Finding a voice

Survivors of sexual assault heal by sharing their stories

The Spectrum

He and Sarah were best friends; they were always together. She never thought he would take it to the next level. She didn't want him to, but she didn't have a choice.

One in four women will be sexually assaulted during their time in college.

Sarah is one of them.

Eighty UB students admitted to having sex with someone without consent while under the influence of alcohol in the National College Health Assessment Survey in 2010.

Every once in a while, Sarah spots her attacker around UB and even though she wants to punch him in the face for what he did to her, she doesn't.

She holds her head up and looks him straight in the eye. She knows her look says more than a punch ever will.

She doesn't crumble because she knows she is not alone.

Jessica shares her pain.

"Not only had I been assaulted by people I knew, but people I believed to be friends had stood by and allowed it to happen, and in some cases, even encouraged it," Jessica said.

At UB, 180 students admitted to being forced to have sex without their consent, according to that same survey. According to the National Institute of Justice, the victim knows the attacker in 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women. About half of them occur on a date.

Sarah and Jessica, like most victims of sexual abuse, knew their attackers.

Sarah remembers every detail of the assault by her "best friend" four years ago.

It haunts her to this day.

"He grabbed me and put me on the floor with him," Sarah said. "We never had a relationship like this, never even kissed. I thought he went crazy - 'No, I'm not going to have sex with you.' But he persisted. I was wearing pajamas so when I tried to scoot away from him on the ground, he held on and my pulling away only helped his cause. I remember how the basement floor felt against my bare thighs - scratchy carpet, brush burns all down my legs. He was able to get inside of me, but I kept fighting him off.

"I don't know why I didn't scream; my parents were upstairs. They could have saved me. I was just so ashamed it was happening to me that I just sat there in silence."

Sarah was not only emotionally scarred, but her attacker left a black and blue hickey on her neck. It was a constant reminder of the incident for the next few days.

She felt like a whore.

"Sexual violence is like a wound that never completely heals," Jessica said. "It may turn from an open wound into a scar, but it's always a tender pink mark that aches when touched."

To this day, Sarah questions whether or not it was her fault.

The aftermath

Sarah entered a state of extreme depression after her attack. She began physically harming herself and used just about every drug to desensitize her body. She just wanted to forget.

"I was a raging ball of emotions," Sarah said. "I repressed all of the memories and just refused to acknowledge why I was so upset. I am now in the process of getting clean and can finally think clearly about it, which has aided in the coping process."

Jessica had a similar reaction.

She knows she didn't ask for it, it wasn't her fault, but to this day it's always inside of her head. Jessica blames herself.

In the years following her attack, Jessica felt alone. She told her story to a fellow survivor who was supportive, but Jessica said, "Just telling one person doesn't make that trauma go away."

She turned to drugs to separate herself from her past and the people who would try to get close to her - especially intimately.

The thought of someone's touch made her nauseous and shake with nerves. She blames this and her fear of being alone for the "parade of bad relationships" she entered.

"While I feared intimacy, I wanted so badly for someone to distract me from the shame I felt," Jessica said. "My choices in relationship partners became more and more desperate - and in some cases dangerous - until I realized that I had to make a change and work with myself to heal."

The most difficult part of recovery for Jessica was establishing healthy relationships and trusting other people.

It took her years to stand up and admit: "I was raped."

Even though she never reported her attack to the police or went to the hospital and to this day, she's never told the most important people in her life what happened to her, Jessica is OK with herself.

She no longer thinks of her body as "damaged goods," through the continuous support of those close to her.

Sarah is also on her way to regaining confidence.

"I have pushed every boyfriend I have had since away when they got too close," Sarah said. "I do not believe anyone could possibly love me. I feel like damaged goods. I believe that they all want to screw me over or cheat on me."

Now, Sarah and her current boyfriend are taking things slowly. He respects her strict boundaries and she couldn't be more grateful to have someone who understands her like he does. He was one of the first steps in aiding her recovery.

Ashera Buhite, a senior global gender studies major who has been working with SBI Safety Services and sexual health for a year, said this is normal in survivors.

"Learning to trust yourself again after trauma is hard, especially when the world seems to be making you question the validity of your experiences," Buhite said. "It's important to have people to talk to and to work hard to restore your own sense of self."

Taking back control

Since Jessica and Sarah have told their stories, they have both become active members in the movements against sexual assault, rape and domestic violence.

For Sarah, it was all thanks to Buhite and Demire Coffin-Williams, a psychology and legal studies major and one of the assistant directors at SBI Health Education.

They were the most influential in her recovery and coping process.

"Because of [Buhite and Coffin-Williams] I have a voice, and I am no longer suffering in silence," she said.

After disclosing to her boyfriend and Buhite and Coffin-Williams, Sarah was able to open up to her mother last January. She was scared because the attack happened under her mom's roof while her family was asleep upstairs.

First her mom was in shock. Then she got angry. Immediately, she wanted to know how to help her daughter. She wanted to report it to the police.

"She kept asking who was the mother f***er that did this to me," Sarah said. "She actually said that she wanted to find him and teach him a lesson."

Sarah has come to peace with what happened and recognizes fighting violence with violence isn't the answer. She still doesn't want to report the incident to the police.

According to Dr. Maria Testa, a senior research scientist for the Research Institute on Addictions at UB, most assaults are never reported to the police.

Testa attributes this to the skewed perspective society has of rape and sexual assault.

According to Testa, people have a stereotype of rape "involving strangers jumping out of bushes," but that's usually not the case.

Most of the time, the victim knows the perpetrator.

"[Women] also are more likely to blame themselves and to think that others won't believe or be sympathetic to them because they were drunk or high at the time," Testa said. "This perception is, unfortunately, accurate. Victims of incapacitated rape are viewed less sympathetically and blamed more than victims of forcible rape."

Jessica and Sarah both fall into this category. They blame themselves.

"It eats me alive sometimes, going over the memories again and again," Sarah said. "What was I wearing? Why did he do this to me? Did I deserve it? The more you talk about it, the more you are able to heal."

Organizations at UB, such as SBI and Wellness Education Services, aim to create safe places at UB for survivors to feel comfortable opening up. They offer bystander prevention training and how to react in a situation if a survivor discloses his or her story to someone.

It's important to ensure the power is in the survivor's hands because reactions to sexual violence vary from difficultly having sex after a sexual assault to having a hard time with monogamy, according to Buhite.

Buhite emphasizes the importance of the first person a survivor discloses to. It is that person's reaction that will determine the survivor's next course of action. She acknowledges it is hard for a survivor to open up, but she says it will be worth it in the long run.

It was the reaction of the first person that enabled Jessica to tell others her story in the future.She said finding other survivors and disclosing to friends has greatly improved her life and her confidence.

She emphasizes the importance of unity when it comes to putting an end to sexual violence.

"It is our compassion that will destroy the structures that make sexual violence so prominent in our lives and lead us into a brighter future," Jessica said. "Each of us has the power to help, to notice and [to] care about what is happening in the world around and break the cycle."

To Sarah, awareness is the key to helping other survivors heal. She said most survivors believe they are alone but one in four college women and one in six men will experience some sort of sexual violence. To lower those statistics in the future, society must eliminate existing - and false - stigmas surrounding victims of sexual assault, Sarah said.

"If one in four or one in six people had a disease or illness, it would be considered an epidemic," said Aaron Maracle, assistant director of SBI Health Education. "There would be campaigns and rallies worldwide to prevent it. People should look at [sexual violence] very seriously. But they don't right now and that's a problem."

October was Domestic Violence Awareness month. For 31 days, SBI and Wellness Education Services worked to educate people about all types of sexual, physical and domestic abuse. They hosted events such as Walk with Me, organized by Student Wellness, and Take Back the Night, organized by SBI Safety Services, encouraging people to take notice of the survivors who walk around campus and promote strength.

Take Back the Night took place Oct. 25 in the Student Union Lobby. Over 200 students showed up in support of the anti-sexual violence movement. The event was empowering and enabled survivors to feel confident rather than shamed into silence, according to Buhite.

Sarah stood up and shared her story with fellow survivors and supporters. She felt the love from the room full of people.

"It was liberating," Sarah said. "For a moment in time, I felt like everyone understood each other and it was a beautiful connection."

Sarah and Jessica encourage anybody who has been affected by sexual violence to find his or her voice, so victims can begin to heal.

Students who have been affected by sexual violence can go to the Wellness Center, located in 114 Student Union, to use the free counseling and health services or call 834-3131, a 24/7 crisis services hotline.

*Two of the victims' names have been changed to protect their privacy