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Triggered

For survivors of sexual assault, the #MeToo movement opens old wounds

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"At first, [#MeToo] was really inspiring and kind of exciting to have some of the stigma lifting a little and having this community coming around it—like, it is a movement. We are all in this together," says Heather, another survivor. "But then as my social media feeds got more and more clogged up with people sharing their stories—and of course they have the right to share their stories—but some people shared a lot of details and I started to find myself getting triggered, getting a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear response stuff coming up for me."

Heather, who was already in therapy, began addressing childhood sexual trauma when the #MeToo stories flooded the internet in October. The 34-year-old Santa Rosa resident, who was also sexually assaulted in high school, says the combination of the news cycle and the work she's doing in therapy has also affected her sex life with her husband.

"We're in this place right now where I mostly don't want physical affection," Heather says, "and it totally sucks and I miss it, and when we start heading into that direction, I'm like, 'OK, stop, stop, stop.' But, yes, my sex life definitely sucks right now. I just don't want to share. This is my body."

Sarah, Lauren and Heather are far from alone in their experiences and reactions to the constant news.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), one in six women has experienced a completed or attempted sexual assault in (90 percent of rape survivors are women, with Native American women at the highest risk), and roughly 60,000 children are sexually abused each year. Men and boys are sexually abused, too, and they, along with transgender students, are at the highest risk for assault when they are in college.

And these are just the reported cases. A Bureau of Justice Statistics report suggests that only 23 percent of sexual assaults and abuses are reported to authorities. Of those documented cases, RAINN statistics show that a staggering 70 percent of victims experience some form of extreme distress from the incident, and even with adequate therapy, constant news or images of graphic assault in movies can induce a stress response.

Looking at these stark numbers, it is fair to assume that if you haven't been assaulted, you know someone who has. I have yet to meet a woman or transgender woman who has not been sexually harassed. Our entire culture bears the weight of sexual abuse and harassment, whether there is a conscious awareness of it or not.

Chris Castillo, executive director of Verity, a Santa Rosa–based advocacy organization that works to both prevent sexual assault and to support survivors, says that on a personal level, she feels that the #MeToo movement is a positive one. The resurfacing trauma might be rippling out in ways that no one ever expected, but survivors and their loved ones have, and are reaching out for, support.

"I see many doors opening for people who maybe thought they were closed," says Castillo. "More people are speaking about it. Hopefully, it will become, not the taboo subject to talk about, but the subject that families talk about with each other, families inform one another about safety and protection and what is good and what is not OK to do."

Castillo says that the drop-in support group at Verity—just one of the many free bilingual supportive services the organization offers to survivors of any gender identification—has seen an increase in attendance since the #MeToo movement picked up speed in October. "They finally feel safe to talk about what's happened to them," she says.

Tracy Lamb, executive director of NEWS Domestic Violence & Sexual Abuse Services in Napa and a board member with the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, agrees that, overall, #MeToo may have a long-lasting positive impact.

"As someone who has been part of the movement of domestic violence and sexual abuse for my whole entire career, which has now been probably 25 years, there is a sense of hope and possibility that this could mean truly real change," says Lamb. "I have always felt like it's been an uphill battle for survivors to feel like they're heard, they're believed, knowing that involvement in the system is going to be a trial, not only against the perpetrator, but also [a system that] sometimes puts them on trial. And the idea that there's accountability in ways that I haven't seen gives me some hope.

"And it does feel like there's strength in numbers," she adds.

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