Oregonian Guest Opinion: Survivors, thank you for your bravery and perseverance
Author: Mandy Davis, School of Social Work
Posted: October 8, 2018

Read the original article on OregonLive.

I want to talk to survivors and those who love and advocate for them every day. I want to thank you for your bravery, perseverance and awesomeness. These are hard times to be someone who has survived assault, who was not believed or who is enduring the pain right now. This world is short on messages that tell survivors "We want to hear your story."

As a clinical social worker, I have worked and advocated with survivors for more than 20 years. I completed my dissertation research on survivors' willingness to report and participate in the criminal justice system. Recently, I have been asked: Why don't people report? Why do they share now after all this time?

With gratitude to survivors who have taught me over the years I want to share what I have learned.

These are a few of the reasons survivors do not speak out: I will not be believed. I will be blamed. I will be shamed. I will be publicly ridiculed. I will have an entire country discussing me and threatening me. I want it to never have happened. I feel like it was my fault. I am 15 or 13 or 7 or ... Society says it is my fault. I was so scared I can't remember how it all happened. I will lose my job. I will lose my children. My children will find out. My family will find out and worry. My recollection is fuzzy so therefore it is my fault. I was told to get over it: Boys will be boys. I am scared of retribution. He knows where I live. He could give me a failing grade. He won't forgive me. He said this was what sex was like. He said I owed him. He said this was not a big deal. I will not have anyone else to rely on. I am pregnant. I was drinking. I don't want him to go to prison. He had a tough life also. I was high. No one cares. The justice system has never done well by me.

The list for why someone would report is short: To seek justice and to prevent further assault. Yet sexual assault has the worst rate for progressing through the system - not only because sexual assault is underreported. For those that are reported, only 12.5 percent will result in a sentence or penalty, according to an academic study from 2010. This is because of a flawed judicial system and a culture that blames victims and not perpetrators.

Many survivors work hard to "forget," hoping to find a way back to when they didn't feel overpowered, fearful or terrified. But forgetting isn't an option. It's a hope maybe, but not an option. Sharing after days or decades takes great courage because the fear of that moment may come flooding back with the added fear of how it will be received.

What if we responded to survivors with belief, validation, compassion and empathy? For those who are hearing stories of hurt and pain for the first time, listen. Validate the deep hurt and the amazing strength. Be present. There is healing in sharing our experiences and being heard.

I honor survivors who aren't ready to share and who may never. It is your choice, your experience, your history. For those who have told and who have been ignored, thank you. For those who are telling for the first time, thank you. And for those who told and continue to tell, thank you. Sharing can be painful and hard, but it can also be healing and transformational.

By sharing, you let others know they are not alone. Survivors know how important this is because many have been silenced, ignored or ridiculed for too long. Survivors speak out because they witness others sharing similar experiences. Through these connections, empathy, healing and change will happen.

Now is an important time to connect with those who understand, who believe and who nurture -- even without having to share words.

For all who are telling their stories and advocating, know that you are changing the world for the better. Survivors' voices have resulted in policy change, from the federal Violence Against Women Act to Oregon's new law regulating gun ownership for men found guilty of domestic violence. Survivors know the power in being believed. You are letting people know they are not alone and that we, as a society cannot ignore these actions anymore.

Take great care of your brave, awesome self in these times.