How do you think that the perception and treatment of sexual assault victims has changed in the past decade, if at all? We have cases, like the one involving Harvey Weinstein, that brought up many reactions from the public. What do you think of this?
I think that [the perception of sexual assault victims] is changing. It was just the horror stories the ones being taken seriously and now there are enough voices and enough women in power who are standing up and saying this is not appropriate. I think that Harvey Weinstein’s case shows how pervasive sexual assault can be and how difficult it is to speak up. You have major stars coming forward, and once one person finds her voice, it helps a multitude of people find their voice. I hope this continues not only against the same perpetrator but against the issue itself, because this shows that times are changing and that we are not just going to take it anymore. It puts a different face to the issue, and that is the biggest hurdle that we have to combat. People have an idea about who gets sexually assaulted, but it can be anyone anywhere, from any socioeconomic level all the way up to Hollywood’s most glamorous actresses.
In what light do you think that sexual assault is viewed by society today?
I think that what we are willing to tolerate as a nation is changing. My mother’s generation might just say “oh, I’ll just undo another button if I am going to ask for a raise,” but, as women, we shouldn’t have to do that. We are equals and I think that equality is starting to come forward. We also need to have a healthy view of our sexuality. It used to be “good girls don’t” and we need to change that, the language around it, and gender stereotypes. It’s a whole picture, not just one little thing. Prevention used to be about risk factors. It used to be about walking in the parking lot with your keys in your hands, and what you wore to certain venues. It is no longer about that, now is about teaching people at an earlier age what is appropriate and what is not. I feel optimistic, especially with what I have seen in the last few months with the #MeToo movement; it’s amazing. We have taken sexual assault and domestic violence from this realm that nobody talked about and kept in the darkness and we are starting to shed light on it. The more light that gets shed on it, the more able we are to change it and stop it before it ever happens.
I know you got a Juris Doctorate, did your experience as a sexual assault victim within the judicial system make you want to follow that path?
Yes and no. I wanted to find a career that my background would be an asset instead of a detriment. It is extremely hard, due to collateral consequences for anyone with a felony conviction to gain full employment because there are so many licencing procedures. I created Healing Sisters and thought to make some changes to get legislature to look differently at sexual assault and what people go through. I knew I needed some letters behind my name to do that, so I went to law school thinking I would just get the education, without ever thinking I would get the opportunity to practise. I am probably going to be a public defender, I got a few offers now. I really do have that desire to give back and to help make a difference in other people’s lives.
There is a tendency to blame the victims for not speaking up in what is thought to be a sensible time, or for the way they dress, and for many other factors that make it seem as if the person harassed is at fault for the assault, not the person who committed the crime. What do you think of this?
We need to erase the shame. Because there is already so much shame that comes with sexual assault or domestic violence that, when a person is ready to speak up, they are almost too ashamed to because they didn’t tell someone the first time, or they let it go on so long. We need to combat that, because it is never the victim’s fault. As sensible people, we like to imagine what we would do if we were in that situation, but there is nothing sensible about abuse. When you try to make sense of the nonsensical, you can’t, and we can’t tell people ‘why didn’t you this?’. That is another part of victim-shaming, and we don’t mean it, it’s just that in our logical mind we try to understand why they made those choices, but you can’t give a logical explanation when a person is just trying to survive. With all that is happening in Hollywood, you see these beautiful and powerful actresses [speaking up] and people wonder why they waited 20 or 30 years. Ashley Judd’s interview [about sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein] was extremely powerful. There is a picture of her smiling with him. You do your best just to make it through that moment and of hope it goes away, but a lot of times it doesn’t go away and it just gets worse.
Statistics show that 2 to 10% of rape accusations are false but 99% of perpetrators walk free. Why do people so often prefer not to believe the victims? How do you think this affects the willingness of victims to come forward and seek justice?
Having a Juris Doctorate, I know how difficult it is to prove rape. The evidence sometimes gets washed away, talking about it is difficult, time passes, so there is no easy answer to that. As a society, that conversation about healthy sexuality needs to be created. Consent needs to always be at the forefront. The majority of sexual assaults happen between people who know each other and that makes it even more difficult, because you might have dated someone and people saw you together. Then, there is a rape accusation. It’s difficult for people to believe because they don’t want to know that [rape] happens and that it’s so prevalent. People don’t necessarily understand consent, and they don’t want to look at a person and see a victim, so it’s easier to say that the person is lying than to understand that this normal-looking human being could perpetrate such a crime. We have an idea of who the perpetrators can be, as children we are taught about ‘stranger danger’, but strangers account for 10 percent of child sexual abuse, while the other 90 percent comes from someone that the family knows. We have a hard time accepting there is a side to people that we might never truly know, but a perpetrator can be anybody at any point in time.
What would you say to someone who is experiencing or has gone through instances of sexual abuse and feels either threatened or hopeless about escaping from the situation or coming forward with their experience or learning to cope with it for, quite possibly, years?
There is always help out there. If you are in a place where you need help, keep telling people until you get that help, because you’re not alone. There are plenty of sisters in suffering out there who can band together to make it better. If you can survive an assault, you can survive almost anything, and I say that as someone who experienced it. It was tough, but I look back to all the things I’ve survived in my life and think, if I could survive that, I can survive whatever comes. Let [the experience] fuel you to make changes for other people and to become a better person to those around you. You have to focus on where you want to be, so I can look to the past and I can look forward to what the future has for me. I try to balance the two and not let the pain drown me, but it does take a toll on your soul.
Did you come to terms with the events that led to your conviction in the first place?
I don’t know if you ever really come to terms with this, there is always a sorrow that is going to be a part of your heart It’s about learning how to live with it and how to combat the dark days. I try to be fully present in the moment. Walk outside, feel the sun on your face, see the beauty of the grass. It’s about trying to combat the negativity with the beauty that’s all around us. I’m going to have flashbacks and wish that things were different, but I can’t change that. I can change today and tomorrow. So far, it’s been working. I thought that I was less worthy because of the things that I have been through and the things that I have done, and the best advice I ever got was to never let my past rule my future. I was able to rise above it and if I can, anybody can.