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Why High-Profile Convictions Are So Traumatizing For Victims Of Sexual Abuse

On Wednesday, singer R. Kelly was sentenced to 30 years in prison and ordered to pay a $100,000 fine after being convicted of racketeering and charges related to sex trafficking.

The case, marked by graphic and emotional testimony, has been in litigation for years. For sexual assault and abuse survivors, that has meant enduring nonstop coverage of the case, including a searing 2019 docuseries that chronicled the R&B singer’s history of abusing young girls and women, who were mostly Black.

For many survivors, the conviction last year ― and now the sentencing ― may cause some unsettling, conflicting feelings: The joy that an abuser will serve their time, but accompanied with the pain that their own abuser wasn’t held similarly accountable.

Others might feel anger at themselves for not having reported their abuse when it initially happened.

In the case of Kelly, his relatively long, 30-year sentence is a rarity ― many rapists and traffickers, even when found guilty, don’t spend a day in jail. Survivors of convicted abusers are bound to compare outcomes, according to Kathryn Stamoulis, a mental health counselor specializing in sexualized violence.

“For many victims of a crime, a sentencing is a quantifiable, tangible measure of what they suffered,” she told HuffPost. “The sad reality is the vast majority of sexual crimes do not receive this kind of sentence.”

According to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), just 5.7% of incidents end in arrest, 0.7% result in a felony conviction and 0.6% result in incarceration.

This comparison may make survivors feel that their personal abuse, pain and the lifelong ramifications are not understood, appreciated or cared about, she explained.

“If their abuse was presented to a jury of their peers and nothing or little came of it, it can be devastating,” she said. “This can trigger a wide variety of negative emotions, from stress to despair.”

“For many victims of a crime, a sentencing [like Kelly's] is a quantifiable, tangible measure of what they suffered,” said Kathryn Stamoulis, a mental health counselor specializing in sexualized violence. “The sad reality is the vast majority of sexual crimes do not receive this kind of sentence.”
Illustration: Chris McGonigal/HuffPost; Photos: AP/ Getty Images
“For many victims of a crime, a sentencing [like Kelly’s] is a quantifiable, tangible measure of what they suffered,” said Kathryn Stamoulis, a mental health counselor specializing in sexualized violence. “The sad reality is the vast majority of sexual crimes do not receive this kind of sentence.”

The degree to which an abuse survivor feels triggered by the public’s attention to a high-profile case often hinges on the reaction the accuser (or accusers) received at the time of abuse, as well as after.

“If the women were met with concern, care and support, it may not be distressful,” Stamoulis said. “If they were met with victim blaming, shame and disbelief, media stories such as Kelly’s can feel traumatic.”

For Black women in particular, the Kelly case has been re-traumatizing.

As HuffPost’s Taryn Finley pointed out when the singer was found guilty in September, the oversexualization and adultification of Black girls means that people are far less likely to listen to Black girls’ accusations or look for them when they go missing. (Case in point: The vastly different responses the media and the public had to the missing-person cases of Gabby Petito and Lauren Smith-Fields.)

The cases of missing Black girls, or assault or violence against Black women often goes ignored and underreported in the media. The message is clear: Black women and their bodies aren’t afforded the same protection as other women.

In the Black community, there’s also a cultural expectation that Black women must always protect Black men, even when it means sacrificing their bodily autonomy and their truth, said Shena Young, a licensed body-centered psychologist-healer, trauma consultant and owner of private practice in Los Angeles.

“There’s privileges afforded to men ‘in high places,’” she said. “Themes of betrayal, being a ‘sell out,’ or being disloyal commonly come up. To this end, survivors may experience their own competing emotions as well as those of others within their communities.”

These feelings are heavy and highly personal, but there are things you can do to help minimize the impact high-profile cases have on you. Below, experts in sexual trauma share the advice they give survivors troubled by the current news cycle.

Don’t minimize your feelings.

The myriad ― maybe even conflicting ― thoughts running through your head right now? They’re all valid and worth processing, said Duane de Four, the interim executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

“At our center, we try to encourage survivors who are reliving trauma to pay attention to their feelings; never minimize or disregard them,” he said.

Sometimes survivors think that healing from sexual trauma looks like not being triggered at all, but being triggered is an inevitable part of the healing journey, according to Young.

“One of the teachers at my practice, Beatrice Hyacinthe, says a trigger is the past visiting us in the future,” she said. “When feeling triggered, the body often involuntarily goes into protective mode ― that fight or flight response. I invite survivors to do their best to guide themselves and their bodies back into the present.”

"We try to encourage survivors who are reliving trauma to pay attention to their feelings; don’t minimize or disregard them,” said Duane de Four, the interim executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.
LeoPatrizi via Getty Images
“We try to encourage survivors who are reliving trauma to pay attention to their feelings; don’t minimize or disregard them,” said Duane de Four, the interim executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

Concentrate on your breathing.

When you feel triggered, signals get sent to your body that it’s time to go into protective action, or involuntary trauma mode. Basically, said Young, the nervous system switches from calm to alarm. By maintaining your focus on your breath ― breathing deeply, slowly and counting your breath in and out ― you’ll stay focused on the present, which can be calming and grounding, she said.

“Slowing the breath down, allowing it to be more spacious, and belly centered, as opposed to shallow breathing in the chest, activates the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for helping us to rest and achieve a sense of peace in the body,” she said.

Stay present with a mindfulness practice.

Staying grounded and present is particularly important if you’re experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Involuntary memories belong to the past, even though they might feel real when remembering them.

“Mindfulness can be really helpful,” said Silva Neves, a London-based psychotherapist who specializes in sexual trauma therapy.

Mindfulness doesn’t have to be complicated, he said. It could be as simple as looking around your room and naming objects you see in front of you, identifying a scent you can smell or a sound you hear right now, or paying attention to the temperature of your surroundings.

In moments like this, “mindfulness can be really helpful" to sexual abuse survivors, said Silva Neves, a London-based psychotherapist who specializes in sexual trauma therapy.
Maskot via Getty Images
In moments like this, “mindfulness can be really helpful” to sexual abuse survivors, said Silva Neves, a London-based psychotherapist who specializes in sexual trauma therapy.

Consider limiting your media consumption.

Give some serious thought to your current media exposure. Deleting social media apps off your phone and not watching wall-to-wall cable news coverage can make a big difference in bringing your nervous system back to a regulated state, said Julia Childs, a psychotherapist at Highland Park Holistic Psychotherapy in Los Angeles.

“The media is not a trauma-informed entity, so it is important to right-size our relationship with it,” she said. “Engaging with news and social media isn’t necessarily a safe activity.”

Talk to someone who you feel safe confiding in. (And consider therapy that’s suited to your particular needs.)

Sexual trauma can stop you in your tracks and cause you to repeat negative thought loops about yourself and your past experiences. In the thick of it, find and participate in a safe space where you can talk about your feelings related to your trauma, said Londyn Miller, a marriage and family therapist at Highland Park Holistic Psychotherapy in Los Angeles.

“There is something healing about talking about distressing events with safe humans,” she said. “That said, it’s also OK to not talk about your feelings or trauma if you do not want to ― you have that right.”

Outside of your family and close friends, safe people and spaces can include a therapist, group therapist, hotlines and online support groups.

The best way to find a therapist who specializes in sexual trauma is to Google one who has had specific training in trauma therapy, especially somatic trauma therapy, or people trained in specific methods such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Neves said. (EMDR has proven to be an effective psychotherapy method to help people recover from trauma and other distressing life experiences, including PTSD, depression, anxiety and panic disorders.)

“You might also be unsettled by a sense of injustice or your grief for the years you lost at the hands of your abuse,” Neves said. “If so, try looking for a therapist who specializes in grief as well.”

Outside of your close friends and family network, safe people and spaces can include a therapist, group therapist, hotlines, online support groups and more.
via Getty Images
Outside of your close friends and family network, safe people and spaces can include a therapist, group therapist, hotlines, online support groups and more.

And for some other people, the residual symptoms of their sexual abuse is not the trauma itself but their difficulties with their sex lives.

If that’s the case, Neves recommends looking for a therapist who specializes in sex therapy and trauma through AASECT (the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists).

If your needs are immediate ― the high-profile sexual assault conviction is causing you notable distress right now, in this moment ― de Four said to contact your local rape crisis or recovery center for support since many offer free counseling and other support services.

If you do not know your local center, you can call RAINN’s national sexual assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) to connect with a one near you.

Connect with your body in ways that remind you it belongs to you (and only you).

After sexual trauma, it’s vital to engage in ways of connecting with your body which allow you to honor it and everything it does for you, Miller said.

Maybe that means a much-needed massage or a long, reflective walk. Maybe you do a little yoga with your favorite fitness YouTuber or taking some time for some gentle restorative stretching.

“Our society often views sex and peoples bodies as something to be objectified, exploited and abused,” she said. “Instead, I believe it would serve us to start viewing sex and our bodies with care, respect and appreciation, regardless of the type of life experiences we’ve overcome. We all deserve this caring attention from ourselves to ourselves.”

Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.

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