by Stephanie Koehler
The vision of “Female Perspectives on Ending Sexual Violence” is to unite women from all over the world to document the pain they suffer as a result of sexual violence and the healing approach they have taken to grow from victim to survivor. Each installment will include photography of a female survivor and provide a platform to tell her story. Stephanie’s vision is to grow this project into an international sexual assault awareness campaign.
Brandi and I met at her home after several prior conversations about my project. She agreed to be the first participant in this series of photo-journalistic accounts.
Brandi and her sister had been sexually molested from the age of 5 to 14 by their stepfather. In those years they endured countless molestations, unaware that the assault was also happening to the other sister. In their teenage years, their stepfather divorced their mother. After the divorce, Brandi and her sister lost contact with their stepfather who completely abandoned them. Though the man did sexually violate them, he had also served as their role model and father figure. Both the violations and the separation caused a lot of stress and strain on Brandi.
To understand sexual violence it is important to recognize that survivors have their own personal reactions and healing process depending on their life experiences and personalities. However, what strikes me are the commonalities in the effect of sexual violence. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) lists many of the reactions adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse have to cope with including difficulties in setting boundaries and grieving and mourning the loss of childhood experiences. In our conversation, Brandi tells me, “[My father] loved me. At least I thought he did.”
According to RAINN, another commonality is feelings of guilt for not stopping the assault. “Guilt was a big thing,” Brandi recounts. For many years, she burdened herself with thoughts such as, “We could have done something to prevent it.” Silence also leads to feelings of shame and as Brandi recalls, “I was disgusted. It grossed me out that this was my father.”
Blame that survivors often inflict on themselves is another well-known reaction. Brandi, too believed “If I hadn’t done this or that, [the assault] wouldn’t have happened.”
Brandi recalls that since she grew up with the assaults, it was all she knew. “[The realization] came as a teenager. Then I knew this was not normal. I remember thinking ‘This is gross. Other dads don’t do that.’” She never talked about it with friends thinking, “'How will they look at me? They’ll tell their parents’…It was a huge, huge secret that I held on to.”
At age 17 Brandi met her husband and their first daughter was born when she was 19. Brandi feared similar things would happen to her daughter. It was then that she sought counseling to deal with her childhood experiences.
As Brandi states, “How I am today has evolved…[The healing] happened in stages.” Five years into her marriage Brandi shared with her husband what had happened in her childhood. Only several years ago, now in her mid-thirties, did she confront her mother and spoke with her sister for the first time about their shared experiences. Her mother showed no emotional reaction and said she had not known of the assaults. Even after giving her examples of situations in the past, her mother failed to acknowledge what had happened. Brandi felt this was the only way for her mother to cope with it. “She was unable to admit that she had screwed up and couldn’t protect her children,” Brandi believes.
When asked what Brandi thought needed to be done to raise awareness, she clearly voiced the need for education on all levels. “We need to address [sexual violence] and tackle it strong.” She later adds, “Women need to stop hiding behind all of their guilt and shame and whatever feelings are keeping them from talking about it and just talk about it…It becomes normal and then people are more aware.”
Brandi suggests that prevention is to be taught from an early age and parental education is crucial. She feels schools and colleges ought to have mandatory sexual violence prevention education in their curriculum. Brandi feels: “To make it not so taboo, if you talk about it and have so much awareness…and get past the thinking of it being dirty.”
While community organizations such as crisis centers, victim advocacy groups, and law enforcement agencies do offer educational programs, many more are needed and must be publicized more widely to the general public.
Brandi also emphasizes making men part of the solution. “They need to educate their sons to be more respectful toward women; and they need to instill in them that ‘No’ means ‘No’ no matter the circumstances.”
We both agreed the hyper-sexualization and objectification of women in the media is a huge problem. As the recent documentary Miss Representation reflects, women are undermined and the hyper-masculinity of men in our society makes it difficult for men to respond to both women’s needs with more sensitivity and embrace their own femininity. Cultural differences also need to be addressed and taken into account.
Statistics compiled by RAINN estimate that 54 percent of rapes and sexual assaults are not reported. The numbers are frightening. Out of every 100 rapes only 46 get reported to the police. Furthermore, only 12 will lead to an arrest, only nine will be prosecuted, only five will lead to a felony conviction, and only three rapists will spend even a day in prison.
Brandi did not report for various reasons – the social stigma, the statute of limitations, and to protect her family, among others. “It happened so long ago, who is going to believe me?” she recalls. However, a few years ago she did something very courageous. As part of her healing, she wrote a letter to her perpetrator and expressed the frustrations and anger she had held inside for so long. “I called him every name I can think of, wished him death…I wanted him to know that I am a better person and I didn’t let what he did to me ruin me.” I applaud her on this and believe that in cases where the survivor decides against reporting, voicing the assault in such a way is liberating and can be an important part of the healing process.
Brandi hopes that by participating in this project and by sharing her experience women will be encouraged to speak about sexual violence and realize that they are not alone. “When asked I always admit that it happened to me. I feel one should always talk about it.” Talking with other women was reaffirming and gave her renewed strength. In retrospect, Brandi says, “[The assault] just made me a very strong person.” She feels that sexual violence is a universal experience, even more reason to address it strongly.
I suggested that it is wise to embrace the assault as part of one’s life rather than trying to cut it out of one’s memory. Brandi agrees: “I don’t think you should cut it out. I had to learn to live a good life knowing my father molested me for so many years.”
Brandi’s affirmation is a beautiful reflection of how she processed her experiences and how she lives today. She has been happily married for 18 years and has three beautiful daughters. She states: “I value family, loyalty, and honesty.” Since she grew up with so much dishonestly, Brandi especially encourages her daughters to be open and honest with her and her husband. She says: “I value respecting yourself. You have to respect your body and your space as a woman” and emphasizes that “you need to live by your values.”
I was inspired by photographer Melissa Woodrow and David Parker who had written rape statistics on models’ bodies for a local performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. I invited Brandi to think about a word or phrase she can use as an affirmation. Although sexual violence does leave a scar, I believe women can find wholeness despite of it, and transform that experience to serve as role models for others.
As a society we have to take responsibility to help facilitate prevention education and to make it accessible to all. At the same time, we have to provide a support system to those who have experienced sexual violence as it does affect survivors on a cellular level and is a severe emotional, physical, and spiritual violation.
I encourage women and men alike to speak up and to inspire others to do the same. One by one can we motivate and activate social change and make a conscious shift in our cultural mindset. Then, we can hope that each one of us will take on the responsibility to live a more conscious life in which women and men are treated equally.
It is my belief that participating in this project will result in a sense of unity not only with other survivors, but also with the audience at large. Worldwide inquiries are welcome. Participation is voluntary and the scope of each photo shoot and interview to be determined with each participant to ensure women’s boundaries are honored and respected. To participate in this project or for more information, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author:
Stephanie Koehler is journalist and photographer residing in California; she also advocates for a local Rape Crisis Center. Born and raised in Germany, she earned her Master’s Degree in Linguistics from Bergische Universitaet & Gesamthochschule Wuppertal, Germany. Some of her photography can be seen at Heart-Filled Productions.