Many years ago I was asked to give a speech for “Take Back the Night” a rally that was being held in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. I had never heard of the event but knew it was being sponsored by a rape crisis center. My talk focused on empowering women to use their voice in response to sexual assault, reminding them that is was never their fault and that healing, with compassionate support, was possible. There were about 200 people spread out around the circle, some listening intently, others just milling about and not particularly connected to the content. But there was a certain palpable, intense energy in the air, and those that were focused on the talk exuded anger, pain, and determination. I knew that something important was starting to take shape.
What started out as informal rallies and marches by women protesting rape and sexual assault grew into a coordinated, International movement to raise awareness about violence inflicted upon women. In the late 1980’s a week in April was designated as Sexual Assault Awareness Week. By the late 1990’s the entire month of April was dedicated to events and activities designed to shine a spotlight on the problem, provide support for survivors, and educate society at large about the profound and lasting impact of sexual assault.
Like all extremely important topics, we need to be aware of and promote every day of every month the right of every man, woman and child to have safe personal space. As a society we must insist that everyone has the right to have boundaries and the privacy of their body needs to be honored and respected. And we cannot ever underestimate the reverberating impact when those boundaries are invaded and trust is breached. Sexual assault and sexual abuse, in all of their many forms, can evoke a lasting sense of shame and terror and adversely affects self-worth. They create a perpetual feeling of being inherently unsafe in the world, and compromise the ability to sustain intimacy and trust. For those who have been harmed there is an increased vulnerability to use self-destructive behaviors to numb and soothe their overwhelming pain. A history of sexual abuse can even adversely impact the ability to parent effectively when a survivor projects their anxieties and fears onto their children.
When the latest statistic reminds us that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men will experience some manifestation of sexual trauma by the time they are 18 years old, and nearly 1 in 5 women will be raped in their lifetimes, it behooves us to recognize the seriousness and pervasiveness of these problems, and to commit our mental health and educational resources to help heal the countless millions who have been violated.