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Making “Awareness” a Responsibility

Updated: Apr 15, 2022


Sexual Assault Awareness Month

By Marcie Wombold


Many of us have seen the headlines and special programs related to Sexual Assault Awareness Month including some organizations adding “Prevention” to this focus. It is important work to raise awareness of an issue that has impacted so many. Any look at the statistics (https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics) should convince you of that, if you aren’t already.

But I suspect that you already know this is an issue or you wouldn’t be reading this article. In fact the odds are good that like me, you too are a survivor of sexual assault in one form or another.


Whatever your language for it - assault, abuse, rape, molestation, unwanted touching, objectification and emotional abuse, etc - it all fits under the mission of this conversation.


“Hush-Hush” and “Telling”


For much of our history, on every level from families to the nation, we have talked about sexual violence in secret.


I grew up hearing about women being assaulted and abused. Adult women would whisper about their experiences together, of having been assaulted as a girl, or a young woman, or by their spouses. Sometimes we heard about boys being assaulted, or about men who hurt women now because they had been assaulted as a child.


Much of what I heard was passed down in secret. Secrets that I was expected to keep for fear of the consequences of telling. And yet, there we were, talking about the open secret. The “hush-hush” world of talking about what everyone knew but no one acknowledged or did anything about.


We talked about it because we couldn’t do anything else about it. Not really. We didn’t have options other than having secret conversations or going to the police to report an assault. Reporting an assault didn’t guarantee a positive outcome either. Many of us weren’t believed. Many of us were ostracized and lost out on the love and support of our communities when we dared to speak up. It was almost always better to stay silent.


Oftentimes the fear of retribution, or harm to loved ones, keeps people from reporting an assault/abuse. This is as true of adults as it is of children; each trying to protect the other with their silence and compliance.


Children don’t know what will happen to them if they “tell”. Even adults who have been traumatized often can’t imagine where they would go or who would take care of them.


Oftentimes the fear of the unknown is worse than the known, especially for people who are financially and emotionally dependent, which is most all children and many adults. If I can’t imagine how I can have a different life, it is very hard for me to make a major change such as “telling.” Better to stay quiet, try to survive what is going on, and wait for a moment of escape.


Sometimes people would “tell” and this would set off another wave of whispered stories. We’d share what we had heard and what else had happened. But nothing systemic ever changed. No one was going to do anything, and in fact they were angry that someone had spoken up.


I was called a liar. People to this day believe that I made it all up. Did that happen to you too? Or to someone you know?

This taught everyone who was keeping a secret that if we were ever to tell, nothing good was going to come of it for us. This cultural silence reinforced our powerlessness.


Sometimes school or church leaders moved away amongst rumors of them having “done something”, been an abuser. But no one in a leadership position ever addressed it directly. No one stood up and took a stand against sexual assault in our communities, or got people talking openly about it. So all we had available to us were the whispers in secret. Hush-hush. Secrets and shame.


From “Secrets” to SAAM


Reflecting on my childhood, with all the “secret” conversations going on, the one conversation that was missing was any kind of acknowledgement from the adult leadership within my community, my family, or even the nation.


I don’t have any memories of national leaders, leaders of my school or church or community, or my family talking about being aware of, let alone, preventing sexual assault.


And why not? Not shaming the victims seems the most obvious reason, and I can understand the importance of being tactful and timely in what we say about sexual assault.


Tact is taken too far when our lack of acknowledgement allows abusers to go on to abuse more, generation after generation. Without the public acknowledgement of sexual assault coming from a leadership level, “not wanting to shame the victims” looks a lot more like “not wanting to shame the abusers”. They get to go on with their lives with little to no repercussions.


In the last few years our national consciousness has picked up this conversation and brought it out of the “hush hush” onto the big screen, into our social media, and into the courts.


From the #metoo movement to movies like Bombshell to the courts cases against sex cultures like NXIVM and everything associated with Jeffrey Epstein, the far-reaching impact of sexual assault is now undeniable.


That wasn’t always true.


The first significant awareness movement outside of the general women’s rights movement was Women Against Rape, a San Francisco based organization started in the early 1970s. Their “Take Back the Night” marches were specific to women feeling safe to walk the streets at night, but their message resonated to the point of becoming a coordinated movement across the U.S. and Europe.


In the following decades, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) was formed and we saw significant legislation related to Child Protective Services as well.


Survivors, advocates, and state coalitions worked together on the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. This bill was the first national law requiring law enforcement to treat gender violence as a crime rather than a private family matter. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center was established in 2000. But it wasn’t until April 2009 that the month of April became nationally recognized as Sexual Assault Awareness Month.


I am glad for this in that it allows an opening for stories that were silenced or covered up to be told, and for people to shed off some of (hopefully all of) the shame they’ve been carrying with them.


Trauma (Unhealed) Creates Trauma


I’m going to say something now that is really important and potentially unpopular:


Our national conversation has gotten better about talking about healing from assault. We have fewer models of how to come back from having hurt someone ourselves.


As survivors we learn about the cycle of abuse and how when someone has been abused they are likely to go on and abuse others. This is a challenging concept to come to terms with and many people ignore it in themselves.


If you have been assaulted or abused, like myself and so many others have, the greatest shame - greater than having been hurt - is when the trauma we experienced comes out and impacts others. When we hurt others ourselves.


Generational abuse occurs when one family member takes the violence they experienced and passes it to another family member. Often, a parent can pass this abuse to their child. According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, roughly 30% of child abuse victims will continue the cycle of abuse with their own children.

This is a horrible thing to consider, and as survivors, we say, “I would never do what happened to me to other people!” and rightly so.


What I’m bringing up today is the lack of clear cause-effect within this cycle. It isn’t necessarily always the one kind of abuse resulting in that same kind of abuse. If I am watchful and diligent in preventing a particular thing from happening again, am I equally diligent in preventing it from happening in a different way? Trauma will try to show up, one way or another. A (sexual/verbal/physical/emotional/spiritual) assault victim might go on to (sexually/verbally/physically/emotionally/spiritually) abuse other people, including their children. It isn’t a one for one exchange; it is a one for any exchange, even with something as common as drug abuse and addiction.


This is not an easy thing to talk about. It means that if I’m not deeply aware of myself, I might miss where it comes out in me or in a loved one. If my loved one, who I know was harmed as a kid, goes on to verbally abuse their kids, are they inherently evil? Or are they too a victim of trauma?


It is culturally acceptable to say, the abuser is bad and the victim is good. Case closed. But humanity and the cycle of abuse doesn’t work that way entirely. Or rather, the victim gets to be the victim only so long in the cycle before they too risk becoming the abuser.


It is our responsibility to look closely at what happens to us and what we do in response.

It is our responsibility to consider when “how we are treating people” doesn’t work.

How we are treating people is up to us. Not them.

No one makes you mad.

No one makes you crazy.

All of those reactions are ours.

It is our responsibility to hear and be present with people.

It is not our responsibility to fix them or force them, even if we think it’s the right thing.

How I Know This Is True

This is important for me to share because my greatest shame for a large portion of my life was having been assaulted. This was true all the way up until that shame was replaced by my learning/recognizing/coming to terms with that I was hurting those that I loved.


I had learned about the cycle of abuse as a kid going through counseling. I had resolved to protect my future children from abuse. And while those efforts in many ways worked out, trauma-based behaviors slipped through and I hurt my children and my family anyway. I suffered sexual abuse growing up and it came out in irrational anger and verbal bullying of my children.


Even in the fog of my unconsciousness, I knew what I was doing was wrong. I knew because I was ashamed of anyone finding out how our family really operated when we were alone.


If you’re keeping a secret about your behavior, that’s a big clue that what you’re doing is passing on the hurt you’ve suffered to others around you, or even to yourself.


And we are each of us responsible for acknowledging that and overcoming that.

I am responsible for acknowledging that and overcoming it.


Unfortunately, we have few models of how to come back from having hurt someone. How do you make up for what you’ve done? How do you rebuild what you’ve broken, if that’s even possible?


In the section below, I’m sharing the steps that I took, both as an assault survivor, and someone who passed that on, in the hope of helping someone out there who has fallen into the same horrible 30% as I did.


If you are like me and have allowed your trauma to hurt others, or have someone in your life who has done this, please keep reading below. I’m going to share with you what I did to change my ways of thinking and being.

For the Abused/Assaulted I am so sorry that this happened. You were hurt. There is nothing that justifies or makes this okay. Trauma is pervasive and will (try to) show up again in other parts of your life. Awareness is the key to building a life for yourself that is empowered, feeds your personal essence, and allows you access to love, community, joy, success, and peace of mind. Here are a few things that helped me when I myself was hurt: 1) Be 100% honest about what happened, even and especially the parts of your story that you are the most ashamed of. Those have to be shared. 2) Care for yourself emotionally. Whatever you are feeling right now, don’t hide from it. Process all of the emotions as they come, each time that they come. Like the grief process, this is work that will continue as you live your life. 3) Care for yourself physically. Heal your body from wounds. Work to create a strong, flexible, and healthy body. 4) Forgive yourself. Forgive others. 5) Set and practice boundaries: physical, emotional, sexual, intellectual. 6) Watch your mind. Commit to a level of awareness of self that will empower you going forward. Awareness of strengths and weaknesses, moods and scripts, addictions, reactions and responsibilities. 7) Create something good out of all of this pain.

For the Abuser/Attacker I am so sorry that this happened. You hurt others. There is nothing that justifies or makes this okay. Trauma is pervasive and will (try to) show up again in other parts of your life. Awareness is the key to building a life for yourself that is empowered, feeds your personal essence, and allows you access to love, community, joy, success, and peace of mind. Here are a few things that helped me when I myself hurt others: 1) Be 100% honest about what happened, even and especially the parts of your story that you are the most ashamed of. Those have to be shared. 2) Care for yourself emotionally. Whatever you are feeling right now, don’t hide from it. Process all of the emotions as they come, each time that they come. Like the grief process, this is work that will continue as you live your life. 3) Care for yourself physically. Heal your body from wounds. Work to create a strong, flexible, and healthy body. 4) Forgive yourself. Forgive others. 5) Set and practice boundaries: physical, emotional, sexual, intellectual. 6) Watch your mind. Commit to a level of awareness of self that will empower you going forward. Awareness of strengths and weaknesses, moods and scripts, addictions, reactions and responsibilities. 7) Create something good out of all of this pain.


The Connection is Pain


Did you notice how those two columns were nearly identical? That wasn’t a mistake. I created the columns this way on purpose to emphasize that the connection between suffering abuse and being an abuser is pain. Human beings in pain go on to hurt more humans and cause more pain. Hurt and pain are what cause the cycle we are talking about.


Please take a moment to re-read the columns and ask yourself if what I’m offering here has any truth to it. What would be the impact for human beings if we had models for vulnerability on both sides of this hurt? People who share how they shifted their thinking and created awareness - for self and others - in their lives? Could we, as I’m proposing, create something good out of all of it?


The “Awareness” Part of SAAM is Personal


Awareness is the key to all of this on a personal level. The national month certainly calls for awareness in its name and I am the first to say that I wish adults had been aware and actively preventing sexual abuse when I was growing up. But more than that, more than any system or program, I am convinced that real awareness and prevention lies within the hearts and minds of each one of us individually. It is our willingness to face our pain and shame and humbly reflect upon the truth of our lives. It is our willingness to learn how our minds work, listen closely to our thoughts and motivations, watch our behaviors and our reactions.


If we stay in a state of being proud of our “reactions” then we are not able to stand in the power of our “responses.” We will not be “responsible” so much as “reactionary.” And in the “reactionary” state we are unaware of the impact we have, unaware of our thoughts and intent, and unable to respond in a way that benefits others, let alone ourselves. If we live in reaction, we are sleep-walking through our lives, allowing things to happen, and not being a master of our own existence.


If SAAM means anything to you, let it mean a new commitment to personal awareness within our families. In this way, we can truly stop the cycle of abuse, not just move trauma from one form of abuse/pain to another.









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