to someone you trust and who believes you—you’ll learn that other people have had similar experiences and you’re not alone in this.

Survivor 5: There are many other people who have been through very similar situations as you and it’s going to be okay. You’re not alone in this. Stay strong. It wasn’t your fault and you most certainly never asked for it. If you are strong enough to go through the legal process, go through it. But, for every survivor, please find a healthy way to work through it—talk to someone, use some form of art, do yoga—whatever will help you get through it. Do it because you deserve to be happy and not live every day scared and upset. 

I hope reading this article opened your eyes and places a lens on how government treatment of sexual assault is making survivors in our communities feel. All survivors of assault—including the five of the women whose stories were shared in this article—are strong and beautiful, and deserve better than to be put down and live in the fear of their perpetrators.

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Featured Image for 4 Times It

It’s likely that you’ve been told ghosting someone is a bad thing to do, and that it says something about your character if you stop responding to someone. But what about when you need to not talk to someone for your own safety or well-being? Contrary to popular belief, there are times when it is okay to ghost others.

1.  If they're harassing you 

Have you already told them you're not interested and they are begging you to hang out or come over? Chances are this isn’t about you at all. If you’ve let the person know you are not interested and they won’t stop trying to talk to you, ghosting them is okay. It’s healthy to reinforce your boundaries in this way when someone is clearly not listening.

2.  If they make you feel afraid or uneasy

Threats can come in a variety of forms. They can be a threat to your wellbeing, your loved ones, or even a threat to self-harm if a person doesn't get what they want. It could also be a quiet feeling that something isn’t right about the surrounding environment or that someone is unsafe. Trust your gut. It doesn’t matter what the reason for creating distance is if a person puts your personal safety at risk and/or has proven to be manipulative or disingenuous. You don’t need any other reason to end the conversation or relationship. 

3.  If they insult you or put you down

Ever have an experience where someone is telling you how great you are, and as soon as you don’t give them what they want (a chance, a date, sex, etc.) their behavior and tone changes? Maybe they’re telling you that you’re not as beautiful, smart or great as you think you are? Responding to gas-lighting will only leave you exhausted, upset, and dehumanized. If someone resorts to insults to get you to pay attention to them, chances are they do not respect you and are trying to manipulate you into doing what they want. This can be very dangerous and it is best to avoid them.

4.  If they've sexually assaulted you

Nearly 70% of sexual assaults that happen are perpetrated by an abuser you know or trust. If you are sexually assaulted, it is likely that your abuser has a way to contact you. It is even possible that they might try to pass the assault off as consensual with a text like, “last night was fun, we should do it again.” This can be traumatizing and confusing for survivors. Feel free to block your abuser, and to not respond in any way to them trying to control the narrative if it doesn’t benefit you. You deserve respect and do not owe anything to the person who has abused you.

Guiding Questions:

Have you ever ghosted or been ghosted by someone in your life? What are your thoughts on ways to effectively end toxic relationships?

 

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Featured Image for Can We Just Get Past the Buddy System Already?

I wanted to go to a Beyoncé concert and I didn’t. Why? I didn’t have a buddy. And all of a sudden there was that just-below-the-surface anxiety that by going into a crowded concert stadium alone I would get kidnapped, dragged into a bathroom, raped, trafficked, lost forever, murdered, or some combination. Where does that anxiety come from? Many of us have heard all our lives to stick with a friend for safety and definitely never go out alone at night. It’s the best/only way to stay safe, right?! And if you’re anything like me, then you also love going places alone and are tired of worried voices telling you that it's a bad idea. 

Parents and people who care about us promote the buddy system because it offers a sense of safety and control in a world where we are bombarded with horrifying news stories. (Anyone else out there have a mom who calls regularly with updates on the latest in rape and murder news? ) But, I disagree with the premise that our buddies will be able to save us, or that they should have to.

If you want to go out alone, what would you need to feel safer? Going to an event, I want to park somewhere safe; walk from my car to the event through a well-lit, populated area, and know there are people at the event who will see and support me if I need help. Is that so much to ask? Instead of telling people to go everywhere with a buddy, let’s advocate for our cities and social spaces to put in the extra effort to make everyone feel safe, especially those of us who often don’t.

Whether going out to a concert, festival, bar, movie, or downtown stroll, we should all be able to safely engage in our communities, have fun, and live our best lives. And if we want that, we need to think about environmental and social changes that make people feel safe, with or without a buddy. Otherwise, a lot of people aren’t showing up and we deprive our communities of the vibrancy that’s possible when everyone can be there.

I am still pro-buddy. But let’s be real about what our buddies can or should do, and quit acting like the buddy system is the gold standard of safety advice. Sadly, none of my friends are master martial artists ready to fight off attackers. However, given the likelihood that abuse or violence will happen among acquaintances, friends, or partners rather than strangers, I want my buddies to have my back if they see me in an unhealthy relationship or a non-consensual situation. And I especially want them to step in to hold me accountable if I am responsible for that situation. Now that would be a buddy system I could get behind! 

Guiding Questions:

What are your thoughts on how to make our communities safer for everyone? What do you want to see at events and social spaces to feel confident going out alone?

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