According to statistics by Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), an American gets sexually assaulted every 73 seconds. (Courtesy of unsplash)

By Nadine Matthews
Special to the AFRO

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) and though that’s a good thing, it can have certain pitfalls. According to sexual assault victim and advocate Jennifer Storm, celebrating the survivors of sexual abuse can be triggering or traumatizing for them. “What the great work that Tarana Burke and the #metoo movement has done is shown us that if we talk about sexual violence, we give space to others to talk about it and that’s imprtant, but what we’re also doing is opening up wounds,” she said. 

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center website states that the goal of SAAM is to raise public awareness about sexual violence, educate communities on how to prevent it and bolster prevention efforts throughout the year. 

Storm, who survived sexual assault as a teenager, has written three books on the subject: Blackout Girl: Growing Up and Drying Out in America, Leave The Light On, and Picking Up the Pieces Without Picking Up. A lifelong crime victim advocate, she is the Victim Witness Advocate in  the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and has worked with survivors from high profile sex abuse cases such as Jerry Sandusky and Bill Cosby.

“The problem with sexual violence is the silence. Sexual predators thrive on, utilize and weaponize that silence,” Storm explained. This, even though, according to statistics by Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), an American gets sexually assaulted every 73 seconds. “We never want to normalize the abuse,” Storm emphasizes, “but we need to normalize the conversation.  We need to normalize the hope, the healing and talking about it, which will help lead to prevention.”

The following, she indicated, may signal someone you know has been victimized. “For kids, any type of regressing behavior is a clue, like reverting to sucking their thumb, or having bouts of anger, no longer wanting to go places they used to enjoy. They can’t tell you about those experiences unless prompted, but they’re gonna show you.”

For teens and adults the signs of sexual assault include suicidal ideation, depression and  substance abuse disorder. Another key indicator in teens is promiscuity. Often girls labeled as “fast” have been raped. “If individuals have been introduced to sex at an early age through trauma and assault, it’s not uncommon for them to seek that out because that becomes all they know,” Storm explained.

To help protect children from sexual assault, Storm suggests starting conversations about consent early and frequently. “We started with my son when he was pre-verbal,” she states. “Give proper terminology for body parts. Let them know these are not areas anyone should be touching or putting things in. You’ll be empowering them.”

If you do find out a friend or loved one was a victim Storm advised to be prepared to understand you may not be the right person for them to open up about the experience. “You might not be the person they want to talk to about it, but you can help find resources for the right person.”

Storm has also been very open about her battles with addiction, partly borne of trauma from her assault at twelve. She began drinking that year, becoming an alcoholic by the time she was 15. “Sexual trauma is horrifically violating and sets off biological and emotional reactions that are uncomfortable. Substances are used to numb and escape. Ninety percent of women and seventy percent of men with substance abuse issues, were sexually assaulted,” Storm declares. “And there is a heightened risk in the LGBTQ community.”

Frustrated that current substance abuse treatment protocols don’t  address the relationship between sexual assault and substance abuse, Storm has made it her mission to change that. “Treatment facilities need to start integrating trauma-informed practices in all of their drug and alcohol treatment,” she urged.

Jennifer Storm, sexual assault survivor and victim advocate. (Courtesy photo)

Though male sex assault victims have been historically under-recognized, that is changing. Storm pointed to the Jerry Sandusky case, on which she also worked, as a turning point. “ It really cracked open the conversation and more men and boys are coming forward. Men and boys are abused at significant rates and they need to have the same grace, acknowledgement, and support of the system.”

The public can help, she said, by supporting legislators who work to put laws on the books to prevent and prosecute sexual predators. She also wishes that survivors realize they aren’t alone. “There is help and healing for them. Acknowledging what happened and seeking resources is the bravest thing they can do and will be the most liberating thing they can do.”