But, sexual trauma experts say, that’s an all too frequent decision victims make.
“It’s a very common thing for very different reasons: Fear of repercussions from your job, from the perpetrator, fear of how people will look at you. So many things make it hard, and what’s why a majority of these cases don’t come forward until later on, if ever,” said Jessica Bell, director of client services at Beyond Abuse, a Greenwood-based nonprofit that works with victims of sexual violence and child abuse in Abbeville, Greenwood and Laurens counties.
Beyond Abuse is a member organization of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, known as SCCADVASA. In 2017, the agency fielded 5,698 new clients.
Sara Barber, SCCADVASA’s executive director, said that number doesn’t reflect the reality about sexual violence in South Carolina.
“We have a criminal justice system that mirrors societal beliefs. Everybody shares that cultural mindset around rape, and so there’s a lot of shame in coming forward. There’s a knowledge you may be held responsible for your own victimization,” she said. “If you look as far back as the Bible, when you think about a woman being raped, there’s always negative consequences for victims and oftentimes that outweigh those for the perpetrators that are not really held accountable for their crimes.”
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 63 percent of sexual assaults or rapes go unreported to police, while 91 percent of all victims are female.
And the overarching effects of rape can be as devastating as the immediate aftermath. A 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey sanctioned by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 81 percent of women and 35 percent of men reported “significant” long-term impacts, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Women who had experienced such forms of violence were also more likely to report having asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, and diabetes than women who did not experience these forms of violence, the study found.
“Our natural ability is to try and make a rape like that our fault in our own minds, because if we make it our fault it means we can control it and we can keep it from happening in the future, so it’s a natural thought process,” Bell said.
Allie’s road to recovery is fraught with psychological setbacks, but there was a moment when she knew her journey was headed in the right direction.
“I don’t know that there was a pivotal moment or anything like that. I think there was a combination of little things adding up, where I honestly wasn’t sure I’d be able to laugh at my favorite TV show. I laughed at it and it was like a little tiny step, and really, it’s just getting my humor back,” she said.
Amy Oestreicher knows those feelings all too well. An acclaimed public speaker who has given TED Talks, Oestreicher is a playwright, multimedia performance artist and health advocate. She is a post-traumatic stress disorder peer-to-peer specialist and spokeswoman for RAINN – the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
At 17, Oestreicher was sexually assaulted for a year by her mentor. Two weeks after finally going public – she was 18 – a blood clot developed and plunged her into a coma for six months. “My stomach exploded,” is how Oestreicher explains. She’s undergone 27 surgeries, couldn’t eat or drink for six years and lived with PTSD for 10 years as a result of her ordeals.
Today, she calls herself a “beautiful detourist” and has gone on to write a one-woman show called “Gutless and Grateful.”
“It has been said that the ancient Greek plays of Sophocles were originally created as a means for military veterans to reintegrate into society. I believe the same can happen for survivors of assault as well. The simple act of telling what has happened to us can set us free,” she said. “I don’t believe that a beautiful detour always means you have to be positive. It means being willing and able to experience and express whatever you’re feeling – that’s the beauty of having a voice.”
Oestreicher said it took “years and years” before she felt comfortable enough to turn her traumas into a conduit for self-expression.
“Now that I’ve toured the show, ‘Gutless and Grateful’ for eight years, I see that once we can share these stories, it makes healing possible for all – not just survivors, but for the communities that hear these stories, so they can best support us. It’s truly astounding, once I started to share my story, to learn how common this is, how often this happens, and how many survivors walk around with this burden of secrets on them every day,” she said.
Allie waited more than two weeks before informing police about her rape – but that’s still much quicker than other victims.
“I think it’s also important to realize that being sexually assaulted is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to someone, especially in their own home. You’re asking somebody who just suffered a key trauma to put themselves through even more trauma with no thought of a clear end. It’s very easy to be very judgmental when you’re not carrying those burdens,” Barber said. “There are many different ways victims approach healing and moving with their lives.”
Oestreicher found her relief through art, but encourages other survivors to let healing come to them, whether through counseling, personal expression or any other means.
“First, I’d say find a way to ground yourself – find ways to be present in your physical body right here, right now, and figure out what your safe space is – the safe people you can go to, or possibly just a peaceful picture, room, pillow, smell, or physical sensation,” she said. “For me, creativity played a huge role in bringing the realization forward for me that I had been abused – first through art, then theater, then becoming very open about it, and eventually moving beyond it.”
Bell, from Beyond Abuse, said victims of sexual assault can only do what feels right for them.
“You can only come forward when you’re ready, and that’s OK,” she said.