“My friend was raped… What do I do?”

Growing up, I never had the sheer volume of friends that it seemed like every one of my peers had. I remember trying desperately to make new friends and to connect with people, but it seemed like at the end of the day I just couldn’t relate to most kids. I’m not saying all of this because I want you to feel sorry for me or even because I had some socially under-privileged childhood. I didn’t. I guess I’m beginning this post this way to illustrate our emotional need for quality over quantity. I had and still have great friends, just not a great many of them. And most of the time, especially in a crisis, that’s a very good thing.

My dad loved to point this out and he did so often. I would come to him troubled over my lack of popularity and jealous of how easily it seemed some kids could “fit in.” He would smile, look me in the eye and say, “James, in life we spend most of our time alone. Even the people with tons of friends – they’re alone. If you can go through life with 2 or 3 really close friends by your side, you’re probably doing better than a lot of other folks.” Needless to say, at the time, his response was not what I wanted to hear. As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve come to appreciate that lesson immensely. My dad taught me to value the friendships I do have, to expect the people I love to be there for me, and to expect myself to be there for them. Its a lesson that has formed my life’s purpose and given me a lot of hope in good and bad times.

So what exactly does all of this have to do with sexual assault, sexual abuse, and rape?

In my short time as a SARC advocate and employee, I’ve heard more stories of sexual violence than I might have imagined hearing in my lifetime. Before joining SARC 8 months ago, I was blissfully ignorant of the epidemic that is sexual assault. In that time I have come to know many survivors, advocates, and concerned citizens from every walk of life who are deeply committed to ending sexual violence in our community. Most have been personally affected by sexual violence either as a primary survivor, or as a secondary survivor – someone who experiences trauma when someone they care about is victimized. Its those secondary survivors that I’m hoping to reach out to today.

I met three such survivors on an accompaniment recently. The three women didn’t know it (at least I don’t think they did), but it was painfully obvious to me that they were suffering. A fourth young woman – the primary survivor – sat stoic and calm on a hospital bed and dispassionately described being sexually assaulted by a person she trusted. She only broke her poker face when she started to blame herself and her actions on the night in question. We talked about going to the police. She asked questions about the reporting process, the forensic exam, and what to do if her attacker tried to contact her. We talked about her plan for after the hospital and what resources we could offer her here at SARC. She smiled a few times and tried desperately to keep that poker face locked in place.

The three women looked on. Their eyes welled and they comforted one another as the fourth told her story. They all broke down in tears at least once, desperate to take their friend’s pain away, and they worked with everything they had to feel that pain with her in the moment. It was a difficult and beautiful scene to see so much heartache wrestling with so much love. When the SANE nurse came in to take the patient history, I decided it was a good time for me to get some information from the three women. This is standard practice for SARC. We collect some basic info and offer services to any family and friends involved in an assault, even if they don’t meet the criteria to be considered witnesses.

When we found a quiet spot out in the hallway, the three women unloaded on me with questions. They wanted to know about every possible outcome for their friend. They wanted to know what to do, where to go, and who talk to. They kept asking what they should do for her. It was almost as if they wanted an instruction manual or some insider tip on how to take all of her pain away and fast-forward to the end of this horrible experience. What they didn’t realize is that they were already doing everything they could, and sadly, the one thing that many survivors never have anyone do for them. They were being there. 

When we finally found seats outside of the forensic exam room, the three women told me all about the beautiful personality and exciting life of their friend, the survivor. They told me about her hopes and dreams, and her wonderful family. They told me about getting the phone call in the days before and how 2 of them dropped everything to drive in from hundreds of miles away and just be here. In the three hours we spent together, they experienced extremes across the spectrum of emotions, and looked to console each other and be consoled simultaneously. As our time went on they took on different roles, with one asking logistical questions about police reports, one texting updates to the survivor’s parents, and one asking me “why?” in a desperate attempt to make sense of all of this.

In a strange way, their pain was relief for me, and I am happy to have witnessed it. So often our advocates arrive to a hospital where there are no friends waiting impatiently outside. There is no family member eager to console and protect a survivor. However, on that day I didn’t have to ask, “Is there someone you can talk to?” or “Is there someone you’d like me to call?” I guess I never really thought about how difficult those questions are until I sat back and appreciated not having to ask them.

When we think about rape, I think we want to believe that the trauma ends when the violence does. We want to believe that when the bad guy is gone the survivor must be getting better and that it can’t possibly get any worse after the fact. The truth is however, that it can and often does get worse. The poking and prodding exam, the awful questions and reports, the rapidly jarring memories, the sterile confines of a taupe hospital room, and the doubt, fear, and stigma raging in your mind through all of it are far more than just the icing on the cake of a horrific event like rape. They are a horrifying part of the trauma. Yet there is something hopeful in friendship. Not happy, but hopeful. There is something in a true friend being there that soothes just enough to get a survivor through those moments.

People often ask us “My friend was raped… What do I do?” The answer is honestly tough to come by, because its different for everyone. At the root of it, however, is the simple act of presence. Being there. I learned from those three women that there are no perfect words for empathy. There is no game-plan and there is no point in knowing all of the facts, numbers, and resources without a firm commitment to being there. Some friends handle things better than others, but I can attest to the fact that the survivors who have real support have a much better chance of thriving beyond survival. The point is that friends try. They’re present. They’re committed to being there.

If a friend or family member confides in you that they were sexually assaulted or raped, be there. Listen to them, cry with them, get mad with them – whatever you have to do – but be there. Be quality and not just quantity. Understand that you can feel with them and that’s a beautiful thing.

Be there. They’ll be better for it.

*Whether you’re a primary or secondary survivor, please consider counseling with a trained and licensed professional counselor to deal with the trauma of sexual violence. You don’t have to face trauma alone. SARC counselors are available for appointments free of charge by calling (979) 731-1000.

James Longoria
Volunteer Coordinator
Sexual Assault Resource Center
(979) 731-1000

Responsibility for “The Hunting Ground”

The most difficult part of being an advocate for Survivors of sexual assault is the immense wealth of information you have to unlearn before you’re in a place where the truth makes sense. The truth is ugly, and I guess I expected that coming in to this line of work. However, a part of me is still very surprised at the kind of ugly I encountered when I embarked on the training process just a few weeks ago. I thought that rapists were demented, monstrous and cunningly inconspicuous. I envisioned scruffy tough guys with scars and prison tattoos, and cold calculated psychopaths operating from the shadows of some secret lair. To me, although I was raised fairly sheltered from scary and violent media, this vision of the typical Hollywood villain was the archetype of ugly humanity.

The old saying goes, “Its what’s on the inside that counts.” I’m old enough to know that appearances mean exactly nothing in terms of who a person really is on the inside. I probably owe the scruffy, tattooed, tough guys of the world and anyone who lives in a lair an apology. I’m sorry. I have misjudged you. On the other hand the uglier truth I’ve come to realize is that we (not they) encourage a world where sexual violence is tolerated simply by tolerating it. That simple equation has been pretty sobering. If I (again, not they) allow sexual violence to continue, it will. Therefore, I am complicit. I’m reminded of a beautiful quote from German protestant pastor Martin Niemöller speaking on the dangers of ignoring violence and injustice around us:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Martin’s words illustrate his regret that he didn’t do more to stand up against Nazi oppression when he had a chance. He would regret his apathy for the rest of his life, even to the point of taking on the shame and guilt of Nazism despite the fact that he never donned an S.S. uniform or herded Jews into a boxcar at gunpoint.

I’m a bit of a history buff, and I love World War II history. I grew up listening to my grandfather tell me stories of the Battle of the Bulge, of German tanks and bitter cold, and just how beautiful Paris was even in the throes of war. What I love the most about World War II history is the idea that so much of the world–an entire generation of people from every walk of life–came together to defeat the evil of Nazism. I’ve often wondered if my generation would get the same opportunity to take on such a grave and important task. I was convinced such a cause would come out roaring. With teeth. I never thought I’d find it so blatantly ignored and artfully camouflaged that it has the audacity to walk around with its head held high in our schools, places of work, and homes.

Rape is a real thing. It happens. Often. To people you love. Its not an out-of-control effect of the deranged in society. It doesn’t happen because women “ask for it,” nor should it be acceptable as something that a woman “just has to watch out for.” It Happened Here

There are several new films, media projects and campaigns that are attempting to shed light on the problem of rape and rape culture. Films like The Hunting Ground, and It Happened Here are compelling because they attempt to document the very American sentiment that any voice can cry out for change and be heard. However these films once again expose an ugly truth: we as Americans don’t want to listen. Like Martin Niemöller above, we refuse to speak out for our neighbors in their time of absolutely desperate need. Like him, many of us will grow to regret our silence either directly as victims of sexual violence or indirectly as a family member or friend who is left to watch someone they love pick up the pieces. Featured image

Films like The Hunting Ground make it ok to talk about rape. Its an opportunity for change that we absolutely can not let slip through our hands. Go see one of these films. Check out itsonus.org for up-to-date information and resources from the President’s campaign to end sexual violence, and take the pledge to do your part to foster change.

If you’d like to help SARC bring The Hunting Ground to Aggieland, please consider making a sponsorship donation or if you’re in the Bryan area contact me directly to volunteer. For a list of other rape crisis centers please visit our friends at RAINN.

James Longoria
Volunteer Coordinator
Sexual Assault Resource Center
(979) 731-1000

Shifting Reality

I am new to SARC. I am new to terms like “rape culture” and “SANE”, and before January 15, my first day working at SARC, I would have never guessed how many different categories of sexual assault have been identified. I never knew the statistics, which clearly show that sexual violence is a systemic problem of epidemic proportions. As I have taken a hard look at the numbers over the last month, I can’t help but think that sexual violence has probably happened right next door to me (or perhaps in the next room) at various times in my life. If one in six women and one in thirty-three men has been raped in their lifetime, it stands to reason that even close friends and family have been victimized.

Why haven’t I heard their stories? Even working in Youth Ministry, where I positioned myself as “that person” that young people could talk to about their crises, I rarely (if ever) had a young person open up to me about being sexually assaulted. I heard lots of other high school stories about all sorts of sorrows – everything from grades and break-ups to bullies and parents with cancer. Yet as I look back on seven years as a youth ministry director, sexual assault was virtually nonexistent in those conversations. Of course, we talked about preventing sexual abuse and assault with our adult volunteers in safe-environment training. When it came to the teens themselves however, it seems as though talking about sexual assault was off the table. Looking at the stats I noted above, I’m confronted with the possibility that at least a few youth who came through my office doors were burdened with the trauma of having been sexually assaulted and I was completely unaware.

Since I started at SARC as the Volunteer Coordinator, I’ve heard over and over again that would-be sponsors, volunteers and supporters are reluctant to associate their names with SARC because “no one wants to hear/talk/think about sexual assault.” I’ve heard that sexual assault is a “problem for women,” a “problem for colleges,” a “problem for police,” and a “problem for congress.” I’ve heard lots of allusions to society’s role in perpetuating sexual violence. We tend to blame “they” or “them” a lot (whoever “they” or “them” might be). I’ve heard that all rapists are monsters lurking in the shadows. I’ve heard that the responsibility for sexual assault lies with the victims themselves. So many of our clients have been told that they were “asking for it” by wearing provocative clothing, leading on an attacker, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Yet, for all that ignorance I’ve witnessed in such a short time, I’ve never heard anyone say they were in favor of sexual assault. 

So why is it so difficult to motivate ourselves to take a stand? If we’re all against it, then why don’t we choose to fight it? All we have to do is talk to one another and be willing to listen to the facts. It’s really as simple as that. We don’t ignore cancer patients, Wounded Warriors, juvenile diabetics, or abused animals. Those causes need our attention as a society and so does sexualized violence in our families and communities. I admit that I am very new to this dialogue. I don’t have a degree in psychology or criminal justice but I can’t help to think that it doesn’t take a Mensa member to notice some fatal flaws in the way we look at sexual violence. The most egregious of those flaws being that so many of us choose to remain ignorant.

As a man, I want to appeal to other men to take responsibility for this issue. 99% of those convicted for rape are men, and while its true that its harder to convict women for rape than it is men, it doesn’t really matter how the numbers break down. Men, it really is on us.  Call me old-fashioned, but men have a cultural responsibility (one that we’ve gifted to ourselves over thousands of generations) to protect society. Sexual violence is real and its destroying the lives of our mothers, sisters, daughters and friends. It rips apart marriages and families, and strips survivors of sexual assault of their most basic rights and dignity. It affects all of us who have ever loved a survivor, even when we don’t realize they’ve been assaulted. We’ve ignored the call of women’s rights groups for entirely too long. Its time to start cooperating and see that men can and should make a positive difference in the fight against sexual violence.

We may hear a million different experts with a million different theories as to the systemic causes of sexual assault, but before we can listen to all of those opinions, we must be willing to admit that the problem is real. We must admit that the problem is big and that the people we love – friends, family and complete strangers – are worth the time and energy it takes to say enough is enough.

If you’re interested in joining the conversation or volunteering at a local Rape Crisis Center visit centers.rainn.org to learn how you can help.

James Longoria
Volunteer Coordinator
Sexual Assault Resource Center
(979) 731-1000