Sexual Assault: Victims No More

Speaking out about sexual assault lessens the stigma, empowers victims and can encourage more women to come forward.

On Sunday, May 1, 2011, journalist Lara Logan broke her silence about her sexual assault in Egypt on February 11. During her 60 Minutes interview, she faced the world and described every intimate detail about the night she believed she was going to die.

Here’s what she had to endure.

Dragging Ugliness into the Light
Logan didn’t shrink from talking about how the mob tore her clothes off and dozens of men penetrated her with their hands, “front and back” causing internal tearing, while beating her with blunt objects. She described how they attempted to tear the hair from her scalp and tore her joints as they pulled her limbs in different directions. Logan laid it all bare in a calm voice, tearing up when she talked about how she was sure she would die a torturous death, but couldn’t bear to leave her young children. She knew she needed to fight to live.

After nearly 30 minutes of beating, the mob dragged her to a fence where a group of women were camped out. As Logan fell to the ground, an Egyptian woman put her arms around her. That simple act was the beginning of Logan’s rescue. That one gesture comforted a terrified woman and initiated a mob mentality of a different kind, one of compassion and protection, rather than victimization and abuse.

Traditionally, identities of victims of sexual assault are shielded from the press and the public, but immediately after the assault, CBS and Logan released a short statement confirming not only her attack, but its sexual nature. “That statement,” Logan told the New York Times, “didn’t leave me to carry the burden alone, like my dirty little secret, something that I had to be ashamed of.”

However, instead of an unqualified outpouring of sympathy, Logan’s story inspired ridicule and derision from some public figures, and comments posted to news stories focused on her appearance and her very presence in Egypt as contributing factors, if not the cause of her attack. In many cases, sympathy was drowned out by victim blaming.

Would this have been the case if she had only been beaten rather than sexually assaulted? What is it about sexual assault that compels people to look for a reason that the victim brought it on herself? As a society, are we still clinging to the belief that if women avoid certain behaviors, sexual assault simply won’t happen?

It’s these attitudes that stop rape victims from reporting these crimes, from talking about what happened to them, and from pursuing prosecution. Organizations who work with sexual violence survivors say that at least 60 percent of sexual assaults are not reported.

More Victims are Standing Up and Speaking Out
Logan is not alone. More and more victims of sexual assault are courageously speaking out. Jamie Leigh Jones has been fighting a court battle against KBR and her former co-workers since her attack in Baghdad in 2005. None of Jones’ attackers has been charged because the assault took place overseas, but she continues to tell her story despite KBR’s campaign to discredit and intimidate her. The company asserts that Jones was “asking for it,” because she had a couple of drinks and talked to one of her attackers earlier in the evening. Many other female former KBR employees have come forward alleging sexual harassment and assault by KBR employees in the wake of Jones’ battle.

In January 2011, ABC’s 20/20 interviewed six former Peace Corps volunteers who were sexually assaulted during their service. 29-year-old Jess Smocheck talked about how she was groped and knocked down by a group of men on her first day in Bangladesh in 2004. The same men continued to stalk and harass her even as she reported it repeatedly. She requested to be reassigned several times, but the Peace Corps refused. One day the men, aware that she had reported them to the police, dragged her into an alley and gang raped her.

“They raped me with their bodies. They raped me with foreign objects,” Smocheck said. During the sustained assault, Smocheck was in so much pain that she begged them to kill her. Afterward, she was finally sent back to the U.S., but she says the Peace Corps didn’t want her to talk to other volunteers, instead telling her to say she was leaving to get her wisdom teeth pulled.

All six sexual assault survivors echoed the same sentiment, that the Peace Corps downplayed their assaults and gave them minimal counseling, during which counselors asked them to detail “Everything they did wrong,” before their assaults. The Peace Corps denies these allegations, but Linda Lowen wrote that the Corps’ own volunteer reports cite the time of night these assaults occurred, and whether or not either the victim or offender had anything to drink.

Admiring Their Strength
Facing victim blaming, sometimes from the very institutions that should have protected them, as well as from the public, their physical and emotional injuries downplayed, their behavior scrutinized, and their character and lives pulled apart, these women still stood up and told their stories. They spelled out their horrific injuries, and allowed the public to see their faces, imagine their pain, and relive their experiences. These women, in particular, also live with the probability that their attackers will never be caught or punished.

Judith Herman, a rape survivor who has been speaking out for nearly twenty years, wrote,

“Initially, I decided to speak out because I was sick of the social stigma that shamed survivors of rape. I grew impatient with waiting for society to change and make it safer for survivors to speak, and decided it was up to me to actively defy the stigma and speak anyway. For me, this was a way in which I could be part of the change I desired.”

Most advocates agree that speaking out destigmatizes the attack and helps survivors in numerous ways. Emotional wounds, anger, and gnawing shame only fester if they are stifled and victims are forced to internalize their feelings. Speaking can be a form of empowerment. Herman says,

“In speaking out, you become part of destroying the forces that have harmed and hurt you. This has been one of the greatest expedients to my own healing. It is just such a fine way to fight back and can reduce one’s own fear and shame. There is even a little thrill of vengeance towards those who attempted to silence me. Fools – I can tell the world if I want to – it’s my voice!”

If more women speak out and refuse to be shamed, it could encourage other women to report their own assaults, strengthen them enough to prosecute their attackers, and support them in their efforts to heal. If more women speak out, it could change the public’s tendency to place blame on the victim, and instead put it where it belongs – on the offenders.

The answer isn’t to restrict women’s movements and participation in the world or to silence their voices. The only way to eliminate sexual violence is to stand up against it, to denounce it, to deter it, and teach children at a young age that it is not funny, not trivial, not “asked for,” not acceptable, and never excusable.

Remember, one person made a difference simply by embracing an abused woman.

image: Helga Weber

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.