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Feature photo by Maria Kalaitzandonakes

Sexual assault victims struggle to reconcile

Feature photo by Maria Kalaitzandonakes
Feature photo by Maria Kalaitzandonakes

Some nights senior Clarissa Newman* lies in bed, haunted by her memories. Her breath comes too quickly, and her heart slams in her chest as she relives one afternoon six years ago.

She remembers the pain of a brick slamming into the back of her head, but that was just the beginning of the brutal attack. A man she had never met dragged her to an abandoned alleyway, and he not only stripped Newman of her clothes, but also of her dignity when he raped Newman, only 11 years old.

After her rapist crushed her attempts to fight back, Newman lay pressed against the cold concrete, her shirt jammed down her throat to muffle her screams. Semi-concious, her world shattered. Even with just more than a decade in her young life, she knew the universe wasn’t exactly perfect – after all, there were starving children in Africa and dying grandparents – but Newman had no idea humanity could be so cruel.

Before the rapist left, “he kicked me hard enough so I couldn’t move for a while and he ran. And I didn’t know what to do at that point, [be]cause, I mean, that just happened. And I was like, ‘Wow. What do I do now?’” Newman said. “So I just sat there and stared at the wall. I couldn’t cry yet. I guess it didn’t really sink in exactly what I was dealing with. I was just like, ‘That sucked,’ and I got up, cleaned myself up and walked home and didn’t tell anybody.”

Newman is not the only victim to instill the mentality of silence. Newman and Bonnie Cassida are part of 54 percent of all rape victims who do not report the crime, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Cassida, now in her late 40s and the pastor at Bethel Church, is one of four women featured in a short video released in 2010 titled “I am a Survivor of Rape;” Sexually assaulted prom night her senior year in high school, Cassida knew immediately after she was raped she had to keep it a secret from certain people in her life.

“My initial reaction was, ‘I hope my parents don’t find out,’” Cassida said. “I think if my mother had found out, she would have blamed me … my mother would always warn me about what bad girls do and how they get into all sorts of trouble. I just kind of knew from what [my mother] had said that she was not the person to go to. I immediately tried to cover up the story then.”

Cassida attended high school in a small town in North Carolina in the 1980s, where the term “rape” carried an suppressively negative connotation which blamed the victims more than the perpetrators. While her community’s judgement held back her story – one she only told to a select group of close friends – Newman kept silent because her family was already going through difficult times; her grandfather had just passed away, and revealing she was sexually assaulted would only add to her family’s grief, she said.

In addition, Newman, the oldest of 4 siblings, already felt the pressures of being a role model to her brothers and sisters and felt her weakness would let them down. So she began her healing process alone.

In the days, weeks and months after she was raped, Newman didn’t trust human contact, she despised humanity for what one man did and blamed herself for what happened. Instead, she quickly learned how to shield herself and her siblings from any danger that might come their way, preparing for things any other normal 11 year old shouldn’t have to know about.

“I learned how to defend myself quickly, and I knew how to protect myself and I was way protective of my siblings,” Newman said. “I size people up as soon as I meet them, like, ‘Can they overpower me? And if so, how can I get around that if necessary?” Just because of that, I’m still scared of the dark. I don’t watch scary movies; I don’t do sneaking out of my house at night. I don’t do any of that. I might be an overly cautious 60 year old woman in my soul, but I don’t care. I’m alive, and I like it that way.”

According to the R.A.I.N.N, Newman is part of the 15 percent of victims sexually assaulted under the age of 12. And while 97 percent of rapists walk free for the criminal choice they made, some of their victims are trapped by the trauma and scars of being sexually assaulted.

“It’s interesting how we [rape victims] often want cover it up and keep it quiet, when really, it’s the person who did it who should be the one who wants to cover it up or keep it quiet,” Cassida said. The rapists “should be ashamed, but the females and sometimes males, the victims take on all the guilt and try to cover it all up. It’s backwards, but it’s what we do.”

Colleen McDevitt, producer of the video “I am a Survivor of Rape” and program and development director of Tabutalk.org, tries to alleviate the pain of victims through her website by fostering a forum for discussion. Tabu introduces the difficult topic of rape to young people as a way to cope with and better understand the horrors of sexual assault.

McDeviitt began the site after seeing the effects her high school friend’s rape experience had. Growing up in Eldon, Mo., with only 130 people in her graduating class, McDevitt said she could sense the suppression of the subject.

Rape “was just one of those things that wasn’t invited to talk about” in my hometown, McDevitt said, “and it’s part of why, years later, when I got to college and I found out this happened to some of my friends and is still happening, [that] it wasn’t just a one-time deal and sexual assault is really common, even thinking back to my friend, that’s why I wanted to do” the website.

McDevitt’s website, TabuTalk.org, comes at the heels of her short documentary, which placed third in the Hearst Journalism Award program in 2010 and was subsequently picked up by CNN news. The effect the documentary had on others – including one victim (not Cassida) who used it to tell her mother she had been sexually assaulted – was inspiring to McDevitt, who promotes the use of other multimedia projects surrounding quieted topics.

“It was just really powerful to see the impact of that video. For CNN to pick it up, I was like, ‘You know, [the video] was nothing special. If I can do it, so can other young people,” McDevitt said. “I think in general, young people are just braver to bring up and talk about crazy issues in our world, partly because we know about them more. I mean, we have access to more information than we’ve ever had before. My parents, growing up, didn’t know as much as I did about the world.”

Cassida can attest to the wealth of information and organizations younger generations today have access to as opposed to her high school and college years. When she was a college student studying Psychology, one of her classes touched on date rape. Cassida approached her professor and told him about her experience, but far from reaching out to help her, he was helpless.

Nowadays it’s different, Cassida said. She notes that people like her husband, Graham Higgs, department chair of Psychology and Sociology at Columbia College, are more adept at giving victims the help they need.

“Professors now are given classes and, you know, if you have a student in crisis, Mizzou has a wonderful system there in place you can refer them to,” Cassida said. “And we just didn’t have that back then. To me it doesn’t seem that long ago, but it’s thirty years ago. And a lot of things have changed. I don’t think I heard the term “date rape” until the late ‘80s and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s what happened to me. People have talked about date rape enough so that it’s not unheard of, whereas back then rape had to be when a stranger came and grabbed you from behind a bush.”

In reality, around 90 percent of rapists are people the victims know, according to the Joyful Heart Foundation. While people close to Cassida – including her boyfriend at the time – said they could do nothing about the incident because he was “a close friend,” victims have another outlet now. With the recent surge in availability of communication tools, more people have the option to discuss touchy topics they might choose not to in face-to-face situations, McDevitt said. Opening up to these topics in a variety of ways is beneficial not only in educating the public, McDevitt said, but also to help victims.

RBHS counselor Jane Piester also believes having the access to the wide range of communication can help victims of sexual assault come out and talk about their experience.

“I know there have been journalism articles … about students that have shared experiences that have happened to them. And 54 percent of students who have been sexually assaulted don’t report it,” Piester said. “I think there are a lot of reasons a person wouldn’t want to report it, but if they can certainly hear there are others that have told and have gotten help, they would be more willing to get help for themselves instead of suffering in silence.”

While media outlets have done more coverage on the subject and the talk about sexual assault has evolved since Cassida and McDevitt’s high school years in the early 1980s and 2000s respectively, the stigma surrounding sexual assault is still keeping victims from opening up. For some victims, talking about their experience is not the problem, but instead, the reaction from the community.

“There’s that whole, ‘I don’t want you to have to deal with that,’ [be]cause some people will treat you like it just happened and some people are treating you like you’re fragile,” Newman said. “And I’m like, ‘No. really. If I told you, I’m fine. You don’t have to treat me differently; I’m the same as before. Now you just happen to know some fact about me as well. It’s definitely hard [to talk about rape] for people, but you don’t do the same thing with death. You can mention death without the whole room going silent and no one talks about it.”

Although people may feel uncomfortable discussing the topic of sexual assault, it is something that happens someone every two minutes in the United States, according to R.A.I.N.N. However discomforting it may be to discuss the touchy subject of rape, the community and society of a young generation today has the chance to take a stance and make a difference, McDevitt said.

People have to understand that discussing sexual assault is “not about hanging your dirty laundry out, it’s about understanding that stories are what make us humans,” McDevitt said. “And sometimes stories are hard to tell. But it’s hard to be a human and there are difficult stories that need to be told too.”

By Daphne Yu

*Name changed upon request

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