Submitted by Dave Dunway
SAFE San Juans
“I was afraid.” Three powerful words that are usually whispered the first time someone tries to explain why they didn’t fight back or speak in the aftermath. “I am hurt.” Three equally powerful words typically spoken softly by someone who is fearful of the shame and potential for further injury. Yet, words spoken can be healing. They may not bring justice, but they can bring personal wholeness. They take a survivor of sexual abuse (or domestic violence) out of the place of feeling powerless and allow them to live in the truth they have experienced. They give back a voice that someone tried to silence.
Sexual abuse is never about love or intimacy even though it invades the most personal of spaces. Instead, power and the desire to control another person is at the root of sexual abuse. It makes no difference if it happens in the context of marriage and intimate partners, the vulnerable working space of employer-employee, or a thousand other settings. The effect of sexual abuse is to make the victim feel the absence of personal power. It makes the victim feel week and less valuable as a person, and that was its purpose. Powerlessness is a profound feeling. It creeps into every aspect of life, damaging the soul and all that a person wants to believe is true of them. Many people who have been abused live in fear of telling their story, believing that no one will believe them… or they will be blamed for the suffering they experienced.
When the staff at SAFE San Juans serves someone who has been sexually abused or assaulted, it’s not easy for us to set aside our desire to see justice prevail for our client. But we know that justice is not a prerequisite for someone to feel like a whole person; but, them being able to speak is. Sometimes it comes out in a whisper — “I have been hurt.” The courage it takes to say those words is beyond expression for a person who has been dominated by another. But the faintest glimmer of personal strength becomes a pillar as the abused person speaks and is not dismissed.
Whispers can transform broken people. Whispers can also be harmful. It’s not unusual for people to ask a staff member of SAFE San Juans if they are aware of abuse being suffered by someone in our community. Our standard line is “We can neither confirm nor deny.” In other words, we don’t have the right to talk about it. We deny ourselves the opportunity to tell your story so that you retain the right to decide what is and is not known about you. When someone decides to tell the details of another person’s life without first getting their permission, the one telling the story has just expressed their power over the other. In essence, they are saying “I have the power to expose things about you that you want hidden.” That is demeaning at best to the person who has been wounded, and it reinforces the feeling of being powerless. There may be legal limitations that restrict the hearer’s right to keep what you say confidential, and these reflect the need to protect our most vulnerable people. But, if you want a place where you can process the trauma of being sexually abused or experiencing domestic violence, the staff of SAFE San Juans want to listen.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The staff of SAFE San Juans are providing a weekly newspaper article to highlight important issues related to this topic. For information about SAFE San Juans call 360-378-8680 or visit one of our offices in Eastsound, Friday Harbor, or Lopez Village. If you are in a domestic violence or sexual assault crisis and need immediate help, please call our 24-hour crisis line at 360-378-2345.