Sisterhood Agenda

Mass Triggering of Sexual Assault Victims

Angela D. Coleman

Angela, Founder & President of Sisterhood Agenda, is an award-winning sisterhood activist, women's empowerment specialist, and author.

Latest posts by Angela D. Coleman (see all)

When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before Congress on Thursday, September 27, 2018, a major energy shift occurred, particularly among the women watching.  Dr. Ford’s testimony was not only believed, it was felt. It was a mass triggering of women’s trauma, common among those who have suffered from sexual abuse and sexual assault.

Women’s Trauma
Trauma expresses itself in ways that are unique to each individual.  Different people respond differently to traumatic events.  Trauma is not political.  Trauma does not care whether you self-identify as Democrat, Republican, or Independent. Trauma has no age minimum and no expiration date.

Read More About Trauma

As Dr. Ford recalled the details of her assault experience, it was clear that she was triggering herself as she remembered and spoke in great detail.  Her vivid memories regarding details of how the room looked, how she was held down, and the behavior of her abusers who were laughing:  “they’re having fun… at my expense.”

Her tormented expressions were a clear indication that she was not just thinking about the attack-she was reliving it.

Caution:  this video may trigger your own memories and trauma if you have a history of sexual assault.

According to Dr. Tracey Shors recent research about trauma and memory, memory is everything. Physically, your body does not know the difference between a recalled memory and a new memory.  If your experience is stressful and traumatic, your body will feel it when the original memory was established and when you recall it again. If you consistently recall and focus on traumatic memories, you are putting yourself through the trauma, over and over again.

Oprah Winfrey was way ahead of her time when she told her audience that she had been sexually abused as a little girl during the taping of one of her talk shows.  At the time, this type of public disclosure was unheard of. Today, it is not unusual for women to tell the public, friends, coworkers, politicians, and perfect strangers about their history of being sexually assaulted, particularly unusual when these disclosures are made on national television without warning.  More disclosures have happened since Dr. Ford’s televised testimony on September 27, 2018.

Mass Triggering
What is not so clear is how Dr. Ford’s public testimony triggered other woman.

This was an unexpected outcome of what has been a longstanding, neglected public health crisis:  sexual violence against women.

Today’s sexual assault disclosures seem sudden and out of character because they are.   As an effective coping mechanism, women with sexual trauma often suppress these experiences, building resilience so that they can move on with the rest of their lives.  Women who experience sexual assault can be poised, professional, successful, and “strong.”  They are strong.  Imagine what women can accomplish without histories of sexual trauma.

A violent, violating experience like sexual assault rarely leaves you completely; it is not forgotten, it just goes dormant.  Until something or someone triggers it.  This is the place where blurting out sexual assault victim statements comes from.  That and other things.  Crying.  Nightmares.  Pain.  Frustration.  These feelings and actions are often involuntary. Manifestations of trauma are different for everyone.  This is what trauma looks like.

Those of us who have been similarly assaulted, relived it with her, sparking a mass triggering of traumatized women.

What followed were mass disclosures, some of them very public, from women who acknowledged that they, too, had been victims of sexual assault.  Yes, Me Too.

The Future
The shift is real.  Women are sharing their experiences with sexual violence, often for the first time.  This is not about one woman or simply a political issue.   This is about ALL WOMEN.  We find ourselves at the crossroads of change.  As a society, what do we do now?

What we need to be asking ourselves is not whether we should believe women who tell others that they have been sexually assaulted (less than 2% of women actually lie about sexual assault) and not waste time trying to “corroborate” a deeply private, personal, and violating experience that is often done in the dark but ask ourselves the real question:

What kind of world do we live in where so many women and girls are sexually assaulted?

The prevailing wisdom has been that 1 out of 3 women suffer from sexual trauma.  What we know now is that this number may be entirely too low.  A highly underreported crime, most women and girls do not report sexual assault.  It seems like more women and girls are being assaulted than not.  With the momentum of Me Too, we have learned that sexual assault is the new normal for most of us as women.  Too many of us have suffered from this traumatic experience, some of us more than once.

Sexual violence against women is a public health crisis.  Now that we know, we have an obligation to act. These facts should clarify what is needed for prevention and intervention.  Survivors of sexual assault need resources, for example, trained professionals and safe spaces, to heal.  While it is true that boys and men can also suffer from sexual trauma, we also need preventive action that is specific to women and girls who are most affected.

The realities that we face today suggest what women and girls need now more than anything else is for MEN AND BOYS TO STOP SEXUALLY ASSAULTING WOMEN AND GIRLS.

Let’s teach men and boys to not do what men and boys have been allowed to do.  Let’s not tolerate sexual assault.  And, instead of focusing on investigations and memories of sexual trauma, why not focus on making sure the memories of our mothers, wives, girlfriends, and sisters are positive ones without sexual assault?

Women who are triggered need to address their sexual trauma. This process is not the same for everyone.  However, it usually begins with disclosure-letting others know that you are a sexual assault survivor.  At first glance, telling people that you do not really know very well that you are the victim of sexual assault seems strange, even crazy. Some people may not be ready to hear your truth. They may feel uncomfortable and worry that they do not know how to respond.

It’s okay.  Start building your support system to help you cope with these intense memories and feelings.  Activism and advocating with other women for other women can also help; survivors have stories to tell and lessons to teach. The time to start your healing journey is now

When Someone Discloses to You
Instead of simply disclosing to others yourself, those around you may choose to confide in you.  Being that we are where we are, it makes sense to prepare yourself if someone you care about suddenly tells you about her sexual assault experience. It can be as simple as 1-2-3:

  1. Be honored that this person chose you to tell. Thank them for telling you.
  2. Express your sorrow that they had this very negative experience.
  3. Ask them if they need more support. If they do, offer what you can, but also let them know that they can reach out to the National Sexual Assault Hotline 1-800-656-4673.

Photo credit  Brooke Cagle

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