Living with sexual abuse/assault | Editorial

Written by the staff of SAFE San Juans.

This is a 3-part series for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It’s typically a little awkward for the staff members of SAFE San Juans (SAFE) when they meet someone for the first time. Inevitably the question “So, what do you do for a living?” gets asked, since it’s one of the basic getting-to-know-you questions. Each of us answers, “I support survivors of domestic and sexual violence”. That usually gets us a grimace or a comment like “oh!”, or “that must be really difficult.” But the truth is that even though the issues we deal with are awful, it’s an incredible joy to work with people who are healing from abuse. We get to see people rediscover their voice and sense of personal power. The emotional and psychological trauma people suffer can be devastating; however, that doesn’t need to be the end of the story. That is especially true when it comes to survivors of sexual abuse/assault.

In its most simplistic explanation, sexual abuse is coercing or forcing someone else into sexual contact or activity. Here’s another way of saying that: Sexual abuse is any sexual contact or behavior that happens without your consent. Permission or agreement (consent) to engage in any kind of sexual contact or activity must be given, or it is considered abuse. There are a host of important legal explanations around the concept of consent, especially ones that deal with age differences between victim and abuser, work relationships that address the power supervisors/bosses hold, and other relationships where saying “no” could be costly. All of those legal explanations underscore how some people use manipulation to persuade people to do something they may not want to do – such as being sexual.

Unlike what many people believe, sexual abuse or assault, including rape, doesn’t usually involve extreme physical force or injury. It is also very common for the abuser to be someone the survivor knows – like a family member, friend, or acquaintance. Often emotional manipulation, coercion, or alcohol and other drugs are used as tools to assault. Sexual assault is a crime. It is always illegal when force is used or when a person cannot give consent.

No matter the situation, all examples of sexual abuse have one thing in common: Someone has consciously exercised power over another, and the victim was either unable to physically stop it, agree to it without concern for the consequence of saying “no”, and/or have the judgment or mental capacity to truly make an informed choice. “You lack the power to determine what happens to you” is the underlying message sexual abuse survivors hear. Along with that message is an even more destructive one that survivors hear loud and clear: “What I want matters more than what you want.” At its core, the message is really “I matter more than you.” Much sexual abuse happens as abusers proclaim that their action is motivated by love and care. But, without mutual consent, the victim hears a completely different message, and it is not one communicating dignity and respect. Abusive people are unwilling to wait or hear the word “no”. Real love and care are willing to wait for “yes”… or “no”.

If powerlessness has been communicated to you by an abuser, then rediscovering your voice and personal power can be the foundation of healing. Fortunately, there are people who understand the effect of sexual abuse and can support you.

SAFE San Juans (SAFE) is a non-profit agency serving survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse/assault. SAFE has offices in Friday Harbor, Eastsound and Lopez Village. All of SAFE’s services are confidential, free, and available to anyone who needs them. To talk with someone from SAFE San Juans, call 360-378-8680 or visit us online at SAFE’s 24/7 crisis line is always staffed and can be reached at 360-378-2345. If you are in immediate danger, please call 911.