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Our haste to 'move on' from discussing sexual assault fixes nothing

  • John Pfeifer

    John Pfeifer

By John Pfeifer
Guest columnist
updated: 10/26/2018 11:11 AM

Up until a week ago, the topic of sexual assault had been on the front page and been the lead story on newscasts daily for weeks. But for the most part, we talked over it and around it; anything but the uncomfortable work of talking through it.

Only 10 weeks ago, the topic of domestic violence dominated sports sections and sportscasts for weeks as an "investigation" of what happened, when, and who knew what, when, played itself at Ohio State University.

By focusing on the head coach, his assistants and the "hardship" endured by football players during a brief period of head coaching uncertainty, we again missed an opportunity.

We talked over and around the topic of domestic violence for weeks, treating the utterance of the female victim's name as taboo, never bothering with the messy, uncomfortable work of talking through the issue.

At about that same time, the topic of child sexual abuse also made the front page -- as the Diocese of Pittsburgh was added to the unthinkably long list of Catholic dioceses worldwide that systematically protected clergy pedophiles.

Although child sexual abuse is hardly a uniquely Catholic Church issue, it nonetheless pains me because I was raised Catholic, have 18 years of Catholic education proudly displayed on my resume, and was an acolyte (altar boy) in the Milwaukee Archdiocese while my grade school peers were being sexually abused by priests.

No opportunity there to talk through the topic of child sexual abuse; we barely had time to talk around it.

Child sexual abuse was momentarily thrust into the news with the chance to make us uncomfortable, but we ignored it. Domestic violence was there also; survivors silently begging us to wade into their pain by asking us to experience some level of discomfort, but we passed, preferring to focus on a potential $38 million Urban Meyer buyout or the imminent start to college football.

Sexual assault has been crying out as an issue for weeks now; transformed into a political issue, while rape survivors who have been silenced for years by guilt, a desire to protect their perpetrator, and the fear of being disbelieved or publicly ridiculed watched as that exact scenario again played itself out.

Preferring arbitrary, expeditious deadlines to conduct "investigations" and assuage the possibility of achieving discomfort, we rushed to make the discussion one of political allegiance and quickly sought to "move on."

At The Women's Center, we help survivors work and talk through their trauma, not over or around it.

We regularly encounter people who have suffered silently for decades after being sexually abused as children.

We regularly counsel and support domestic violence survivors who have endured that abuse for years, sometime protected by their own friends or their abuser's employer.

We regularly have new clients who find us years after being sexually assaulted, never having confided to a friend, a brother or a sister, a mother or a father. The assault has long passed; the trauma, shame and fear enduring still.

Our advocacy for survivors of domestic violence is constant, vigilant and ongoing. Our advocacy for survivors of child sexual abuse -- of adolescent and adult sexual assault -- is constant, vigilant and ongoing.

Our advocacy for the topics of child sexual abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault is none of those things. It is sporadic. It starts and stops -- consistent only in its inconsistency.

Our regular ability to take in-your-face front-page news and cause you to stop long enough to think through it, is not great.

My regular ability to take in-your-face front-page news and cause you to stop long enough to think through it, is not great. And yet it is my job.

In order to successfully raise funds to support survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse and assault it is critical that you realize that rape is real and that rapists are rarely accused, infrequently charged and in fewer than 1 percent of cases actually see the inside of a jail.

You have to realize the shame that abused children go through life with. You have to be empathetic enough to consider why abused women stay in abusive relationships; to admit that what does not look normal to you is often a physically, emotionally and financially inescapable situation.

In the past several months, talk radio and cable news anchors have been permitted to alter the narrative and present Urban Meyer and Brett Kavanaugh as victims. We use the term "he said, she said" but clearly dole out justice by equating a lack of physical proof to mean "he said, she lied."

I can no longer do my job and allow us to think that way.

My job is to hold the discomfort; to make it harder for us to quickly move on from uncomfortable topics and to assume that justice is served when a short news cycle allows us to move on without remotely approaching a resolution.

• John Pfeifer is Development Specialist at The Women's Center in southern Illinois. He previously was editor and publisher of the Southern Illinoisan.