November 21, 2019
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Spotlight on sexual abuse overwhelms Maine survivors, support agencies

Christopher Cousins | BDN
Christopher Cousins | BDN
Cara Courchesne, director of communications for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — As stories of the latest celebrity or politician accused of sexual assault lend themselves to salacious headlines and fill the 6 p.m. news, some Mainers are actively avoiding the media onslaught, hoping to protect themselves from further harm.

Last year, when one Greater Portland teacher moved in with her boyfriend, she had to ask him to give up the evening news in favor of “Nick at Night” and “Friends” reruns because the news reminded her of when she was molested as a young girl.

Although she was already working with a therapist, the survivor — whom the Bangor Daily News agreed not to name — noticed her anxiety increased throughout the year, and soon physical symptoms prompted medical tests.

Eventually, she said Tuesday, I “put two and two together” and realized it was stress because of “the oversaturation of everything going on, every time you turn around someone else is in the news about sexual misconduct and sexual harassment. Plus, the current political climate is part of it.”

“I’ve never completely dealt with it,” she said of the childhood abuse. “Maybe constantly being inundated by discussions of people being survivors and being attacked [has led to my] heightened emotional state. It’s so overwhelming. No matter what media I turn to, I can’t escape it. I want to escape and just hide, but I can’t because I’m constantly confronted by it.”

Every day, it seems — sometimes, recently, twice and three times a day — another public figure is accused of sexually assaulting or harassing one or more women, sometimes over years.

The allegations, which cascaded into greater public view in October after news reports of more than 80 women accusing Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault or harassment, now include claims against prominent actors, elected officials, media professionals and President Donald Trump.

While some therapists say the support resulting from knowing others have experienced the same thing can remove shame and stigma common with abuse, the stories — particularly the headlines — often trigger those most at risk for post-traumatic stress from their own assault.

“For some people, I think particularly in this moment, it’s giving them more of a reason to come forward,” Cara Courchesne, director of communications for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said. “For other people, it’s just retraumatizing.”

And even for those who choose to “come forward,” that can also mean many different things.

“It could be telling a close family member or friend,” Courchesne said. “It could be posting #MeToo on social media. It could be making a report to the police.”

The survivor from Greater Portland said the surge in “#MeToo” announcements has made her consider coming forward, but she’s concerned about some people in her life — in particular, a brother — whom she thinks don’t know about the abuse and might “go off the deep end.”

Courchesne said it’s important to remember that for some, “coming forward” is still not safe.

“If the person who sexually abused them is part of their family, for example,” she said.

For many who call a support agency hotline, “a lot feel like they need to talk through their experiences because this is really triggering for them. It’s everywhere. It wasn’t talked about before, but now it’s everywhere,” she said.

Most who have called since the rash of publicity have reported assaults by relatively unknown people, but Courchesne said, “Interestingly enough, there have been a couple of people who have called to ask advocates how they might go about coming forward, especially if the offender is in the public eye.”

Courchesne said more than one person has called alleging a Maine public figure assaulted them, but she said she did not know who the public figures are.

An advocate would likely suggest they consider why they are sharing information about the assault, how much they are willing to share, and whether their family already knows or would find out with the rest of the world.

They would also suggest the person choose a reputable media source and realize that any reporter would be required to at least attempt to interview the alleged assailant.

But she said the plan for self care offered by the advocates might need to be more intensive.

“They would say, ‘What do you think you need to do to feel as OK as you can over the next few days? It might be not going on social media,’” she said.

And it’s important to remember that despite accusations that victims waited too many years to report an assault or suggestions of a male “ witch hunt,” Courchesne said, “I can guarantee you being a sexual assault survivor is not something that most people want to become famous for.”

“We don’t give survivors a good reason to come forward [in our culture],” she said. “We don’t believe them, we tend to minimize the violence.”

The teacher from Greater Portland also fears that people will tell her to “just get over it.”

“But you don’t get over it,” she said Tuesday. “It has affected all of my relationships for the past 40 years.”

To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine. Calls are automatically routed to the closest sexual violence support service provider.

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