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After the Assault: A Community Problem

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After the Assault: A Community Problem

Picture of Samantha Caiola

This story is part of a larger project, After The Assault, which aims to change the conversation around sexual violence to better support survivors seeking healing and justice. USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s Impact Fellow, Sammy Caiola, helps us understand survivor experiences in the immediate aftermath of sexual violence and during police investigations. 

Other stories in this series include:

Introduction: ‘Deeply Destroyed My Sense of Safety’: Sexual Assault Survivors Say Police Interactions Often A Second Trauma

A Guide For Reporting Sexual Assault In Sacramento County

Episode 1: Start By Believing

Episode 2: Your Brain On Rape

Episode 3: A Question Of Evidence

Episode 4: Case Closed

Episode 5: Living With Trauma

Episode 6: Guide To Being An Ally

Marissa Espiritu / CapRadio
Marissa Espiritu / CapRadio
CapRadio
Monday, June 28, 2021

Advocates say there are steps we can take as individuals to understand “rape culture” and the roles we may play in it. Learning about how to interact with and respect each other can start as early as kindergarten. You’ll hear from community organizations seeking to build a better world for survivors by breaking down systemic barriers to justice and healing.

Transcript

Sammy: I’m Sammy Caiola, health care reporter for Capital Public Radio. This is After the Assault: a podcast about the way sexual assault survivors seek justice and healing after trauma. This is Episode 7: A Community Problem.

Before we start I have to warn you — we will be discussing sexual violence in this episode.

[music theme fades in]

Sammy: Assault is a glaring problem in the United States. One in five women are victims of attempted or completed rape. Twice that many experience some form of sexual violence and so do a quarter of men. One in two transgender people has been sexually abused or assaulted.

But advocates say that we’ve been ignoring the issue for way too long. Survivors are staying silent because they’re afraid that they’ll be blamed or disbelieved. There’s a lack of safe spaces and community-based resources, especially for marginalized groups.

Experts say the way that we talk about and portray sexual assault, allows it to keep happening.

I asked survivors and advocates about this.

[music fades out]

Penny: We need to really look at and understand the rape culture that we live in that normalizes violence in general, particularly violence against women.

Maddie: It’s that expectation of “you should protect yourself, you’re a woman, you should know better.”

Aurora: Right, we're taught that boys will be boys, but women watch out.

Carissa: When we think about what needs to happen to end sexual violence, we’re asking for a huge cultural shift. And that’s not going to happen overnight.

Penny: I think it's like a million little steps that sort of everyone needs to take in order to start to change that.

Sammy: We’re going to talk about those small — or big — changes that everyone can make in their day-to-day lives to stand up against sexual violence.

And we’re also going to talk about how to combat sexual assault on a systemic level — what police departments and schools can do to help people who are vulnerable to violence, especially people of color.

JoEllen: The system is poison, and the system isn’t addressing the structural racism and how patriarchy really is embedded within, you know, the legal system, frankly.

Monica: Can we stop all predators? And are all predators going to be prosecuted and so on and so forth? No. But one of the things we can do is we can educate and have our voices be heard.

sujatha: The system's greatest failure is that it is not truly centered on the needs of those who have experienced or caused harm. It’s not human-centered.

Penny: But like the whole community has a problem because sexual violence is a problem for all of us.

Sammy: To hear about how survivors search for healing after their assaults, go back and listen to episodes 5 and 6.

To learn about the trauma that survivors might experience while seeking justice through the legal system, make sure you listen to the first four episodes.

All through this podcast we've been asking where survivors can find healing, even if justice isn't served. The idea of justice is usually associated with police or courts, and advocates say those systems have historically NOT been a safe place for many women and survivors of color.

Maggy: We have this deep seated combination of mistrust of law enforcement, shame, fear, and all of those things act as barriers for women seeking justice. And they disproportionately apply to Black women.

Susan: So asking them to go to law enforcement to report this incredibly sensitive and scary thing, you know, you need to do a lot to overcome those, those barriers.

JoEllen: And there is just this overwhelming hunger to create a community of action among survivors, to be addressing the systems and developing solutions that start to chip away at the inequities and it's pretty powerful.

[music theme fades up]

Sammy: This episode, you’ll hear from community organizations trying to build a better world for survivors and you’ll learn what you can do to end sexual violence.

This is After The Assault, Episode 7: A Community Problem.

[music fades out]

Sammy: Originally this podcast only had six episodes. We were going to end with our “Guide to Being an Ally.”

Then we ran that plan by our survivor cohort — this is a group of eight sexual assault survivors that I have interviewed over the past two years.

Penny — a survivor who asked us to leave out her full name and alter her voice for safety reasons — pointed out that this project only gets at the fall-out of sexual violence. It IS called AFTER the assault.

But Penny wanted to talk about how we can stop rape from happening in the first place. She’s biracial and bisexual and she thinks a lot about those identities and how they affect the way she navigates the world.

Here’s a little snippet of her talking to CapRadio’s managing news editor, Nick Miller. This was in the spring of 2019, right around when she emailed us and got this whole project started.

Penny: OK, the other thing I have to say is, please never, ever tell a Black woman that you understand.

Nick: You're right. I mean, I'm a white cis male of privilege —

Penny: Yes you are, yes you are.

Nick: So, I'm listening, but I don't understand. You're totally right. Sorry about that.

Penny: That's OK.

Sammy: She wanted to talk about how journalists, specifically me, Nick and our colleagues, can do a better job listening to survivors — especially survivors of color whose voices often go unheard.

Penny wanted to flip the traditional power dynamic so she and the other survivors that I worked with could have a say in how their stories were told. Here she is talking to Nick again.

Penny: I think that for you specifically, I would say take a look at the way that you use the power that you have not only as a cis white male, but as your position in the media. What are the parts of the story that you choose to tell and you choose not to tell? Are the parts of the story that you choose not to tell that which makes you as a person uncomfortable, that which you think will make your listeners uncomfortable? Whatever the story is that's going to make people uncomfortable is probably the one that needs to be told the most.

Sammy: So we decided to do things a little differently. We asked survivors to tell us what THEY would put into a project about sexual assault, and what questions they would ask of law enforcement, prosecutors and forensic scientists. We asked them what parts of their own journeys that they wanted to include and got their input as we shaped these episodes.

We see this podcast as a way to use the power of media to highlight solutions. It’s not enough for us to just listen and share survivor experiences. We also have a role in making change.

Penny: I think the first thing that needs to happen is that we need to open our minds to that power dynamic and just name it and say that it exists. And then I think once we get really honest with ourselves, all of us, about our participation in that system, then that's when we can change something about it. Because if it's the other guy who's the bad guy, we can wait forever for them to change. But if it's us seeing how we behave in the world, then we can do something about it.

[music transition]

Sammy: Advocates say there are steps that we can take to understand rape culture and the roles we may play in it.

Carissa: We know that it is harmful. How do we end it? How do I, you know? I talk to my younger cousins or my younger friends are like “I would never rape anyone.” But truly, it goes beyond that. It's how does, how do you relate to the people in your life or how do you relate to individuals that report to you, or how do you interact with individuals in public? Those interactions are very much playing a role into the way that we can prevent and end sexual violence.

Sammy: Carissa Gutierrez is with ValorUS, formerly the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Here’s her advice: start reading books and articles about sexual violence. Connect with your local rape crisis center about upcoming workshops or events. You can learn the facts about assault so that you’ll be able to debunk myths when you hear them. You’ve already begun by listening to this podcast.

Her group recently launched a whole campaign about individual actions that people can take to combat rape culture. It’s called “Bold Moves.”

Carissa: One example that I really like is be spatially observant. How do people take up space? If you are on a bus and you see the way, you know, we call the man spreading, right? A man takes up space or is too close to a woman, and she's clearly very uncomfortable. It's recognizing, do you do that too? So a lot of these bold moves or these steps are really just about raising self awareness and realizing that these behaviors actually make other people feel unsafe.

Sammy: And learning about how to interact with and respect each other — that can start as early as kindergarten.

In 2019 California approved a first of its kind K-12 sexual education framework.

Brittany: It's important to start talking about these issues as early as possible in an age appropriate way, and that means, you know, talking about consent in kindergarten

Sammy: Brittany Bray helped develop the framework. She works at WEAVE — that’s Sacramento’s rape crisis center.

Brittany: You know, we're not talking about consent in terms of sexual activity in kindergarten, but we are talking about respecting boundaries and learning to ask permission, talking about bodily autonomy and respect for one another. And it's important because it sets the foundation for those later conversations and talking about specifically sexual assault and teen dating violence and sex trafficking

Sammy: But the guidance isn’t mandatory. And Bray says it was tough for them to get it into schools.

Brittany: Some of the public comment said that it was encouraging sexual behavior early on and talking about consent encourages sexual activity, which is not the case.

[music comes in]

Sammy: There are two mothers in the CapRadio survivor cohort. They both have pre-teen daughters. They both talked about how hard it is to not let the trauma from their assaults affect their kids.

Penny: My kid is young and does not need to know any details about what happened to me.

Aurora: I have a daughter that I look at who's developing into a young woman. And I don't want to live my life in fear. I don't want her to feel my fear.

Sammy: That was Aurora Jimenez.

She says she’s starting to open up the conversation with her daughter.

Aurora: Because I would rather her know the truth than to over shelter her like I was sheltered when I was a child. I wasn’t even allowed to go to sexual education classes, because my mom didn't want me learning about sex in the first place, you know, so like these are these are things that I found to be problematic in my life.

Sammy: Aurora wants her daughter to talk to her if she’s ever uncomfortable and she wants her to be aware of and prepared for the threats that she might encounter.

Aurora: Yeah, I want my daughter to just have a better opportunity with being open in all aspects of her life without fear.

[music fades]

[music transition]

Sammy: So there are ways for individuals to help end sexual violence. But advocates say That there’s a much bigger problem at play here: the people who are at the highest risk for sexual violence due to systemic inequality, they’re also the least likely to seek out help when they ARE assaulted.

Think sex workers, undocumented people, people who are unhoused.

Here’s Carissa Gutierrez again.

Carissa: These individuals, although no one is safe or probably not safe, but is immune to sexual violence, certainly there are people who are more likely to experience it simply because they live in environments or experienced certain types of relationships that allow for that kind of behavior to play out.

Sammy: She says anyone who wants to end sexual violence has to start by looking at those intersections.

Elaine Whitefeather runs a grassroots Sacramento group called A Community For Peace. She’s queer, Japanese, African American and Native American. She’s also a reverend and a survivor of intimate partner violence.

Her organization works directly with families experiencing sexual violence. They also help connect assault survivors to housing and other resources. And they provide community education. At a recent roundtable, she gave an overview of a term that I’d never heard of before.

Elaine: Today our subject is sanctuary harm, sanctuary harm. So the definition of sanctuary harm is this: sanctuary harm occurs when an individual who’s suffered a severe stressor next encounters what was expected to be a supportive and protective environment, and discovers only more trauma.

Sammy: A survivor goes to the police or another agency for help, and something happens that’s harmful. That could mean not being believed, experiencing discrimination or even getting arrested.

One of the participants at that roundtable, who asked to stay anonymous, says this is what kept her from getting help when she was raped while performing sex work.

Participant: So, we went to my place, he didn’t want to pay me, but he raped me. Now, could I go to the police and say that he raped me? No. Because what was he gonna tell them? That I was transgender.

[music comes up]

Sammy: Stories like these are why some advocacy groups are trying to move away from the police model for sexual assault.

Last summer in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, survivors called for shifting public dollars away from police budgets and toward specialized sexual assault response teams.

JoEllen Chernow directs a national nonprofit called Survivors Know. That’s K-N-O-W.

Earlier this year they teamed up with a few dozen nonprofits, including grassroots groups representing survivors of color.

Together they created a “Survivors’ Agenda.” It lays out alternatives to a police response to sexual assault.

JoEllen: It means, you know, developing and engaging culturally rooted, community based programs that allow the communities themselves to address the problems of violence. You know, It means greater accountability and stronger penalties for convicted offenders, including law enforcement.

Sammy: During the 2020 discussions about racial equity and defunding the police, I asked some Black survivors about what they would like to see in the future.

CQ : What they’re really calling for is defunding the police so that these funds can be distributed to organizations that can adequately respond to things. Police cannot adequately respond to someone who’s having a mental health break. Mental health professionals can. And the same thing applies with sexual assault.

Dominique: All the Facebook moms saying like “Oh, what are you going to do when you defund the police and you need someone there after you’ve been sexually assaulted?” And it’s like well, they weren’t there anyways, you know. They weren’t there before we started talking about defunding them, this is exactly why.

Cassandra: If somebody can put money in my pocket so that I can leave this abusive home. If someone can help make this abuser pay for my therapy, or lose his job temporarily or suffer some other consequences that don’t involve the police, I feel like I personally would prefer that over bringing the police into my community and risking all these other things that could happen.

[music ends]

Sammy: Some survivors and activists say it’s time to completely let go of criminal justice outcomes for sexual assault.

sujatha baliga is a survivor, and she says the challenges that she experienced while working with law enforcement got her interested in restorative justice — it’s a process that involves mediation between the survivor and the person or people who cause them harm, without involving law enforcement.

sujatha: But what if we offered something else? What if we made other methods of feeling that what happened to us was, was acknowledged and was, was, was held and even compensated for potentially in ways that we need for that to happen. And that rather than... when I talk to crime survivors, what I often hear is I just don't want this person to do that again, right? And the story is, is that a prison term is what's going to prevent that from happening.

But again, we know from recidivism rates that, you know, prison, not prison doesn't really do a darn thing about whether or not people reoffend, right? Whether somebody was going to reoffend is related to many, many other things and has to do with protective factors that are placed around the person who has caused the harm. And they're really beginning to understand what it is that they did and why they need to not ever do that again for themselves and for somebody else. And so we just haven’t offered, we haven’t offered people another option.

Sammy: baliga says options can include one on one dialogues conducted by a trained counselor, healing circles with friends or family.

I asked her if this could be combined with the law enforcement process somehow. If practitioners like her could help perpetrators heal, AND there could be consequences through the criminal justice system.

But she says that gets tricky, because it takes power away from the survivor.

sujatha: Right when we're having restorative justice processes that are not operating in tandem with the, with the state, we have the most freedom to attend to survivors’ needs at their own pace, in their own way. When, when their restorative justice programs operate in relationship to the state, then the state is driving, the state is still driving the train, right? Especially the timeline train, which can go faster than some survivors are ready to, but often go way slower. You're waiting and waiting and waiting for justice, and that can be really frustrating.

[music fades in]

Sammy: I’ve been reporting on sexual assault on and off since the spring of 2019. One of the biggest things that I’ve learned is that justice looks different for everyone.

For many survivors, their biggest hope is for the person who hurt them to not be able to hurt anybody else. Some of them want to go through law enforcement to do that, and some don’t.

Many survivors spend years coming to terms with their rapist not facing consequences. They learn to focus on themselves, to try to move forward and heal in the aftermath of trauma.

And the ones that I worked with, over time they became more vocal, more confident, more fierce. They want people to understand what happened to them.

During the last conversation the survivor cohort had together in the CapRadio studio, Monica was telling them about a time recently when she had to stand up to her perpetrator.

Monica: I had no idea peace would feel like me having a goddamn heart attack.

Aurora: It feels like death sometimes. Yeah. Like you're, you're going through a wall and you're not meant to go through the wall, but you do. You somehow manage to go through the wall. Not over it. Not under it. Not beside it. You're through it. And you faced the threshold and you went through it and that's, that's the win. I really do believe that you won.

Monica: The small winnings and yet is so huge. Now I know that when I see him at places, instead of me avoiding and like, I can only wait for so long, I needed to gain my ground back.

Aurora: And territory.

Monica: Yeah, and more women need to feel more comfortable speaking out like that.

Aurora: Now you know that that is going to be your power. That's your super powers, your voice and your firm foot on the ground. Yeah, hope comes from within. I think I've had nobody else to show it to me. I’m it. We’re it, you know, all we have is ourselves and we have to be stronger than them. And if that's how you gauge it, then that's it. But you have to be as audacious, you know, like, as them. The audacity they had to violate our bodies. That’s the audacity we have to have at them to protect it.

[music comes up]

Sammy: Working on this podcast was a journey for the cohort, and it became a journey for me, too. We created this podcast together over two years. Talking as a group every month. And I listened to each survivor tell her story, one-on-one.

Sometimes interviewing them brought me to tears. I sometimes had to fight the urge to get up and give them a hug while they told me their stories. When somebody would hit a roadblock in their healing, it was kind of a gut-punch for me. When they had small successes, I wanted to cheer.

Getting to know these women made me think differently about survivors that I might know in my life. It helped me understand what they’ve been through, the kind of strength that that requires.

And it made me think about my identity as a woman, the times I’ve felt unsafe, violated, or just belittled. There were times that I became so angry about rape culture that I had to walk away and take a breath.

But what I’ve learned is that when survivors have a safe space to tell their truths, that IS a form of healing, and it can even be a form of justice.

[music fades]

Sammy: At a recent survivor cohort meeting, we asked members what being part of this podcast has meant to them.

Aurora: I’d say the support has been incredibly helpful to the healing process and not feeling so alone and isolated in these feelings, I just know that you guys have my back, I have yours. And I’m just so proud of us, and still terrified, but ultimately proud.

Jesa: This is definitely a different experience to have a bunch of people at once who are all talking about the same thing and all thinking about it and just sharing and especially having so many survivors in one, in one place at one time. I really didn't know how much of a difference it would make to feel that community. I really appreciate everyone’s energy that they bring.

Monica: It feels nice to be heard and you know, that my voice is somehow more valuable, you know. What that person did to me, my voice and my body and all of that wasn’t valuable. I feel that this will help put it into a positive light. Like it’s going somewhere. By doing this, it’s been hard. I’m glad I’m honoring myself, and I’m glad that I have found a safe place to do so.

Penny: I think for me, one of the things, you know, just to echo the healing and the community and being heard, but one of the things for me that's come out of this project is a sense of justice, you know, and we have this justice system and, you know, there's the feeling that the justice system can set things right. But the justice system doesn't ever really set things right. You can have a trial and a sentence and then someone gets punished, but that doesn't right anything. But through this project, things can actually be righted. And so I think this project for me represents the best that I can get at moving towards justice.

Aurora: Amen to that for sure. That's very well said.

Annie: Yeah, very well said.

[music theme]

Sammy: This is the final episode of After The Assault from CapRadio. I’m Sammy Caiola. Thanks for listening.

You can learn more about reporting a sexual assault in Sacramento County and supporting survivors on their healing journeys at CapRadio.org/after.

[music fades]

Marci: My name is Marci Bridgeford, and I’m the director of community response at WEAVE, Sacramento County’s rape crisis center. We support survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking. We have a 24-hour, seven day a week support and information line you can call at any time, at 916-920-2952. You may also reach out to us via our message boards or chat features on our website at weaveinc.org.

[music fades up]

Sammy: After The Assault is a production of CapRadio in Sacramento, California.

Emily Zentner is our data reporter.

Catherine Stifter is our podcast editor.

Sally Schilling designed the sound.

Mark Jones is our audio engineer.

jesikah maria ross directed the project in collaboration with Nick Miller, CapRadio’s Managing Editor.

Joe Barr is our Chief Content Officer.

Music is by Jay Urban, Audio chords from Pond5, Empyreal Glow and Anchor.

We want to hear from you. Go to CapRadio.org/feedback to tell us what you think about what you heard in this podcast. We welcome your comments and your questions. Visit CapRadio.org/feedback.

We’d like to thank Annie, Aurora, Erin, Jesa, Maddie, Monica, Laura and Penny for helping us shape this project.

Thanks also to Sacramento’s Sexual Assault Response Team and area advocacy groups for their ongoing consultation and participation.

After the Assault was produced with support from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s Impact Fund.

I’m Sammy Caiola, thanks for listening to After The Assault.

[This story was originally published by CapRadio.]

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