The Sexual Assault News Cycle Is Hell for Survivors
I don't even have PTSD and the Harvey Weinstein media circus is too much for me.
YANN COATSALIOU/AFP/Getty Images; Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Bridget Phetasy has been replying to a lot of emails this week. On Monday, the 38-year-old, who was drugged and raped at 18, published a piece on HuffPost titled How To Cope When Sexual Assault Dominates The News Cycle. It's since been shared on Facebook more than 15,000 times.
Phetasy wrote the piece after her cousin called to check on her in light of the bombshell New York Times report on Harvey Weinstein published on October 5 and another from the New Yorker on October 10. "I was having a hard time last week and I'm a writer, so my coping mechanism is to write. I wrote something that I would want to read," she says. "I just feel like it's important, and clearly it is resonating." The blind thank-you emails and tweets she's getting are proof. "They say, 'such and such happened to me, and I've been struggling in the past week.' People echoing that they've been there."
For some people who've been sexually assaulted, the last two weeks have been a nightmare, or as Phetasy called it, a "shitstorm." In between the Weinstein reports, news outlets marked the dubious one-year "anniversary" of the release of the Access Hollywood tape where Donald Trump bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. You know, the tape (and ensuing assault allegations) that did not prevent him from being elected president 32 days later. On Sunday, lawyers for a woman who accused Trump of assault subpoenaed the Trump campaign for documents relating to any assault accusations. Trump dismissed it as "totally fake news...made-up stuff."
The Weinstein case alone is truly a media circus. Hardly a day has gone by without some news regarding the producer's rehab treatment, a new allegation or investigation against him or other executives, or people commenting on the scandal in rage-inducing ways. (See: Woody Allen, Donna Karan, and Mayim Bialik.) When Trump himself was asked if Weinstein's actions were inappropriate, he deflected: "well he says they were inappropriate." Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway used it as an opportunity to bash Hillary Clinton, quite a Conway-ian feat, considering she defended Trump after the pussy tape was released.
The hotline for RAINN, the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization, has "seen an increase in calls since the [Weinstein] story broke, as we often do when sexual assault is in the news," says RAINN press secretary Sara McGovern. There's also been a groundswell of people sharing their stories as part of the "Me Too" movement—and media coverage of that. While some people find it helpful to share what's happened to them, being inundated with stories of assault can dredge up a lot of negative emotions. As Phetasy put it: "This kind of news cycle is traumatic" and "I feel like I'm on the verge of tears all day long."
Phetasy was diagnosed with PTSD both related to her upbringing and the assault at age 18. Still, you don't need to have PTSD to be having trouble when assault is splashed all over the news. I was raped at 19 and assaulted a few years before that. I don't have PTSD, but Facebook this week has been a landmine. Seeing "Me Too" statuses has led to thinking about the men who violated me—and the people still blaming women in the year 2017—far more often than I'd like.
"If somebody experienced a sexual assault that led to post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in the past, then they might have a resurgence of those symptoms when they confront these triggers," says Heidi Zinzow, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Clemson University whose research focuses on trauma and mental health. "But even if they didn't meet the full clinical criteria [of PTSD] they might experience some distressing reactions just being reminded of these events"—especially if the assault is still happening on an ongoing basis.
I never talked about my rape with a therapist, partly because I did blame myself; there was alcohol involved. And I couldn't even call it rape: It was just "a bad thing that happened." It was in 2004 when "rape" seemed like something that only happened in dark alleys, not your own bed in your childhood home. I've only slowly started to tell friends about it over the past two years, after New York published the stories of 35 women accusing BIll Cosby of sexual assault. I worked there at the time and the Cosby coverage hit me like a ton of bricks. Yet I could only say I was "assaulted" or that it was "date rape." For the first time this week, I was able to say the sentence "I was raped"—though it was still followed by "it was date rape." Baby steps.
I know hiding these thoughts away isn't good for me—"the more we avoid, the more we can develop anxiety and other kinds of problems," Zinzow says—but being inundated with sexual assault news these past two weeks has at times wrecked my appetite and my concentration. I've felt frozen and had to remind myself to take real breaths. And I know I don't have that bad of an assault history compared to other people. When I think about the hell others might be going through, I feel guilty for feeling gross at all.
While I simultaneously recoil at Weinstein news and "Me Too" posts, I also realize that this could be a moment for some people like the Bill Cosby news was for me, in which I finally came to terms with what happened. Then I hate myself for hating the disclosures. Even now I wonder if people are going to call me a hypocrite for talking about my own history in this story while admitting that I don't love reading about other people's. It's exhausting.
Zinzow, who's also a member of the Clemson University Sexual Violence Advisory Board, says one (very dull) silver lining is that, as more people come forward, those are more people you can talk to about how you're feeling. Because the reality is that some people are feeling super shitty and unproductive. "I do hope that people start seeing that there are others they can talk to and trust in order to get through that difficult day. Because there will be difficult days and effects on productivity and other aspects of people's social and occupational functioning that are the reality of this."
Of course for others, the constant Weinstein coverage and friends' "Me Too" disclosures could simply be too much. She recommends taking a break from exposure to these things, as does McGovern: "When it comes to the news, remember, you control what you see. You don't owe it to anyone to be familiar with these news stories. You should not watch or read anything that makes you uncomfortable."
This is a little hard for people who work in media, and Phetasy empathizes with me. "My friend who's an editor has been struggling all week and a lot of her coworkers too," she says. "For women in media and politics we can't unplug and we are the story. It's like this double-edged thing where you're trying to cover it and process your own feelings as they're coming up in real time. It can be dangerous...I'm very grateful that I don't work in an office right now."
If we're being honest, the entire past year has been difficult for people who've been assaulted. More than a dozen women accused Trump of sexual misconduct and he still won the election. Bill Cosby's case ended in a mistrial in June and a juror said the accuser's bare midriff implied consent. Bill O'Reilly. Roger Ailes. And now Weinstein. Yes, the last three men on this list thankfully lost their jobs, but they have yet to face legal repercussions. Their cases were debated in the court of public opinion and met with the usual retorts of "what was she wearing?" and "why didn't they come forward sooner?" and "they just want money."
These arguments, however tired, are still harmful. Zinzow says that after Trump was elected, she was having more and more conversations about sexual assault. "Not just among my therapy clients, but my female students here on campus that experienced assault and maybe their parents had voted for Trump and they felt very unsupported."
For people who are feeling overwhelmed, Zinzow says therapy can be helpful, especially if you're finding that these emotions are significantly interfering with your lives on a day-to-day basis. "But otherwise, it's important to have other, informal support networks in place, and not to isolate oneself," she says. "And to the extent one feels comfortable, really bringing this out into the open and talking about it."
After writing multiple stories about Weinstein which Phetasy called a "rape trilogy," she knows she needs to take a break from thinking, talking, and writing about it. "Don't be afraid to take a day off," Phetasy says. "If your job doesn't understand, it's not worth it. This stuff has long-term effects on relationships, everything. If you're just plowing through and not acknowledging that it will affect you forever. It's better to let it come up and sit with it."
The day I talked to Phetasy, she was celebrating four years of sobriety, and compared re-visiting an assault to something she'd heard about getting sober. "They say it's like you've been throwing garbage in the back of your car and you slam on the brakes and all the garbage comes into the front. You end up sifting through it eventually."
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