Sexual assault. Sexual misconduct. Rape. Incest. Abuse. These are words we are hearing every day because of the scandals Hollywood is finally opening up about.
But these words are powerless until someone believes the victim.
Every day someone is assaulted by a person who holds power over them, be it a boss, a potential employer, a co-worker, a doctor, a friend or family member.
These open secrets, as they are called, are in our everyday lives, not just in the mix of powerful people.
So while we see fictionalized accounts in books, television, and movies, when it comes to real life, what to do and who to turn to for help and support can be unclear.
I spoke to a group of experts to help guide us as people, partners, parents and coworkers on how to begin conversations about abuse, how to support those who have been abused, whom to turn to if you have been assaulted and day to day things you can do and learn to protect yourself.
After hearing Olympic gymnast Aly Rasiman talk about how she was abused by her doctor my first thought went to my daughters and if I was doing enough to inform them of what is and is not okay. I turned to my daughter's sensei, Kim Heinz, owner of Kim's Karate and Kickboxing for some help. Heinz has a third-degree black belt in Isshinryu karate, an honor which she earned after serving the U.S. Army in Military Intelligence, doing multiple tours of duty including Bosnia and Kosovo.
Miss Kim, as the kids call her, not only teaches self-defense in class and in her dojo but goes to schools in the area as well. She says confidence is the main thing she focuses on.
"When teaching self-defense at any age the main thing I focus on is confidence. Self-defense has nothing to do with how strong you are or if you are involved in the martial arts."
The other big lesson Heinz teaches kids is to be aware of their surroundings. Even as adults, we get that creepy feeling when something isn't right. She teaches the classes that if you ignore that feeling, that's when they "end up in a situation that they can't get out of."
She gives teaches them not to be scared to use their voice when someone they don't know approaches them whether it's a stranger or bully and gives them these mantras - and pushes them to learn to say them loudly:
STOP, your not my mom or dad!!
STOP, leave me alone!
As the reach the pre-teen and teen ages she trains children in physical defense. She says, "How they carry themselves is important and that goes back to confidence. Predators look for prey- they prey on the weak. If someone walks with their head held high, makes eye contact- you aren't a vulnerable target."
Heinz says the lesson from a young age is you "have to believe in yourself and value yourself. It's that fear of being hit that holds people back. Getting upset when someone puts you down. You have to believe that NO ONE can make you feel inferior- you do that!!"
Starting from the young age of 3 and 4, Heinz is teaching young children, tweens and young adults to have confidence and not panic. Believing you can defend yourself is the first step in self-defense.
Unfortunately, not everyone has a Miss Kim to teach them these lessons. And even if a person knows what to do, not everyone can get out of a bad situation.
Additionally, being male doesn't make assault not exist, just like not being physically violated doesn't mean a person was not abused. Those victims need support as well. To learn more on how to help, I spoke to Dr. Nancy Irwin, a highly sought after addiction therapist at Seasons Recovery Centers, who specializes in hypnotherapy, as well as other holistic approaches for treating addictive behaviors, sexual abuse recovery and other traumas.
The #MeToo movement, which was started by women, showed that men too needed a voice. A lot of men have come forward. Dr. Irwin not only is it harder for men to come forward, the assaults on men are the most underreported. Why? She explained, "Men are, unfortunately, socialized differently than women. Men are allowed to be sexual, indeed it is encouraged many times with the “boys will be boys” attitude and “get it whenever you can” thinking. Whether they are gay or straight, boys and men get abused, physically as well as sexually."
Even grown men do not recognize abuse for what it really is. Dr. Irwin explains men are conditioned to see sex as a right of passage, so what happens to them is "not recognized as the same abuse of a female victim. E.g., having sex as a teen with their algebra teacher they just thought was a rite of passage….something other boys would have envied."
Later in life though, it causes issues in relationships they want to have.
Which brings up the point that many of the current charges are 20-30 years old and the time between the event and healing has been severely delayed. Dr. Irwin says while getting immediate help is ideal, it is never too late to heal. Get a good therapist who specializes in sexual trauma modalities to get on the path to healing." There is no need for continued long-term suffering.
The other question which comes up is the damage done when an assault is stopped. Are those people victims? Dr. Irwin likens this to a near-death experience. Something traumatic did happen. She says, "the event should be validated and intervened, however, to ensure a full recovery.
Problems do arise however, in treating the near-miss cases. She says victims feel 'My experience does not compare to others who suffered far worse.' No matter how severe, "Pain is pain, and everyone has theirs to process and there should be no minimization of suffering."
Sometimes it's not because a person wasn't a victim, they simply never knew they were. Chris Rowe, former NYC police officer with a background in executive protection with 25 years of experience who is currently working in the contract security business.
Julia Roberts told the Today Show she was never assaulted. But she also said if someone had made a subtle overture it never registered. Rowe says, "Legally it's any 'unwanted' action - if it makes someone uncomfortable it could constitute harassment."
This could be as simple as continually attempting to direct message someone, which is a form of cyber-stalking. Rowe says when faced with that situation to be direct, tell them their actions are unwanted. And remember, if you feel uncomfortable, something is not okay.
With the advancements in technology, there are better ways to stay safe than in the pre-cell phone, which is when a lot of the alleged assaults being reported took place. Revamping how you protect yourself beyond learning self-defense is a smart thing to do. So where does that start? Rowe says there are numerous security apps that are not only tied to social media accounts but can take pictures and call 911 for you. He says, "A good rule of thumb is still "If it doesn't feel right, there is no need to go to your car."
When asked if there was one place above all other to be hyper-vigilant in, Rowe says jogging alone would be it. "Plot your route, plan the time you jog and plan what you would do if you do run across a would-be attacker. If you go out without a jogging security plan you are just setting yourself up for an attacker."
This time of year comes with a lot of holiday parties. I asked Rowe about how to update the plan of action before attending, and whether drinking is smart to do at all. The basics still hold true - don't go alone, set up a ride home and do not take a drink from someone you don't know or take an open drink from anyone. The new item on the list is partnering with someone who will make sure photos and video of you are not being taken without your consent. With social media, your physical being is not the only part of you that can be violated - especially with editing software so abundant and easy to use. What it boils down to Rowe says, "is to know your limitations in advance and stick to them."
The other fun thing when friends and family are in town is to go clubbing or attend a concert. The same rules as parties apply of course, but Rowe suggests taking a couple extra precautions. For men, he says, keep your wallet in a secure pocket or one you only can reach. Women should carry bags that close securely, such as with a zipper or a fold-over top. And never leave your personal items unattended.
As long as you set the stage for your own safety you will be able to relax and have a good time.
But what about the places you are in every day, that you should be safe in? Like the office?Ava Miles, the author of the new series “The Goddess Guides to Being a Woman,” deals with topics of women in the workplace. Having experienced inappropriate sexual advances herself in her professional life, she offered some advice on how to set up a plan to be secure in that environment as well.
One tip - which works in personal and professional situations - is to say "you’d rather meet in a bar or restaurant. Say you’d like to get a beverage and you don’t want to do room service, and that you’ll meet them there." Laying out a plan, making it clear can turn a potential attacker's plans upside down. Miles says, "The goal is to create a situation where you are calling the shots. If you go to a man’s hotel room, unless it is someone you implicitly trust, you are potentially putting yourself in a position of unnecessary vulnerability."
A lot of this advice has been passed down from generation to generation. Have a plan whether you're 3 or 93. Stand strong with confidence. Know how you expect the situation to happen. Avoid situations that increase risk. But, realistically, it doesn't always work and people get hurt, really badly hurt.
If you are assaulted or a victim of an attempted assault, you have rights, no matter what anyone says otherwise. I spoke to Catherine R. Lombardo of The Lombardo Law Office about what those rights are. She shared, "A victim of inappropriate touching, or a sexual assault, is absolutely protected by law, as a victim. Both civil and criminal laws are securely in place to shield the victim from retaliation, and to assist them in easily coming forward to report the sexual assault that they suffered."
Lombardo is emphatic that no matter how long ago a person was assaulted, reporting the crime is important. Every voice adds to a case. She says, "...it is very important to report and speak up anyway. This way, if the molester ever violates another victim in the future, there will be a record of his prior offense ... The previous victims’ story will bolster the believability of the subsequent victim. Where there is smoke, there is fire."
I wanted to know, as a lawyer, if she thought that same advice stands for children and anyone under the influence. The answer she gave is that a victim should never question whether their story is believable, "Victims of sexual assault should always report the event without fear of retaliation or blame."
What is the bottom line? Report any incident of assault as soon as possible. With statues of limitations differing from state to state, and not always common knowledge, speaking up will help you, and quite probably, it will help someone else. Lombardo left me with this final message, "The current state of affairs in our country has encouraged past victims of assault by powerful men to suddenly come forward and report the abuse, despite the fact that it occurred years or decades ago. There is power in numbers. The more women report the inappropriate touching or sexual assault by men, the more it will come to light, and the safer it will be for women in the future to speak up. The legal system with support this and be encouraged by the numbers of supporting accusations."
Top images: Shutterstock, Graphic: Arielle Burton