I had already experienced the fear, already felt the shame. I had already hesitated in calling the police. I had already answered their questions, staring at hands that weren’t mine as they transcribed the details of my victimization in a notebook so small it couldn’t possibly hold the weight of what happened.
It was an odd sensation: feeling practiced in my devastation, knowing what to do next. This familiarity did nothing to dull the ache of the intimate trauma, but it did add a bizarre sense of self-awareness to the ordeal, a wisdom nobody wishes to have until they’re in the position themselves.
When I reflect on the first time I was sexually assaulted, I can’t help but feel strangely lucky. I just so happened to call the right friend who just so happened to answer his phone and convince me to tell my boss what happened on the country club golf course I was working at that summer. If I hadn’t called this particular friend, I wouldn’t have had the courage to tell anyone what happened that day. I was ashamed, and I was afraid of what would come next. I knew I’d have to repeatedly relive the details when all I wanted to do was forget.
It was an odd sensation: feeling practiced in my devastation, knowing what to do next.
But I did call my friend, and in the civil legal proceedings that followed, his testimony made my story more reliable. That call, minutes after the assault, afforded me some credibility that many survivors aren’t lucky enough to have bestowed upon them.
From the outside looking in, I did everything right.
And yet the first thing my boss said to me after my tearful disclosure was, “I can’t promise this won’t happen again.” What followed was a meeting and a request to sign a contract stipulating I would be paid $500 as long as I kept the assault a secret. The man who assaulted me would remain a member of the club, and it would be my job to continue serving him. At that point it was clear that, to my employer, the protection of my safety and wellbeing came second to the protection of the man who had assaulted me. It was clear that these powerful men were working to safeguard one of their own, so I decided to protect myself. I said no, and a family friend put me in contact with a lawyer who convinced me to go to the police.
This fall, as I watched many of the same things happen to another woman, on national television, it felt like staring into some sort of nightmarish mirror in which I instead kept my secret. Rows of powerful men disbelieved a woman a lot like me for not reporting her assault right away, and a man a lot like him was excused and appointed to the Supreme Court. I should have turned away, but I couldn’t help but watch in anguish, thinking about some young girl just like me or a teenage Christine Blasey, watching this unfold live and deciding never to tell anyone what happened to her.
Even after I filed my official report, I was devastated to realize I was still very much on my own. I was unaware of the resources to help me put my psyche back together — counseling I later learned is critical to living a full, healthy life — and nobody nudged me toward them.
Instead, I suffered through confusing feelings of guilt, anger, fear and sadness, largely silent and ultimately alone. I quit my job, moved out of my parents’ house, and pushed my friends away. It was decidedly easier to suffer alone than it was to explain my suffering to someone else. I watched friends go to parties and do 20-year-old things while I stayed at home and watched “Parks and Recreation” on an endless loop, afraid to expose myself to anything new, terrified I’d happen upon a sad plot line, or worse, one containing sexual violence. My capacity for emotion was gone; I couldn’t even handle a sad song on the radio. The mere mention of golf sent me into a spiral.
I went without help for weeks, but it felt like a lifetime. When I worked up the courage and found a therapist, I slowly started to heal. And when – through my own research – I found advocates, I started to heal even more. Talking helped, but things didn’t magically become OK. Moving on doesn’t change what happened. I know I’ll never be the same girl who walked onto the golf course that day. For other men and women, though, their agony lasts much longer. For some, it lasts a literal lifetime.
WHEN HERICA SILVA finally started healing, nearly 30 years after her abuse began, her victimization had already swallowed her own life and was beginning to darken the lives of her daughters as well.
The mother of two was sexually abused from age 5 to 14 by members of her family. She repeatedly disclosed her abuse to people she thought she could trust, but nobody believed her, or got her the care she needed. Wracked with despair, Silva alienated herself from her peers, and without their support, she was raped by multiple boyfriends in high school. She began to believe that love didn’t exist without violence. At age 20, she tried to take her own life.
When Silva gave birth to her first child at 22, she learned how difficult it is to give love when you never received it. She would look at her daughter and see the same sadness that was in her own eyes in old photographs, and it triggered an anger in Silva that she just couldn’t shake. “My husband always tried to get me to play with her. ‘Just play,’ he would say. But it wasn’t that easy,” Silva says. “Because I was never a child. I didn’t know how to play.”
Finally, after the birth of her second daughter, Silva was determined to find the help she needed so she could support her family. That’s when a psychologist referred her to Aurora Healing and Advocacy Services. After she’d struggled alone for years, her life began to turn around. Aurora helped Silva identify her triggers and react to them in a healthier way. Now, at 39, she says she’s present for her family and her friends, and not a day goes by that she doesn’t acknowledge her love for the people around her.
The Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault estimates more than 1 million Wisconsin women have experienced rape or sexual assault in their lifetimes, but Aurora and the state’s other assault service providers had funds to serve only 12,223 survivors statewide in 2015.
Aurora is one of a handful of resource centers dotting Milwaukee County, but it’s unique in that it features a multidisciplinary team providing emotional support and also informing sexual assault victims of their rights and medical and legal options. Forensic nurses collect evidence that may help win a conviction, staffers answer calls to a hotline 24/7, and a team of counselors provides ongoing, trauma-informed counseling. Advocates accompany survivors to any medical, legal or court-related appointments, and they’re also trained to help the survivor communicate with the police or social service agencies.
I met with the staff at Aurora as a journalist, not a victim, but as the conversation turned to my experiences with assault, I was immediately put at ease. It’s amazing how therapeutic it is to talk with people who truly understand, and often relate to, your struggles.
The wait time for these critical counseling services had been as long as five months last year, according to Maryann Clesceri, manager of The Healing Center on Bruce Street, which is part of Aurora Healing and Advocacy Services network. Thanks to large-scale fundraisers and an increase in government grants, Aurora has cut the wait time for counseling to about a month.
“If it [sexual assault] happens [to them], you want your kids to know, ‘This is wrong.’ You want them to know what to do and who to tell. Because as soon as you tell somebody, that is when you can start getting help.”
— JESSE DASO, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST
But a vital piece of the puzzle is still missing: Far too many people who need these resources don’t know they exist.
“The longer you wait to deal with trauma, the worse your outcomes are going to be,” says Jesse Daso, a clinical psychologist who previously worked as a victim advocate at the Aurora Healing Center in Downtown Milwaukee, which is located at Aurora Sinai Medical Center.
Conversation is the antidote to the silence and shame that keep so many assaults from being reported, Daso says. Children need to learn what is responsible sexual behavior – and what is not. “We are not educating our children about boundaries, about sex,” he says. “Talking to your kids about sex is uncomfortable. Talking to your kids about sex that isn’t consensual is even more uncomfortable.”
This is something that Daso struggles with in his own life, even with his professional background. It’s why he believes such a message is best when it’s coming from authority figures outside of the home, like teachers. Funding programs to teach students about healthy touching and what resources are available for victims could help destigmatize sexual crimes, increase awareness and ultimately reduce assaults and increase reporting.
“If it [sexual assault] happens [to them], you want your kids to know, ‘This is wrong.’ You want them to know what to do and who to tell,” Daso says. “Because as soon as you tell somebody, that is when you can start getting help.”
THE FIRST TIME I was sexually assaulted, I had no idea that people like Daso existed. Instead, I sat shrouded in darkness and searched the internet for answers while my family slept. I turned to Google for help and advice, typing and retyping the words “sexual assault,” then deleting my browser history.
I learned a lot.
I learned that it’s a lonely practice researching your own victimization alone at night.
I learned that this happens all too frequently, stories of faceless victims sensationalized in news stories.
I learned that it can be exhausting to be violated in the most intimate way possible and have to continue to exist in a world that’s quick to blame you for what happened. A world that silences victims while appointing perpetrators to positions of power. A world where one slip-up, one forgotten detail, can ruin the credibility of your claim. Where high school teachers refuse to even utter the word “sex.” Where sports teams receive better funding than advocacy programs, leaving victims to fend for themselves when they’re most vulnerable.
I learned, and finally understood, what they meant when they said “survivor.”
The second time I was sexually assaulted, I had already survived, and because of that, I knew I would survive again. But I am one of the lucky ones.
How to get help
WANT TO TALK to an advocate and begin your healing process? Whether you were victimized minutes, days or years ago, it’s never too late. You don’t have to go it alone.
Contact Aurora if you’re from the Milwaukee area and want access to a 24/7 hotline and local, in-person support. Aurora has trained Spanish-speaking therapists on staff.
24-HOUR HOTLINE: 414-219-5555
WEB: Visit aurorahealthcare.org/healing-advocacy-services for tips and locations. You don’t need an appointment to visit a healing center, where you can find specially trained nurses, survivor advocacy, counseling, emotional support and more.
Contact RAINN if you’re not quite ready to talk to someone in person yet. Chatting online is a great first step to getting the help you need.
24-HOUR HOTLINE: 800-656-HOPE will connect you to a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
CHAT ONLINE WITH TRAINED STAFF: hotline.rainn.org
EN ESPAÑOL: hotline.rainn.org/es
Contact The Women’s Center (all genders are welcome) if you’re seeking safety, a place to stay or support and are affected by domestic abuse, sexual violence, child abuse or trafficking.
24-HOUR HOTLINE: 262-542-3828
WEB: twcwaukesha.org for information, advice and emergency shelter location