By Jolene Cardenas
Director of Communications and Development, CCASA
I doubt I was the only person to sob out loud while watching the recent ESPY awards this year. It was my visceral reaction from the haunting image of over 100 women together on a stage, all gathered because of one predator, as a message to the world that they will not politely disappear. All were honored with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage – for surviving assault and for enduring decades of our culture’s ignorance surrounding sexual assault.
“1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016. These were the years we spoke up about Larry Nassar’s abuse,” said Aly Raisman. “All those years, we were told, ‘You are wrong. You misunderstood. He’s a doctor. It’s OK. Don’t worry. We’ve got it covered. Be careful. There are risks involved.’ The intention? To silence us in favor of money, medals, and reputation.”
She eloquently spoke about the disturbing social norm of ignoring survivors voices, one that actively works to silence victims of sexual assault as well as protect abusers rather than hold them accountable, unless the body count is undeniable. I obviously do not share the same graciousness as Raisman. I am beyond outraged that it is possible for abusers to continue through generations of victims simply because they know how our society operates – across all backgrounds. Abusers are counting on “good” people to dismiss vulnerable populations. They count on all of us to stereotype their victims as not having enough agency to be believed and to help in silencing them for good. We, as a society, are all complicit in the abuse of others – the sooner we admit this fact, the better for everyone. We, as a society, are to blame for allowing ourselves to be manipulated by perpetrators against our better judgments.
As Raisman so perfectly summarized, “The ripple effect of our actions, or inactions, can be enormous, spanning generations. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this nightmare is that it could have been avoided. Predators thrive in silence.”
Abuse would end if only we believed survivors. If only we stopped turning children into liars, women into gold diggers, men into not being “one of the guys”, allowing our differences to be used against one another. The United States has become infatuated with requiring immense suffering from people to prove that they are “well-deserving” of basic human affection and dignity. This is a societal illness that is killing all of us slowly and separating us from our own humanity. Our lives are becoming prisons equal to every offender who is allowed to continue abusing because communities allow them to continue without question. There is no real outrage or commitment on behalf of survivors to stop sexual violence forever. We happily move on to another story on social media, find distractions to hide our discontent, leaving the work up to survivors and their families. Sending them a message that it was ultimately their fault that no one believed them for thirty years and oh, well, we gave you this award so now you can move on. Nevermind that the ESPY’s awarded an accused rapist the year prior, Kobe Bryant. Now our conscious can be cleared with no real commitment to enacting policies or institutions that will lift up and change narratives which work against victims of sexual assault, right? See, I am definitely not as gracious as Aly Raisman which is probably why she is an Olympian and I am not.
What we need is action. There are several places throughout Colorado committed to believing survivors first and foremost through a commitment to the “Start by Believing” campaign including the cities of Westminster and Denver, Weld County, the Child Advocacy Center of Fort Collins, and Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs. Our collective actions are what signals to predators that they will be caught and held accountable because we believe victims. End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) created the “Start by Believing” campaign “that is designed to reduce the fear and stigma associated with sexual assault disclosures, and improve responses of professionals and the public. Because a friend or family member is typically the first person a victim confides in, each person’s reaction is the first step in a long path toward justice and healing. Moreover, because perpetrators often re-offend, one failed response can equal additional victims. Start by Believing is leading the way toward stopping this cycle, by creating a positive community response, informing the public, uniting allies and supporters, and improving our personal reactions.”
Check to see if your community participates by visiting http://www.startbybelieving.org/
The work to create safe communities free from sexual violence should not be an additional burden on survivors, it should be a promise we keep to ourselves and our neighbors. We can send a message to perpetrators that we will unite against them, that hundreds of victims will never happen again on our watch, that we practice what we preach because we Start By Believing. Let’s not allow history to repeat itself. Let’s learn from the tragic mistake of not listening to survivors of sexual assault.