The Power of Telling: Survivors of Sexual Assault Speaking Out

African American feminist and activist Audre Lorde once said, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” These words resonate strongly in the case of the survivors of serial rapist (formerly known as America’s favorite TV dad), Bill Cosby, whose stories for decades have been bruised and misunderstood.

As of the publishing of this blog, a total of 50 of the women Cosby has victimized have come forward to talk about their experiences. Thirty-five of those women participated in a New York Magazine article by being photographed, interviewed, and telling their stories on camera. The photo shoot included an empty chair. The hashtag #TheEmptyChair was created within hours of the article being published online and quickly became an Internet meme. According to Ella Ceron and Lainna Fader:

“That chair signifies the 11 other women who have accused Cosby of assault, but weren’t photographed for the magazine. But it also represents the countless other women who have been sexually assaulted, but have been unable or unwilling to come forward.”

The reference to these “11 other women” warrants exploration. Just how many survivors of sexual assault are among us, maintaining their silence? One survivor said she knew of about a dozen other women he victimized who had not yet come forward. It’s estimated that rapists gets away with an average of 37 assaults before they are caught. That means when we use the term “serial rapist,” we are really talking about all rapists. It is estimated that 68% of rapes are never reported. If we consider that statistic alone, there are likely at least 100 additional women Bill Cosby assaulted. That’s a lot of empty chairs connected to this one very famous perpetrator of violence against women.

It’s no wonder more survivors of sexual assault refuse to come forward. Cosby is reported to have said to some victims, “Nobody would believe you,” and, as we all recall, those who told their stories earlier experienced this disbelief. So their fear of being blamed or not believed is a valid one. And it’s not just celebrities who use this warning as a tactic to maintain silence. Women are all too often not believed, or if they are, they do not receive justice.

But these amazing women have pushed through their fear and have spoken up. Incredibly, for several women the decision to go public with their assault came from a need to support the women who had already spoken out. This speaks to the power of talking about sexual assault. Breaking the silence around sexual assault gives other women permission and validation. Suddenly, whether or not one is believed by anyone in a position to help is no longer the question; being heard (and believed) by others who share the experience is healing and validating in itself.

This inspiration to speak out is evidenced by the comments of some of these survivors. Joan Tarshis comments, “I read Barbara Bowman’s piece in the Washington Post, how no one believed her, and I said, ‘This is it. I have to say something now. I have to stand up and say, Yes. Somebody else does believe you, because it happened to me.’ …I knew I wasn’t ever gonna receive any money. I certainly didn’t want to be remembered as the woman that Bill Cosby raped. But I just felt so vindicated that I wasn’t alone.” As Janice Baker-Kenney explained, “I came forward to offer my support as a witness. I knew my statute of limitations had run out. When only one or two women came out, a couple of years ago, they were ridiculed more. It’s hard to not believe the numbers now.” Indeed, a big part of the power of this story is the number of women who have spoken up. One or two women might be ignored (and were) when speaking out against a famous, beloved figure but these women found strength in their numbers.

PJ Masten speaks to the power of women sharing their experiences with each other:

“I started getting private messages on Facebook…: ‘He got me too.’ There’s a couple of websites — ‘We believe the women’… And we talk, all the survivors. We just had the photo shoot. And I said it was one of the greatest experiences I ever had.”

Take a moment to process that last sentence. Spending the day getting photographed and interviewed about a horrible, violent experience became one of the greatest experiences Masten has ever had. That speaks directly to the power of communicating with others about rape and how empowerment transcends shame. These women gained support by coming forward and sharing their stories.

Like Cosby, most perpetrators of sexual assault count on the silence of their victims. The culture of silence and shame around this crime has changed since many of these women were assaulted back in the 60’s 70’s, and 80’s, but it still lingers. If you doubt we live in what is termed “rape culture,” or a culture that tolerates sexual assault and shames survivors of sexual assault rather than perpetrators, look no further than some of the comments made on social media regarding these women. Trolls call them “liars,” “media whores,” and worse. Even with exposure of a sworn deposition from 2005 wherein Cosby admits to plying women with Quaaludes as a means to rape, there are people who still don’t believe these 35 women.

In spite of the negative reaction by many in the media, many, like Chelan Lasha, reference the feeling of finally naming their truth: “I’m no longer afraid. I feel more powerful than him.” Lili Bernard speaks to her transformation: “Being able to relinquish that fear was freeing for me, and the only reason I was able to do that was so many other women had done it before me, and I felt safe.” Survivor Kathy McKee said, “We’re telling the story because we can’t hold it inside anymore.” Others, like Linda Joy Traitz, were finally able to acknowledge the assault was not their fault: “It took me a long, long time to come to terms with the fact that it was him, it wasn’t me.”

Contrary to our instinct to hide traumatic experiences, the quickest route to healing from rape is to talk about it– with a friend, a counselor, or even on a hotline. Many years ago, I volunteered on a rape and battering hotline and nearly every call I took ended with the caller saying she felt better just having talked about it.

You probably don’t know the Cosby assault survivors personally, but I guarantee you do know a survivor of sexual assault. Perhaps you are a survivor yourself.

You don’t have to volunteer on a hotline to show your support for survivors (though it would be fantastic if you did). You can show your support for all survivors of sexual assault by liking the Believe Women page on Facebook. And you can always show support by speaking out on the topic of violence against women in any form. Speak up on behalf of survivors, so they know they are supported; perhaps if we do, the shame will finally shift from the women who manage to survive to the men who choose to rape.

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