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Learning to Feel: The Stanford Sexual Assault

“I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn’t remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted. And that distorted me, damaged me, and almost broke me.” –Stanford Rape Survivor

Sexual assault is so common that it occurs every two minutes in this country to one in six women (and one in 33 men). Until this week, it’s rampant existence has remained largely out of sight, with the legions of abused woman silently carrying the pain and the shame, afraid to speak out, afraid of not being heard, of not being believed and the perpetrator, equally damaged by his own acts of violence, walking away from the abuse, 97% of the time, (even in reported cases) without ever serving any jail time.

This week, thanks to the courageous voice of the young woman sexually assaulted behind a dumpster at Stanford, we all got to hear, and more importantly, actually feel the pain and suffering that sexual assault creates in its victims. Not just in the “20 minutes of action” as the perpetrator’s father argued for… but in the days, weeks, and months that sexual trauma engenders. Up there with the worst PTSD, sexual trauma puts an end to life as it has been lived. This week, for the first time we have all had the lights turned up brightly, so that we cannot look away from this deeply damaging abuse that has been choking our collective sense of safety, whether we have experienced it first hand, or just by association.

It is unusual in most sexual assault cases for the victim to have not only the staying power to get through this kind of trial, but also arrive at the end with the ability to share her profound courage and insight about the effects of her experience. It is even more unusual for there to be witnesses to speak on her behalf. What is tragically not unusual is how our justice system works; that this white, privileged, wealthy, Ivy League athlete blamed his intoxication and the unhealthy social environment for this brief lapse in his otherwise stellar young life and that this defense resulted in a ridiculously lenient sentence.

But perhaps what is most unusual about this Stanford case is how it is forcing us for the first time into a national conversation about just how broken our culture is when it comes to the sexual safety of half the people in this country. Thanks to her willingness to share, with utterly raw vulnerability what sexual abuse actually is and what it does, we have all become a witness.

Arguably, the whys of sexual abuse are reflected in many broken elements in our culture:  insidious male entitlement and its corollary disrespect of women, the prevalence of extreme alcohol and drug use, the hook up norms…but this young woman’s statement makes us look deeper, beyond all the rhetoric and reasoning that keeps sexual abuse at arm’s length. No longer can we diminish the impactful ways that sexual assault damages its victims for a lifetime, nor look away from how it changes the trajectory of one’s life. And not just for the victim, but also for the perpetrator… Her capacity to show compassion towards her attacker makes us feel the pain that creates these events as much as the pain that results from it. And it is feeling all this forces us to finally own up to the bizarre coupling of violence and sexuality that is at the heart of this dilemma.

How have we so divorced our sexual needs from our capacity for intimacy, that young men would even crave this kind of sexual interaction? How has our sexuality become so separate from our sense of decency that sexual assault is at least as common among people in relationship as it is among strangers? In fact, sexual assault is known as one of the most destructive and cruelest methods of war crimes, crippling families and making healing after conflicts almost impossible. How have we come to this kind of sexual warfare in our own culture and more importantly how can we stop it? These are the real questions that this new raw dialogue demands us to process and digest.

Issues of sexual safety are everyone’s. By maintaining silence, by suppressing not only the conversation about sexuality, but our sexuality itself, we all participate in the occurrence of these life-altering events. Now we can see how raw vulnerable courage of true disclosure and deep listening heals. Getting to the heart of our collective sexual wounding will make us stronger together. Continuing to ignore it will likely kill us. There might be no more important learning to feel than this.