This is a personal story about why I don’t like to tell personal stories about sexual assault and domestic violence. My misgivings became clear to me about a dozen years ago, when I got a disturbing phone call from a former law student of mine at Tulane University.
The summer after her second year of law school, this young woman had gone to South Carolina for a clerkship in a really great law firm. She told me that while she was there, the manager of the clerkship program raped her. It turned out that this man had a reputation for picking one woman from every summer’s group of clerks and sexually assaulting her, or having consensual sex. Whichever way it went, that’s what he did every summer.
My former student told her parents, who immediately demanded legal action. At first the firm’s leaders said they were stunned and appalled, but over the next weeks and months things changed. It’s something I’ve seen time and again in instances of sexual assault. In the first few weeks, the community really supports the rape victim, but then there is a shift and the rape victim becomes isolated while the community circles around to defend the perpetrator. This New York Times story about a flawed rape investigation involving a star college athlete is just one example of what I mean.
I could hear the anguish in my former student’s voice. She was afraid that pursuing a legal claim against the perpetrator would distract her from focusing on her final year of law school. She knew that in law school, grades are everything. They follow you throughout your entire career. Employers want to know what rank you had at graduation, and if you wanted a top job, it had better be high.
And then she said something very interesting.
“It’s not just my law school career that I need to protect,” she said. “I don’t want to be that girl. I don’t want all that people know about me is I got raped. I’m afraid that if I go public, that’s all I’ll be — a rape victim.”
When she said that, I immediately identified with her. It was 30 years before I started to talk openly about my own experience with domestic violence.
I graduated law school, made partner in a tough firm, made tenure at a top law school, worked in politics, became a leader in women’s rights — I want people to know those things about me. I don’t want people to think that I’m a loser who got mixed up with a creep who hits.
This is what makes it so difficult for women to come forward, and why I’m so uncomfortable with media requests for women to tell their personal stories on the air or in print. They need to understand that they’re asking a lot from women who have a personal story. Instead of putting a big scarlet “R” for Rapist on the forehead of the perpetrator you are putting a big “RV” for Rape Victim on the woman — forever.
I eventually started speaking openly because I thought that my experience could be useful. I was involved in the opening in suburban Washington of a Family Justice Center, which is a place that provides a full range of services to families impacted by domestic violence. The question was frequently asked, “What do victims need?”
I found myself saying, “Well, let me tell you something, first of all they need to be identified as way more than victims. It’s not about calling them a survivor, it’s about calling them capable individuals, good mothers, skilled achievers, talented women — it’s about recognizing in them all the other things they are.”
I’ve been thinking about all this a lot lately as NOW is working to help pass Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act, which takes decisions over whether a case goes to trial out of the military chain of command. Women in the military frequently decide not to report sexual assault because they — quite rationally — fear that doing so will cause their careers to come to an end. Not only will they be labeled as a rape victim, they’ll also be called “difficult” because they came forward.
Women who take the courageous step of telling their stories need to be heard, not stigmatized. I don’t mind talking about my own experiences, but personally, I prefer policy. I want to bring whatever talent and ability I have as an advocate to press for policy solutions to things like sexual assault and domestic violence. At NOW, we don’t want to just get people’s attention; we want to bring about lasting change.
So you won’t see a lot of personal stories about sexual assault and domestic violence on the NOW website. I’ll talk to you about what I went through, but it won’t be the first thing you hear from me — or the only thing you remember.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Read all posts in the series here.
Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit theNational Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
Originally published on Terry O’Neill’s Huffington Post blog on 04/23/2014