by Stephanie Koehler
Stephanie Koehler is a journalist and photographer residing in California. She also is an advocate for the Rape Crisis Center. The vision of “Female Perspectives on Ending Sexual Violence” is to unite women all over the world to document the pain they suffer as a result of sexual violence and the healing approach they take to grow from victim to survivor. Each installment includes a photo essay of a female survivor and is a platform to tell her story. Stephanie’s vision is to grow this project into an international sexual assault awareness campaign.
Anna, now in her early 30s, has endured many sexual assaults throughout her life. As a survivor of incest, her earliest memories of being abused by her father go back to when she was only four years old. He sexually violated her for most of her life until just three years ago, when she finally severed all ties to her family. Anna grew up in a farming community, where she experienced three additional counts of sexual assault in her teenage years by men from neighboring communities. Both of her two sisters are also incest survivors, one abused by their uncle, and the other abused by their father as well. The sisters have only spoken about their shared experiences with one another on one isolated occasion.
When Anna was in the seventh grade, a counselor asked her directly whether she was being abused, but she declined. “I feared I would get in trouble and my father might kill me if he [found] out,” she says. In addition to the sexual abuse, he was also beating her regularly. The counselor did not take any additional measures to ensure that Anna was OK and that no abuse was happening in her home.
Anna eventually filed a police report, but chose not to go forward after her parents began to retaliate against her. “I was more concerned with me having a better life than [my father] going to prison,” she explains. Her parents remain married and her abuser unprosecuted.
Anna believes that sexual assault is a direct result of patriarchy. “Patriarchy teaches men that it is totally okay to take control over women’s bodies for their own purposes,” she says.
“Long term the patriarchy [must be dismantled]. [People must be taught] that they do not have the right to touch [another’s] body without their consent. And…that you cannot touch a child’s body inappropriately ever; here it is not about consent,” Anna asserts. “There is still this pervasive idea that women’s consent doesn’t matter. Policy changes have to happen at governmental and institutional levels.” Harassment in schools or workplaces must result in intervention and not be downplayed as “boys will be boys.”
As a result of what she has had to cope with, Anna has attempted suicide twice and has been hospitalized psychiatrically three times. Thankfully, she has since found a good therapist who accompanies her on her path to healing and provides her with tools for coping.
“Until just recently I was not coping very well,” Anna admits. “I have complex posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and dissociative identity disorder (DID). I still have flashbacks pretty much every day, nightmares pretty much every night, suicidal thoughts often, but [with therapy] I am managing it much better.”
Many of the childhood sexual violence survivors Anna has spoken with have developed dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple personality disorder. Anna explains that the disorder causes women to “check out of their entire lives for days at a time and other personalities take over and do things that we may or may not know about. And we certainly, until we are treated, have no control over it.” She says, “A lot of people with childhood sexual experiences dissociate and adapt that way…it’s a testament to our own creativity and survival instinct.”
Dissociative identity disorder (DID) most often develops during childhood, usually as a result of severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Because personal identity is still forming at that time, a child is more capable than an adult to step outside of his or her own personality. “It’s quite different to be a survivor of childhood sexual abuse than it is to be a survivor of rape in adulthood,” says Anna.
According to Sidran Institute for Traumatic Stress Education and Advocacy, DID may currently affect one percent of the general population and five to 20 percent of psychiatric hospital patients, though the rates are even higher among sexual abuse survivors. Furthermore, most current literature reveals that these disorders are primarily recognized among women.
Anna’s advice to other survivors is that “they be patient and…do whatever it takes to get better…not to keep secrets, because secrets are poisonous.” She suggests changing negative thoughts to positive ones and practicing patience with oneself by self-soothing – doing simple things like taking a bubble bath and practicing mindfulness. “Getting out of your head!” she puts it. “You get stuck in a loop like a broken record and you have to break it down.”
In order to stop sexual violence and to make the subject less taboo, Anna declares that education, listening, and dialogue about sexual assault are needed on all levels, starting at home. “Being an incest survivor, I feel there is an additional taboo. The only way [to make it less taboo] is talking…about it in a way that shows that you don’t have shame. If someone encourages you to feel shame, to resist it openly…The only one who should feel ashamed is the one trying to silence you.”
Anna has been failed on many levels, starting with her parents – one abused her and the other ignored it. “I was failed by medical providers, by teachers who didn’t notice what was going on. When I started to talk about it I was in college and it was still happening. Many of them said, ‘I had a feeling that something like that was going on,’ but they didn’t do anything…I feel pretty strongly that that should not be allowed.” Anna states.
I asked Anna whether the hardships she has endured have contributed to who she is today and she replied, “Without this I wouldn’t be on the path I am today.” As a social worker, she feels that she can make a difference in people’s lives and make the pain that they endure more bearable. Anna is also in the process of earning her master’s degree in Social Work.Anna’s affirmation for this project is a quote from one of her favorite novels, which she wears as a tattoo on her upper arm: “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”
I encourage women and men alike to follow Anna’s advice and listen intently. In many cases, survivors will not come forth directly with their experiences. They may give little cues, but it is up to us to be sensitive and read between the lines, to be mindful and take their best interests to heart. Our help can come in many ways: listening and offering help, going to a professional when we suspect abuse, and reporting it to the police. We can be the change we want to see in the world; it starts with good intentions and one voice. May there be many more women like Anna who have the courage to share their stories and give voice to those who cannot do so. Standing up for our rights will make us more conscious and bring a sense of unity not only among survivors but all human beings.
Worldwide inquiries about this project are welcome. Participation is voluntary and the scope of each photo shoot and interview is 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 email@example.com.
To read the entire series, click here.
About the Author: Stephanie Koehler is an artist, professional photographer and the founder of Heart-Filled Productions. Her work focuses on capturing the heart, soul and spirit of her subjects. Born and raised in Germany, she earned her Master's Degree in Linguistics from Bergische Universitaet & Gesamthochschule Wuppertal, Germany and moved to Spain at age 27. She has lived and worked in various countries and now resides in California. Stephanie's international background in marketing and event and program management combined with her creativity allows her to view the world through a lens of cultural diversity. She is an advocate at the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center and also works on a photojournalistic project that focuses on female survivors of violence, in which she highlights the beauty of traumatized women and gives them a voice to tell their story. Some of her photography can be seen at Heart-Filled Productions.