The Power of Survivor Voices

By Katie Feifer

In the wake of the deeply disturbing accounts of how Jerry Sandusky, a coach at Penn State and a boys’ mentor and advocate at (now closed) The Second Mile molested and raped young boys over many years, whose assaults were witnessed and discussed with authorities but never stopped, many are writing about the impact sexual violence has on its victims. And several writers are writing eloquently about the effects of the silence so many victims live with, unable to disclose the harm done to them. Others are writing about the effects many victims live with when they dodisclose the harm that was done to them.

Sexual violence hurts and wounds its victims, without a doubt. Even talking about it can hurt survivors.

Jane Brody, writing in the New York Times about The Twice Victimized of Sexual Assault notes “More often than not, women who bring charges of sexual assault are victims twice over, treated by the legal system and sometimes by the news media as lying until proved truthful.”

On the other hand, not talking about it can hurt survivors. Donna Jenson writes powerfully about this in a Chicago Tribune article Speaking Out About Staying Silent, “My silence had layers. The first layer was fear. The second got formed from believing it was somehow my fault; this wouldn't happen to a "good" child. Another was shame for having come from a family that would abuse and not protect its children."

And Roger Canaff, in a blog post about the repercussions from Jerry Sandusky’s alleged crimes coming to light noted “Victims are usually never more alone than after the abuse is discovered, whether they purposely revealed it or not. Siblings, non-offending parents, even grandparents are suddenly distant or much worse. The victim, after all, has “torn the family apart,” interrupted possible financial support, brought shame upon the family because of a ‘splash effect’ that will surely color the whole clan, etc, etc. The fact of the perpetrator’s utter and sole guilt for all of these depredations simply gets lost…”

A classic case of being damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

And yet.

We believe that using survivor testimony is critical if we are to change our laws and our culture around sexual violence. When we listen to individuals tell their stories, we can be moved to change even more than when we simply read statistics.

Anne Ream, director of The Voices and Faces Project, was recently quoted in a Chicago Tribune article Shedding Light on the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors: "A story can be a conduit to change people's minds and hearts about public policy, about institutions, about the way we look at victims of sexual violence and trafficking. The only way we can challenge and change the way the world responds to sexual violence is to bring these stories to the attention of the public."

We believe one of the reasons why shifts in attitudes and cultural norms about sexual violence have been so slow in coming is that those who can persuade us best, the survivors themselves, are too often silenced. Those of us who speak out are applauded by supporters for being brave and courageous. And in this climate, we are.

We are also all working toward a time when it won’t require bravery to tell family, friends, and authority figures when sexual violence is done to us. One first step toward that end is for all of us to listen with respect to the survivors who are speaking out and testifying. All of us can meet that challenge by reading and ‘listening’ to articles like the ones quoted here, and to encourage our own social circles to do the same.