For Sexual Assault Survivors, The Trauma Won’t End
Every Monday night, I tell strangers on the internet that the rape they endured was not their fault. As a volunteer for RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network), I work for the organization’s online hotline, where I’ve provided anonymous, chat-based support to victims of sexual violence for the past two years.
Before election season kicked into high gear, I would typically find between five to eight visitors waiting in the queue when I began my shifts. Lately, it’s not unusual to see queues of 15 women or more—women who are willing to wait an hour or longer for someone to talk to, someone to tell them they’re not alone. On the weekend after the release of Donald Trump’s infamous “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape, visitors to the hotline increased 33% and traffic to RAINN’s website skyrocketed 45%.
And that weekend wasn’t an isolated incident. The 24-hour news cycle has turned this bitter and divisive election into a protracted nightmare for sexual-assault survivors, and sadly, their need for support will extend far beyond the closing of the polls on November 8.
“I fought like hell to get out of the control of a narcissistic abuser and now we may have one as our president,” says Alisa Zipursky, a survivor of child sexual abuse who lives in Washington, D.C. “Even when Trump loses on Tuesday, I don’t think it’s going to get better for a lot of us. The things that we have seen and heard in the public space, the wild indifference of so many people, Trump dismissing his comments as ‘locker room talk’—that will stay with us for so much longer than this election.”
For many survivors, a decisive Hillary Clinton victory would be welcomed news, but it would only mark the beginning of a long recovery process, one that follows an election that lauded toxic masculinity, perpetuated rape culture, and made it clear to American women that large swaths of the population do not care about their rights or well-being.
Trump’s behavior and attitudes toward women have been painstakingly documented and minutely discussed—condemned by some, dismissed by others—and I’m not interested in creating another repository of his actions and statements here. It takes a sliver of conscience to find the misogynistic rhetoric of this election cycle abhorrent, but for victims of sexual assault, abhorrence is only the beginning. This election has been triggering for millions of people who have experienced sexual violence, harassment, or both. It has reawakened old traumas and ripped off scabs, shattering steps toward healing that were fiercely won.
“This October, RAINN served more than 18,000 people and we saw a 24% increase in traffic over last October,” says Brian Pinero, RAINN’s vice president of victim services. “It is extremely unusual to have elevated numbers like these. Often after a big story [like Brock Turner] we will see increases for a few days, but the fact that they have been sustained shows that people are still dealing with trauma.”
According to RAINN, one out of every six American women (and out one of 33 men) have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes, and legions more have dealt with harassment, abuse, and assault. The experiences and reactions of survivors of sexual assault are as varied as the survivors themselves, but common effects include PTSD, depression, anxiety, anger, self-harm, feelings of hopelessness and fear, substance abuse, alienation, and sleep and eating disorders.
On the hotline, I’ve spoken with a 13-year-old girl who was repeatedly gang-raped, an LGBTQ woman who was being stalked by a neighbor, college students who were drugged and assaulted, children whose step brothers or foster fathers crawled into their beds. I don’t relay their experiences to sensationalize or shock, but rather to stress that sexual assault should not be belittled. A third of women who are raped contemplate suicide, and my own experience on the hotline mirrors this statistic.
Trauma can feel consuming, overwhelming, and inescapable. The victims I speak with often express feeling like they will never be able to heal. Triggers, meanwhile, can derail the healing process, and because Trump is a candidate for president of the United States of America, those triggers are amplified. Every word, action, allegation, and revelation surrounding him is fodder for the media. The same goes for Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, or any high-profile elected official accused of taking advantage of his position of power for his own sexual gratification. These constant reminders can create a minefield of inescapable triggers for sexual assault survivors.
“Not everyone who has a traumatic experience develops PTSD or even other psychiatric diagnoses, but for people who have PTSD, things that might otherwise be completely benign can suddenly be charged with a whole bunch of affect and emotion,” says Dr. Debra Kaysen, a clinical psychologist at the University of Washington who studies the effects of trauma on sexual-assault survivors. “If you look at the current news cycle, it’s almost impossible to avoid very graphic reminders of the experiences that women and men survivors have had. Those are pretty intense reminders.”
Women come to the hotline as both a first point of contact and a last resort. Talking is an essential part of recovery, but many victims don’t share what happened because they believe speaking out will only make their situation worse and they won’t get justice. Out of 1,000 rapes, just 6 rapists will be incarcerated. I’ve also heard from survivors that the experience of telling someone, whether it’s a friend, teacher, family member, or the police, was more traumatic than the assault itself. When they hear the Republican nominee for president accuse women who come forward of lying, it reveals a power structure that tells them to stay silent, or else.
“You have a person in a position of power saying these things, and then you see people are actually fighting to protect this person, accusing women of ‘making it up’ or ‘being in it for the money,’” Pinero says. “For a lot of people, that’s really traumatizing, and why they never spoke up in the first place. They feel they have to prove that they deserve to be helped.”
Trump’s belief in his own impunity is borne out by hordes of supporters who continue to advocate for him despite the overwhelming evidence that he is a sexual predator. Beyond his degrading words, 17 women have publicly come forward to say that Trump assaulted and/or harassed them—groping and kissing without their consent, making inappropriate comments, and walking through pageant dressing rooms where teenage girls were changing. The fact that nearly half of the voting population could pull the lever for this man broadcasts a message not only to sexual assault survivors, but to all women, that their notions of equality are a myth, their expectations of bodily autonomy a fantasy, and their words and experiences meaningless.
Zipursky says watching Trump at the second debate triggered her PTSD in a way she hadn’t felt in months, wrenching progress she’d worked hard to make. “The way I have experienced trauma is that even after the initial impetus goes away, you expect to feel better and then you are really confused why you don’t,” she says. “Trump being defeated doesn’t defeat the trauma itself, and I anticipate a wave of people who feel like their pain is silenced because they should be ‘over it’ because the election is over.”
Trauma is not something people can force themselves to “get over.” Kaysen says that while some survivors can and do recover fairly quickly (there are effective courses of treatment available that only take a few months), others can find the process arduous and painful—even under the best of circumstances, with a strong support network and access to quality care. Unfortunately, support can be prohibitively difficult to come by, particularly for the people who need it the most. Women who are marginalized—due to race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, or socio-economic status—are often the most vulnerable to assault.
In a small way, the increased traffic to the RAINN hotline is a measurable manifestation of the immeasurable damage Trump’s campaign has inflicted on women across the country. It’s also a reminder that while the election will soon be behind us, the trauma triggered by it will live on. It’s essential that survivors who need help and support are able to find it—for as long as they need it.