This article is in no way attempting to take sides on the Bill Cosby accusations. While he may be used as an example, this article’s intention is not to criminalize Bill Cosby on the allegations, nor is this article an attempt to calling him a serial rapist. There were no biases in the making of this article.
TW: Sexual Assault
1 in 4 women will become victims of sexual assault at least once during lifetime. 1 in 6 men will become victims of a sexually violent act as well. Pretty high right?
Well, despite how high as these numbers are, it very ironic how the overall understanding of sexual assault within our communities is still lacking. As of 2014, claims of Bill Cosby’s sexual assault of numerous women have been made public, with the amount of victims coming forward still rising. While the average person may ask why it has taken these women so long to come forward, I have personally witnessed several disgusting comments pertaining to the possible victims; claiming they were stupid for not pressing charges when the assaults took place, they’re “lying” because only liars come forward this late to “tear a black man’s legacy down, and that they’re only after Bill Cosby’s money. Unfortunately, what many people are unaware of, is the severity of psychological trauma sexual assault victims face after the attack which delays the possibility of ever coming forward with their stories, especially right after the crime has occurred. In wake of the recent reactions to the Bill Cosby’s allegations, it has become very apparent that a disconnect exists between sexual assault survivors and their communities. Furthermore, there also appears to be a lack of understanding in terms of the psychological, emotional, and social experiences most survivors face after the assault. The circumstances surrounding the overall aftermath of sexual assault is not easy to understand and hopefully this article will allow readers to receive a better understanding of why sexual assault survivors make the decisions that they do.
What exactly is Sexual Assault?
In order to fully understand the traumatic psychological effects as well as the social effects of sexual assault, there must be a clear and concise definition of what sexual assault is. As defined by the Webster Dictionary, sexual assault is categorized as illegal sexual contact that is forced upon another person without their verbal consent, or onto a person who is physically or mentally incapable of giving consent. This includes the victims age, mental disabilities, physical disabilities, or possible drug intoxication.
When used in conversation, sexual assault is commonly thought of as rape, the forced vaginal or anal penetration of another person. Although the majority of the sexual assault cases that are made public are involving the subject of rape, sexual assault can define as any kind of unwanted touching. These include but are not limited to the following:
• Oral Sex
Depending on the state in which the sexual assault has occurred, certain characteristics of sexual assault do not count as such, and are instead charged as sodomy. For example: Georgia’s law of unconsented male penetration being classified as sodomy and not sexual assault due to there being no vaginal penetration.
As a side note, it is important to consider how the body reacts to the violent occurrence. Survivors have explained to courts as well as peers of feeling frozen during the assault, incapable of fighting back against their perpetrator due to the amount of shock flowing throughout their bodies. The survivor may even begin to giggle nervously when in actuality they are trying to scream for help. The adrenaline rushes and bodily changes are caused by the fight-or-flight response giving the victim the instinctive energy to fight back or causing the body to shut down completely, both of which are survival tactics of the body to protect the victim from danger. Along with the fight-or-flight response, there is also a sensation of feeling dirty; the unwanted predator’s hands on the victims’ bodies causing them to feel disgusting and fifthly. The urgency to erase the unclean feeling from their bodies causes victims to take showers as well as washing clothes to no longer feel the perpetrator on them. Unfortunately, doing so erases an enormous amount of DNA evidence that could be used against their perpetrator in court if they choose to press charges.
Although it seems as if most attention is pushed onto the actual sexual assault cases, there seems to be little to no attention actually being put into the emotional and mental evaluation of survivors as a whole and there should be. Academic scholars have done an excellent job conducting research on this topic, however the information being discovered is not being shared publicly. This is causing the emotional disconnect between survivors and their communities as well as the survivors own understanding of their trauma to still exist.
If you are unaware, sexual assault is a very traumatizing experience. To personally invade someone’s space, put hands on their body without their permission, and possibly sexually penetrating them while they fight back is enough of an experience to haunt these young woman and men for life. Feelings of low self-worth, fear, and shame will follow as they attempt to understand what has happened to them and why. Some may even begin to feel embarrassed about what has happened to them due to the feeling of being degraded by another person as well as the sensation of being powerless that does not align with their overall personality. Other victims may begin to blame themselves for the attack by tallying up reasons for the attacker’s behavior such as their attire, being in the environment of the assault, or previous social interactions with the assailant. It is also very important to mention that most sexual assault victims know their perpetrator as 82% of rapists and perpetrators are close friends or relatives of the victims. The violation of their bodies by a person they have previously had high expectations and trust for causes the victims to enter an extreme state of paranoia, no longer feeling safe in spaces where they were once comfortable as well as deteriorating trust for the people who are close to them. Isolating oneself from his or her social environment is another very common trait to see in sexual assault survivors, as they’re not only distrustful of the people around them, but they also feel as if their peers will never understand the level of trauma they’re currently experiencing.
Survivors of sexual assault cope at different paces, as some are able to continue with their daily schedules after a few weeks. However, due to individual differences some victims experience a very difficult time healing from the assault and ultimately become diagnosed with a mental disorder.
Mental illness itself is a subject that is very scared within the black community, and correlates with the silencing of victim’s traumas from friends and family members. We as a community have for a long time held onto a belief that mental illness is a “white issue”, an issue that black people do not experience. While pain within our daily lives is normal, we are expected by older generations to be able to handle any issues coming our way no matter how damaging the experiences are. The reasoning being that since our ancestors have survived centuries slavery and oppression, we should be able to handle “smaller issues.” Unfortunately, this silences the voices of those who are currently suffering from mental disorders, especially disorders that have come about due to the traumatizing experience of sexual assault.
One of the most common disorders diagnoses in sexual assault survivors is PTSD. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is an anxiety disorder that typically appears after an individual experiences a highly traumatizing event. Frequently used in conversation pertaining to war veterans, sexual assault victims can possess the traits of the disorder as well due to the disturbing circumstances. Those diagnosed with PTSD frequently have flashbacks of the attack; feeling as if they are re-experiencing the assault all over again. They also begin to be triggered very easily with certain scents, music, locations, and others, reminding them of the sexual assault and causing either the flashbacks or intense emotions to reappear. Other symptoms of PTSD include difficulty sleeping, reoccurring nightmares of the assault, frequent panic attacks when they were not prevalent before the attack, changing behaviors that reminds the victim of the assault, and constantly feeling on “the edge,” prepared to attack in case another person tries to harm them.
Along with PSTD, survivors also have a high chance of being diagnosed with depression. The mood disorder is prevalent when the survivor experiences intense feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, and sadness for extended periods of time. They may begin to stop finding joy in the things or people that once made them happy before the sexual assault as well as no longer looking forward to what happens in their future. The more severe the mental disorder becomes, the more likely the victim will experience suicidal thoughts, no longer seeing a purpose in living and just might attempt to commit suicide.
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), victims of sexual assault are:
• 3 times more likely to suffer from Depression
• 6 times more likely to suffer from Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder
• 4 times more likely to commit suicide
The psychological effects of sexual assault are very important in terms of understanding a victim’s behavior and decisions after the attack. The mental discomfort that victims of sexual assault experience is nothing anybody should ever experience, and is not something that should be made fun of, hidden, or ignored by the public.
While understanding the psychological effects are imperative, we also have to take into the consideration of how a survivor’s community can impact the victim’s healing process, as well as the possibility for the victim to come forward with their experiences.
Assault victims typically suffer backlash from the public for coming out and accusing their perpetrator of sexual assault, especially when that perpetrator is well liked amongst the community. There is a regular occurrence, especially within the black community, of men being protected by their communities from allegations of sexual assault, particularly when that man is successful within their field. Their overall image and past achievements become an excuse for their past offensives, attempting to overshadow the perpetrators claims of the sexual assault. As a community we are very protective of our men due to the unfair treatment of black males by our society. The constant beating, killing, and unjustified arrest of our black men causes us as a community to protect our loved ones by any means, as well as the black men we look up to. However, where is the line drawn when a black man is accused of sexual assault? Should their past accomplishments, as well as their communities, stand by them as they are accused as sexual assault? Should the victims voice be silenced in order to uphold an image and ensure safety?
In addition to the backing of the perpetrator, survivors of sexual assault must also now deal with the victimizing actions from others such as peers and the legal system. Secondary (Post Crime) Victimization is the psychological and verbal process of blaming the victim for the events that have occurred to them; reversing the blame to what the victim was wearing or where they were instead of analyzing or asking the actual perpetrator of why they would sexually harm another human being in the first place. Survivors of sexual assault are frequently asked questions that tend to be either irrelevant to the victims understanding of why things have happened or used as excuses for the perpetrators actions. Although asking questions is a very important process for collecting evidence to press charges, questioning the victim on why they were at the specific place when the assault occurred, what they were wearing, or why they were wearing tight/short/revealing clothing is triggering. Statements made such as “you should have known better,” or “you should have worn more clothes,” are very damaging to the victim’s mental state, causing them to decipher those statements as blaming them for the assault. At times, the victim will begin to take those statements to heart and blame themselves for the attack, and now have an even less chance of coming out with their stories.
There also tends to be a normalized perception of sexually violent actions within our own communities, which correlates to the overall reactions to sexual assault allegations. The idea of having sex while intoxicated or on drugs has been a popular form of intercourse for decades, and has over the years become a big debate of whether it actually counts as sexual assault due to the victim possibly being okay with sexual intercourse before the drugs or alcohol were taken. Bill Cosby has jokingly admitted for years of using Spanish Fly, a drug used to enhance sexual activity, and putting it into women’s drinks before having sex with them. Although his statements fall into the guidelines of rape, due to the normalized culture we currently live in, that statement was laughed at and passed with no one seeing the issue. The fact of the matter is that sex while intoxicated blurs lines and does not allow those involved within the act to verbally or physically say no if they are no longer or never were okay with having intercourse at that time.
The misunderstanding of the emotional and traumatizing experiences of sexual assault victims creates a foul space for jokes and harassment to be made against the victim. Leaking photographs and video footage of the victim’s assault has becoming more common over the last few years due to the availability of social media; all being done in the name of jokes and attention. This can be seen with the rape of 16-year-old Jada in Houston, TX, where a photo of herself lying half naked on a bedroom floor was leaked through Twitter, with her classmates posting reenactments of her drunken position through the social network as the #JadaPose. Steubenville High School’s 2013 sexual assault case of a 16-year-old was another example, where student athletes repeatedly sexually assaulted the student in numerous locations while photographs and video footage were taken and shared throughout Twitter and Instagram.
The social communities' harsh reactions to allegations, the jokes, questioning, labeling, etc, as well as the personal psychological trauma the victims face all contributes to them either never coming forward about the attack, or waiting years until they have finally coped with their psychological difficulties to come out to the public with their stories. At times, if the perpetrator has a history of sexually assaulting people, one victim coming forward may inspire other women or men to come forward with their stories as well, as we have seen with the Cosby case. Unfortunately though, because the survivors have waited years to come forward, there is little to no possible chance to pressing charges due to there being little to no DNA evidence to prove the assault ever occurred, as well each state only allowing a certain amount of years to go by before the possibly of pressing charges is closed
In conclusion, the lack of understanding pertaining to the psychological well-being of the sexual assault survivor, and the topic of sexual assault in general, can cause the victim’s social community to react in unsupportive ways, resulting in the victim to crawl into a shell and either never telling his or her story, or coming forward when it has become far too late to press charges. Taking the time to learn and spread knowledge pertaining to the aftermath of sexual assault will hopefully create a safer space for sexual assault survivors, and will hopefully erase the disconnect that exists between the survivors and their community.