By SARA ARTHURS
As one woman after another comes forward to say #MeToo, those who work with sexual assault survivors say healing is possible, and they are here if you need them.
“Sexual assault is a big problem for us in Hancock County,” said Ashley Ritz, executive director of Open Arms Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Services in Findlay.
The agency responded to 26 sexual assaults in 2017.
“Sexual assault is not about sex,” Ritz said. “Really it’s about power and control.”
Michelle Stratton, sexual assault nurse examiner at Blanchard Valley Hospital, said there are a lot of myths about rape. Victims may be blamed for what they’re wearing, or because they have been drinking, for example. Regardless, “If you say no, it means no,” she said.
Stratton said #MeToo is “validating for many survivors.” It’s giving people a chance to talk about their own experiences, and “I think that’s healing in itself.”
The recent attention to the issue of sexual assault is good in that “the discussion helps break the stigma,” said Hancock County ADAMHS Board Deputy Director Amber Wolfrom — but it can also be triggering for survivors.
For some, “it may be difficult to watch,” and it’s important to note that you can step away from news coverage, said Sara McGovern, press secretary for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
RAINN’s website states that every 98 seconds, another American is sexually assaulted.
Locally, the 2015 Hancock County Community Health Assessment, a survey of health-related questions, found that 7 percent of youths — and 13 percent of female youths — had been physically forced to participate in unwanted sexual intercourse. Adolescents surveyed were 12 to 18 years old.
Often survivors do not seek help, Ritz said. They may blame themselves for what happened. But “It’s never the victim’s fault,” she said, and we must hold offenders accountable.
Multiple mental health professionals, in many interviews on other subjects related to behavioral health, have reported that very often, people seeking help for other mental health or substance abuse issues are, upon inquiring, found to have underlying childhood sexual abuse or other trauma.
Nancy Stephani, coordinator of emergency services at Century Health, said one in four girls are molested before the age of 18. Childhood abuse affects all areas of life, she said, explaining, “we define ‘normal’ by what we experience in childhood.”
Children who survive these experiences may try to find an “escape” for their pain, which could include self-harm, running away or substance use, Wolfrom said.
When talking with people who have called the crisis line or who are suicidal, Stephani and her colleagues ask each patient if they have been physically or sexually abused. Very often they say yes.
The RAINN website also states that 33 percent of women who are raped contemplate suicide, and 13 percent attempt suicide.
People who have experienced trauma or adverse childhood experiences may be at higher risk for many physical, as well as mental, health issues. Obesity is common, Stephani said, as some survivors “build a wall between themselves and the world.” Others may become promiscuous, or abuse substances.
A National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that “Estimates suggest that as many as 80 percent of women seeking treatment for drug abuse report lifetime histories of sexual and/or physical assault.”
The survivor might feel like the alcohol or drug use helps, but in fact, it compounds the issue. But although things like drug use might make the situation worse, “it doesn’t mean you’re hopeless or helpless,” Ritz said. And, if you seek help, “You can get through it.”
Ritz’ staff educate survivors on the effects that trauma may have months or years after the assault. This could include nightmares, or post-traumatic stress disorder in the long term.
A Veterans Affairs article on PTSD states: “One study that examined PTSD symptoms among women who were raped found that almost all (94 out of 100) women experienced these symptoms during the two weeks immediately following the rape. Nine months later, about 30 out of 100 of the women were still reporting this pattern of symptoms. The National Women’s Study reported that almost one of every three of all rape victims develop PTSD sometime during their lives.”
The crimes may happen at a person’s home, in their everyday life. The perpetrator may be a trusted person.
“It rocks your whole sense of normal,” Wolfrom said.
The experience can diminish a victim’s sense of self-worth, and lead to either trusting others too deeply or walling oneself off, not trusting anyone, she said. Wolfrom said PTSD can “make intimacy almost impossible,” as the individual is existing in survival mode.
It’s ideal to seek help “sooner rather than later,” but it takes a lot of strength and courage to come forward, Ritz said.
The #MeToo conversations, or the recent trial of longtime gymnastics coach Larry Nassar, can trigger emotions for survivors who were assaulted 20 years ago and haven’t processed it, Ritz said.
Open Arms has been hearing from them.
Since #MeToo began, Open Arms has been responding to sexual assaults at the emergency room more frequently, and has received more calls to its hotline.
“In the wake of the #MeToo movement, survivors of sexual violence have been reaching out to RAINN in record numbers,” McGovern said. “In 2017, RAINN’s victim services programs helped 209,480 survivors, up from 200,690 in 2016. In the fourth quarter of 2017, which coincided with the #MeToo movement, RAINN helped an average of 656 survivors each day, up 43 percent from the first quarter.”
Open Arms offers a support group as well as the chance to meet individually with a staffer for education and support. Those attending the support group may learn they aren’t the only one feeling “crazy” or like they’re “losing it.” And people form bonds. “They’re there for each other,” Ritz said.
If a person has just been assaulted, hospital, law enforcement and Open Arms personnel all respond. Ritz said she and her staff can report to the emergency room within the hour. Survivors need to be seen within 96 hours to collect evidence, but even if it’s later, they’re encouraged to get a medical examination and wellness check.
Some survivors may initially come forward to law enforcement, but later choose not to be involved with the court system, as they have to tell the same story over and over to multiple officers, Ritz said.
Having to relive the experience for a jury is “extremely retraumatizing,” Wolfrom said.
Of every 1,000 rapes, 310 are reported to police and just six rapists will be incarcerated, according to the RAINN website.
Support and self-care
Open Arms also offers legal advocacy, such as assisting survivors seeking civil protection orders. And survivors also sometimes seek shelter there. Open Arms also refers clients to other agencies, like Century Health, for long-term counseling.
Focus on Friends, a nonprofit recovery center in Findlay, offers a support group for people who have survived trauma. SELF — which stands for Safety, Emotion, Loss, Future — is helpful for people who have gone through trauma just to know they are not alone with the thoughts and feelings they are experiencing, director Ellyn Schmiesing said.
“Sometimes knowing that there’s a basis for it and it’s not just coming out of left field can be really empowering,” she said.
Even if you don’t report the crime at first — maybe it’s been years since you were assaulted and you have never dealt with it — “It’s never too late to reach out for help,” Wolfrom said. The law may have a statute of limitations, but there is no time limit on taking care of yourself, she said.
Stephani said with therapy, people do heal: “Absolutely.”
For friends and family, “Be open to listening without judgement,” Schmiesing said. “That’s the key.” And, it can be healing to “give somebody the gift of being heard.”
Don’t tell the survivor how to handle the situation, Ritz said. Just be there for them, and recognize that everyone processes in their own way.
“I think we can all start by believing” survivors, Stratton said. If someone says they have been assaulted, “believe them. Listen. And then get them help.”
Ritz encouraged friends and family of survivors to call Open Arms with questions.
“Just know that we’re available 24/7,” she said.
Open Arms’ crisis line is 419-422-4766.
The National Sexual Assault Hotline is at 800-656-HOPE, and help is available at online.rainn.org.
Help available for men, too
By SARA ARTHURS
#MeToo has largely focused on adult women and teens, but these aren’t the only victims of sexual assault.
“It happens to children,” Hancock County ADAMHS Board Deputy Director Amber Wolfrom said. “It happens to individuals in nursing homes.”
And, it happens to men.
Open Arms Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Services, a nonprofit agency based in Findlay, has worked with several male survivors who sought emergency room treatment in recent years.
It’s more difficult for male survivors to come forward, said Blanchard Valley Hospital sexual assault nurse examiner Michelle Stratton. But help is available, locally and online.
“One of every 10 victims is male, and men and boys who experience assault face the same mental and physical effects as other survivors,” said Sara McGovern, press secretary for RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. “Cultural stereotypes about men and how they portray masculinity can make it harder for men to disclose their assault and add additional challenges to their recovery.”
Meredith Alling is development and communications director for 1in6, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization serving male survivors of sexual abuse or assault, as well as their friends and family, and professionals.
She said much of the #MeToo conversation has focused on the systemic assault and harassment of women. But as these discussions happened, some men — including celebrities like actor and football player Terry Crews and actor Anthony Edwards — came forward with their own stories. Since the discussions began, 1in6 has seen an increase in the use of their helpline, which is run through RAINN.
In addition to the online chat-based “hotline” for men and their loved ones, there are online support groups where men can remain anonymous. It’s also a resource for residents of rural communities where no face-to-face support groups exist.
Men abused in childhood often don’t seek help until they’re in their 30s or 40s, if ever, Alling said. But it can wreak “havoc on their lives” in the meantime. They may “squash it down” and the trauma can develop into depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or substance abuse. Sometimes men struggle in relationships or have trouble keeping a job.
Survivors “often feel like they’re not a real man,” she said. “And that’s a big barrier to seeking help.” Cultural assumptions are that men cannot be “weak or vulnerable,” Alling said. “They’re taught to not show emotion, really.”
There are many books out there aimed at helping women in healing, but far fewer resources are available for men, said Nancy Stephani, coordinator of emergency services at Century Health. 1in6’s website lists some recommended books and resources.
The 1in6 website also lists many myths about sexual abuse. For example, “Girls and women can sexually abuse boys. The boys are not ‘lucky,’ but exploited and harmed.” Also, “While it is true that many (though by no means all) who sexually abuse children have histories of sexual abuse, it is NOT true that most boys who are sexually abused go on to sexually abuse others.”
The organization offers three support groups each week open to men who experienced sexual abuse in childhood or sexual abuse or assault as adults.
The Bristlecone Project, a 1in6 awareness campaign, features photographs, written narratives and videos from men who have “transformed their trauma” into meaningful, whole lives, Alling said.
“One of our big messages is healing is possible,” she said. “And the other big message is: You’re not alone.”
The helpline can be found at 1in6.org/helpline.