The harm from sex­ual as­sault can per­sist

Sur­vivors can en­counter trig­gers in ev­ery­day life

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - REAL ESTATE - By Ali­son Bowen abowen@chicagotri­ Twit­ter @byal­ison­bowen

For some, the me­mory of a sex­ual as­sault might be trig­gered by en­ter­ing a room with white walls, the scent of a stranger or even his height. For most sur­vivors, the harm lasts a lot longer than the day they were abused.

Chicagoan Natalie Kish says she was raped five years ago and the ef­fects of that as­sault con­tinue to sur­face. Kish, who car­ried a knife for two years af­ter her as­sault, hears echoes of ques­tions asked of her in a court­room as she watches the news sur­round­ing Supreme Court nom­i­nee Brett Ka­vanaugh, ac­cused of sex­ual as­sault and mis­con­duct.

Chris­tine Blasey Ford, Ka­vanaugh’s for­mer class­mate, has ac­cused him of sex­u­ally as­sault­ing her in high school. Ka­vanaugh de­nies the ac­cu­sa­tion. He and Ford tes­ti­fied Thurs­day in front of the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee.

Two more women have come for­ward ac­cus­ing Ka­vanaugh of sex­ual mis­con­duct. Ka­vanaugh has also de­nied those al­le­ga­tions.

Sarah Lay­den, di­rec­tor of pro­grams and pub­lic pol­icy at Re­silience, for­merly Rape Vic­tim Ad­vo­cates, said many things trig­ger mem­o­ries of an as­sault. “It can hap­pen in ways that might seem kind of mun­dane to other peo­ple but could have a real im­pact on some­body,” she said, adding that “I’ve worked with clients that have had a fear of white walls in apart­ments or houses, be­cause when they were as­saulted, that was the room that they were in.”

In col­lege in 2013, Kish was sleep­ing when she said a man who was a friend of a friend came into her bed­room and raped her. She felt un­safe years later, even af­ter mov­ing to a dif­fer­ent city. “I would try to al­ways be with some­body when I could,” she said. “I very dis­tinctly re­mem­ber walk­ing on the streets and al­ways look­ing over my shoul­der.”

Later, she re­al­ized how the as­sault had af­fected re­la­tion­ships with fam­ily mem­bers and friends. Some were not sure how to be sup­port­ive, and she ended up back­ing away from them. She said she re­al­izes now that many sur­vivors need sup­port from those around them, but many peo­ple don’t know how to pro­vide that, which is why ed­u­ca­tion on this is­sue is im­por­tant. Kish is now able to re­flect on those re­la­tion­ships and work on re­pair­ing some. It’s also given her a good un­der­stand­ing of the type of em­pa­thetic, un­der­stand­ing peo­ple she wants in her life.

Ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships af­ter an as­sault are also heav­ily af­fected.

“Sex is used as a weapon in sex­ual as­sault,” Lay­den said. “Sim­i­lar to how a sur­vivor of gun vi­o­lence or other types of street vi­o­lence might be trig­gered when they see a gun or hear a gun­shot, for some sur­vivors, they may need to re­ori­ent them­selves to con­sen­sual sex and learn how to en­joy that type of touch again, be­cause it is essen­tially the same act that caused them such harm and such trauma.”

Months af­ter the as­sault, Kish told a man she was dat­ing what had hap­pened. “He told me that I was over­re­act­ing and that I was let­ting this con­trol my life,” she said. “I ended that re­la­tion­ship pretty quickly.”

An­other place sur­vivors may feel vul­ner­a­ble is in a doc­tor’s of­fice, dur­ing an in­tru­sive exam. More physi­cians are dis­cussing how to pro­vide trauma-in­formed care. Chicago ob­ste­tri­cian Dr. Laura Laursen is sure to ask pa­tients whether they feel safe at home and if they have ever ex­pe­ri­enced phys­i­cal, emo­tional or sex­ual as­sault.

“If they kind of cringe at that, I ex­plain it a lit­tle more and say, ‘Has any­one done any­thing to you sex­u­ally that you didn’t want them to?’ ” she said. She also pref­aces the con­ver­sa­tion by ex­plain­ing she is about to ask sen­si­tive ques­tions, ones she asks each pa­tient, “so they don’t think I’m sin­gling them out.”

Lay­den said the #MeToo move­ment has cre­ated nec­es­sary aware­ness but also con­stant re­minders for sur­vivors.

“It can keep these con­ver­sa­tions con­tin­u­ing at a na­tional level, which may be con­ver­sa­tions that many sur­vivors may not be ready to en­gage in or may be at a place in their life where they don’t want to be re­minded of that,” she said.

Re­silience es­ti­mates that 7 out of 10 as­saults were com­mit­ted by peo­ple the vic­tim knew; be­ing in a con­tin­ued re­la­tion­ship with fam­ily or friends who knew the at­tacker is an­other way an event stays present in some­one’s life.

For Kish, the Ka­vanaugh hear­ings are bring­ing back mem­o­ries of some­thing she now feels a good dis­tance away from.

She said the back­lash against Ford, and the ways oth­ers al­leg­ing as­sault are treated, seems to ig­nore the im­pact the crime has on some­one’s life. And in the ques­tions asked of Ford — was she drink­ing? Why doesn’t she re­mem­ber more? — she’s re­minded of the ques­tions she faced in a court­room years ago.

“There was so much that they kept ask­ing, like ‘How much were you drink­ing? Were you drunk? What were you wear­ing?’ ” she said. “You’re just con­stantly re­minded.”


The #MeToo move­ment has cre­ated nec­es­sary aware­ness but also con­stant re­minders for sex­ual as­sault sur­vivors, an ex­pert said.

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