Since 2017, when the #MeToo movement galvanized women across the country to speak out about sexual abuse and assault, local support agencies have seen a dramatic increase in requests for help.
Calls to the Sexual Assault Resource Agency to accompany victims to the emergency room increased by 42 percent from fiscal year 2017 to 2018, and the agency saw an 18 percent increase in the number of sexual violence survivors it served. But Rebecca Weybright, SARA’s executive director, sees #MeToo having the greatest impact on those victimized in the past: “We have people coming in saying, ‘This happened to me years ago, and because of what’s in the news, I realized it is still an issue for me.’”
Weybright and others in the field say media coverage of #MeToo—and more recent events, from the Kavanaugh hearings to the R. Kelly docuseries—can stir up traumatic reactions in survivors. But it can also help in healing. “Seeing people talking publicly about their experiences has made it safer and more accepted to talk about what happened,” says Elizabeth Irvin, executive director of the Women’s Initiative. And it counteracts the shaming and devaluation of victims that advocates say is part of the power dynamic of sexual violence. The Women’s Initiative, which provides mental health services for women (many of whom are survivors of sexual trauma) regardless of ability to pay, saw a 50 percent increase in clients at its free walk-in clinic in 2018.
Over at UVA, Abby Palko, director of the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center, says the center has seen “a steady, perhaps growing need for support” from students who have experienced sexual violence; staffing grew from two to four full-time counselors in 2016, and they’ve just added another two. Palko, who also teaches courses that explore women’s and gender issues, says over the last decade she’s seen “a growing internalized knowledge about issues of consent and sexual violence” in her students. Events like the debunked Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus,” the abduction and murder of Hannah Graham, and the killing of student Yeardley Love by her boyfriend “meant we were talking more about these issues at UVA when the #MeToo movement took off.”
So far, the rise in awareness and requests for support hasn’t translated into a significant increase in reporting these crimes to the police. Both the Charlottesville and Albemarle County police departments offer victim/witness assistance programs, but filing a police report is voluntary and always the individual’s choice. (Under Virginia law, however, teachers, law enforcement, medical personnel, and counselors or social workers are required to report sexual violence if the victim is a minor, or if there is an immediate threat to the victim or the public.) Worth noting: in Virginia, there is no statute of limitations on felony sexual assault.
Charlottesville Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Areshini Pather, who works on many sexual assault cases, says #MeToo has torn open our society’s past reluctance to talk about sexual violence. “Perpetrators would tell victims, ‘If you tell anyone about this, no one will believe you.’ But now people are talking about sexual violence, which enables survivors to see that what happened to them has happened to others, and won’t be tolerated. We’re bringing this out into the light.”
How to help victims of sexual violence
Those who counsel sexual assault victims and survivors say the most critical factor in healing is the response of the first person they turn to—often a friend or family member. If you are that person, the most important thing you can do is to believe them, and remind them they are not to blame for what happened.
From there, take your cues from them on how to help:
- Listen non-judgmentally. Don’t try to put a label on their experience. Let them know that all of their reactions are understandable and ‘normal.’
- Seek permission before holding or touching them.
- Ask them what they would like you to do.
- Encourage them to seek medical help, and offer to accompany them.
- Be available and present, but don’t pressure them to talk. Understand that they may be distant temporarily.
- Give them time to decide how they want to proceed, legally or otherwise. It’s important to help survivors regain a sense of control.
- If you are a sexual partner, give them time to decide when they are ready for sexual contact.
- Suggest getting help from a sexual assault crisis center. Encourage, but do not push them to seek support.
- Let them know you will be available throughout the process of recovery. Give them time to heal.
- Recognize and address your own reactions, which may include: anger (sometimes towards the victim as well as the perpetrator), sleep disturbances, guilt or shame, fearfulness, denial, frustration, depression, or a combination of these. Seek support for yourself so you can continue to help them.
—Based on information from the Sexual Assault Resource Agency.