(NOTE: This is a timely article with the recent naming of “The Silence Breakers” of the #MeToo movement selected as TIME Magazine’s “Person of the Year.” It’s important to recognize that sexual assault and sexual harassment exists in our community and most importantly, there are resources and help available for all.)
By Emily Fanjoy, Health Programs Coordinator, Tillamook County Women’s Resource Center
#Metoo, the hashtag that started in 2006 was popularized by Alyssa Milano this October after she posted it saying, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” In the first 24 hours after Milano posted, more than 4.7 million people used the hashtag. Since October, accounts of sexual harassment and assault perpetrated by well known and admired men from Hollywood to the White House are surfacing. Survivors are telling their stories.
As author Brene Brown suggests, “maybe stories are just data with a soul.” We’ve had the data for years, quietly occupying space in research files. For example, a 2011 study by Potter & Banyard found that 38% of employed women have experienced harassment in the workplace. A more recent ABC News-Washington Post poll found that 54% of women have experienced “unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances” by men at some point in their lives, while 30% of women were subjected to this by a male colleague, and 25% identified men with power over their careers. To break it down, 1 in 2 women, 1 in 3 women, and 1 in 4 women, respectively. This compares to the 17-20% of men, or approximately 1 in 5, who experience harassment.
Daily we are hearing, seeing, reading, watching new accounts and stories, sometimes in brief and harrowing detail, yet the statistics above suggest that the stories we’ve heard thus far are just a fraction of the souls, the living breathing people, behind all that data. The impacts that these stories have on those who listen, read, and watch also merits addressing. Vicarious trauma or the cumulative effects of bearing witness to other’s suffering, and re-traumatization for survivors are legitimate concerns.
At the Tillamook Co. Women’s Resource Center (TCWRC) our mission is to eliminate domestic and sexual violence in Tillamook County. Since its founding in 1982 TCWRC volunteers, employees, partners and community supporters have worked to both offer support services to survivors of violence and to address root causes of violence. Every day employees and volunteers in the office bear witness to stories of fear, pain, and trauma. Every day we are responsible for recognizing the impact this has on our lives outside of work; on our outlook on life; and on our ability to also experience joy and connection in life.
As social activist and Trauma Stewardship author Laura VanDernoot Lipsky points out, so many cultural traditions support the idea that “in life there is equal measure of brutality and beauty, of pain and pleasure, of annihilating moments and of sublime moments.” This moment is one of reckoning, of grappling with ugly realities, and yet that is not the whole story. There are also moments of truth and courage, transitioning from isolation and into connection.
I recognize and honor the courage it takes for every individual who has stepped forward to publicly share their experiences of abuse. I share their hope that in the future this behavior will be so utterly unacceptable that it’s occurrence is rare, and that when it does occur the consequences for the individuals responsible for causing harm are swift and decisive.
At the same time, I recognize that reading, hearing, listening to such an overwhelming number of individual accounts has a profound impact on me a witness to other’s pain. The data, the vast numbers of people impacted, also implies that as witnesses to current events, many people posses a personal understanding of what work place harassment and sexual violence feel like. For survivors of any kind of sexual violence these stories can be triggering, setting off post-traumatic stress reactions, heightening a persons’ anxiety or depressive symptoms as the stories may sound similar to their own personal experience. If this is you, you are not alone. TCWRC advocates are here to support survivors regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred.
While others of us are fortunate enough to be concerned citizens without personal experience of violence, still repeated exposure to countless stories may cause us to experience heightened levels of anxiety or increased feelings of exhaustion, hopelessness, or despair. Vicarious trauma can impact all aspects of a person’s life, including how we are able to be with our friends and family.
How do we take care of ourselves as individuals in this period of national reckoning? How do we manage the nagging thought that it’s cruel to turn away? Brown, through her research, has also found that the most compassionate people are people who have healthy boundaries. This means that as individuals, we are responsible to take care of ourselves first in order to be fully present in supporting others–the oxygen mask rule of flying is not just an in-flight instruction. First, practice awareness of your feelings and bodily sensations. Second, when you notice you’re having difficulty with the topic, practice turning off the (insert: television, radio, social media account) that’s exposing you to other people’s stories, not forever, but for the moment. Third, redirect yourself in a positive way.
For example, if I’m driving to or from work listening to news in the car, and I notice I’m holding my breath or only taking shallow breaths, this is a sign that I need break. I turn off the news and switch to music; I roll down the window and take deep breaths. I do not keep listening to the radio, because my body is sending me signals to stop and redirect myself. Finally, if that’s not enough, I also know who I can turn to when I need additional support.
TCWRC advocates and helpline are here to support you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In addition to our helpline, we offer individual counseling and support groups for survivors of violence including a new art based group for building resilience. If the courage and truth telling you’ve witnessed is motivating you to get involved, contact us to learn more about volunteer information and educational opportunities. Whatever you’re feeling in response to this maelstrom, know that you’re not the only one struggling through all of this. TCWRC is located at 1902 2nd St in Tillamook, OR, call our office at 503-842-9486 or toll free at 1-800-922-1679