Going Public: A Conversation on Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence

Dec 6, 2016

Molly Wilhelm is the Education and Community Impact Coordinator at Safe House for Women in Cape Girardeau.
Credit Courtesy of Molly Wilhelm

We're talking about domestic violence and sexual assault, with Molly Wilhelm, the Education and Community Impact Coordinator at Safe House for Women. The conversation of sexual assault has started back up on college campuses, as a result of high profile incidents like the Brock Turner case, where the former Stanford swimmer sexually assaulted an unconscious woman. Recently, Southeast Missouri State University and KRCU hosted a forum for students and the community to talk more about this issue. Wilhelm, who served as the forums moderator, came by the KRCU studio to talk more about the complexities of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Lewis-Thompson: Let's talk about sexual assaults. Not too long ago the University along with KRCU held sexual assault on college campuses event as part of their engagement series. And you served as the moderator for that event. So tell me a little bit about it.


Wilhelm: Kind of the objective was just to start that conversation. Like what is the university doing to not only prevent, but also help a survivor if something's reported. And I think a lot of education isn't necessarily out there. So it was a great time for Dr. Carter an assistant director Mayberry to tell the students and to tell the community what happens when a report is made on campus. And then we also saw on the other side of that what that really looks like for the survivor. I mean I was really happy with how it turned out.


Lewis-Thompson: So what defines sexual assault? Because as I learn it's not just the actual act of having sex.


Wilhelm: You know there's a term called consensual sex non-consensual sex. And to me if it's consensual it's just sex. If it's not consensual, it's rape. It's sexual assault. But we tend to just think that it's the act the sexual act the unwanted forced sexual intercourse, when it can be sexual harassment unwanted touching unwanted advances anything where somebody is not consenting to the activity whether it be sex touching whatever then it's considered sexual assault. So anything where force is involved and not getting that free consent.


Lewis-Thompson: Well something and I found interesting was according to the U.S. Department of Justice one in four women will experience some kind of sexual assault in their lifetime. But what really struck me was the idea that one in six men will experience sexual assault as well. Why don't we hear from them?


Wilhelm: Well I think we live in a country and in certain regions of the country where masculinity is defined by being strong and tough. And 'this wouldn't happen to me.' And for some male victims it's hard to come forward, because the not so-called masculinity can be challenged. Like 'you let that happened? You're dude. Why, why did you let that happen?' So, we tend to look at men as these super-strong like nothing bad can happen to them, because I mean I think culturally society wise we're kind of taught if you look at traditional male and female roles that men are strong and they're protectors and such and that this stuff wouldn't happen to them it wouldn't make sense. Why would that happen? So, I think male victims don't talk about it, because they don't want that stigma put on them. And so, if nobody's talking about it then nobody is going to talk about it if that makes sense. So if nobody if if no male survivors are coming forward and saying you know what this happens it can happen to a man, then the others aren't going to come forward. I kind of look out when someone let's say someone is accused of sexual assault and then all of a sudden we have this like this windfall of other people accusing the same person. People are like 'well where were these people?' They're afraid to come forward. So when that one when one person comes forward it makes it a little easier for other people to come forward. So I think if more male survivors talked about it came forward you would see a lot more of that one in six because that's a pretty high statistic.


Lewis-Thompson:  Women face the same challenge of coming forward and reporting. Why is that?


Wilhelm: Well I think with--


Lewis-Thompson: Or a lack of belief in what they say.


Wilhelm: Yes.


Lewis-Thompson: Why, why is that a problem?


Wilhelm: You know sexual assault and I said this on the panel sexual assault domestic violence those are two of the only crimes that if somebody comes forward and says this has happened to me that we look for all the reasons why it happened to them that they brought upon themselves. Like I said earlier, if I go out in my car stolen here nobody's going to be like 'gosh you're so stupid. How'd you get your car stolen? Like why would you park it there?' You know whatever they're going to think, 'okay this girl's car is stolen. We have to get her help. We have to do that.' Sexual assault and domestic violence aren't like that sexual assault. They immediately go to, 'well what are you doing this evening? What what were you doing? Oh so you went out. Oh okay, so were you drinking? Oh how much did you have to drink? Oh what were you wearing?' You know it's we tend to look at reasons to blame the victim. And I you know I've worked with survivors for a lot of years almost 10 years and I still don't understand why we automatically do that. But we see it everywhere we see it. You know, unfortunately media plays a big part in that too is looking at well what did they do to deserve that. Like how do you bring that upon yourself? And we don't ask that about any other crimes. So I think that keeps a lot of people from reporting, because if you report they're going to investigate into your life you know, which you're the victim they shouldn't be. They're not going back to the car thing they're not going to like investigate or driven that car did I have a car stolen before.


Lewis-Thompson: So like for example the amount of sexual partners they've had.


Wilhelm: Yes they're going to look at well are you quote unquote 'promiscuous?' Have you had several sexual partners? Have you had consensual sex with this person before? It's it's looking for a justification as to-- to not call this a crime. And it doesn't matter how many times you've had sex, how many people you've had sex with. In the case of you know sexual assault with an intimate partner relationship, doesn't matter how many times you've had sex with that person. You know everybody has the right to make the decisions on what happens to their bodies and when to say yes or to say no and getting to that point. That shift hopefully will change maybe the way that things are investigated. And it's really not-- it's really not the fault of people investigating. We just have to make sure that we're not immediately going towards blaming the victim or trying to justify or validate why it happened.


Lewis-Thompson: Well what should survivors or or victims of assault what should they do? Going back to that whole event that was just hosted the women found it difficult to report it. Well one of them did anyway until she was kind of forced into it by a friend.


Wilhelm: Well here's the thing. And here's the thing that's really really hard for people that don't necessarily understand the nature and dynamics of this of these occurrences. It's really up [to]--I can't say this is what you should do. I know what I think people that have been victimized should do. I think you should report it, or you should get yourself checked out. Go to the hospital [and] do all those things. But not everybody is comfortable doing that and everybody has a right to report or not report. It's whatever they're comfortable with. Because if we start telling victims and survivors will you have to do this, and then you have to do this, and then you have to do this. They've already lost the power control over themselves. And so we're kind of just doing that again. We're kind of taking that again like telling them what they should do. They have to make that decision. You know and there will be people that never report.


Lewis-Thompson:  And why is that? Why, why not report to get something done or make a record known so that in the event it happens to somebody else they have receipts you know? They have a track record.


Wilhelm: Right. You know everybody's different. We have some people that if this were to happen to me I would go and do this and this and this. But shame you know shame this happened to them. It's a trauma. It's traumatic. Some people aren't they're not mentally and emotionally capable of reporting. They are so traumatized that putting one foot in front of the other is hard after that. I mean that's such a violation. Such a just an invasive horrible thing to happen that some people are just there to not mentally emotionally ready for that. And we have to respect that. We have to respect that. Everybody is in charge of their own lives and they have to make the decision that they want to. But I feel like the shame and then the the scrutiny that comes along with it would keep people from doing it. You know I always encourage you know if this happened you know you don't have to go and report it. That's not your-- you don't have to do that. You were not required to do that you don't owe that to anyone else. This is your story. This is your--this is what happened to you and you have to own it. But I do always encourage talking to someone about it. You know whether it be a counselor or an advocate of some sort to deal with it, because the emotional scars I mean anybody that was at that panel last week you could see it's so raw for those survivors. And it's raw it's going to be raw for the rest of their lives.It's going to be right there on the surface. So I feel like you know we have to empower survivors to--to take to take charge of their own story and deal with it how they see fit. I know that I followed you know the Stanford case, the Brock Turner case, and the victim in that she's really over the past couple of months kind of taken ownership of what happened to her. And she's been more public about it. I don't know if she's ever released her name but she she's really kind of come out of her shell. And everybody--everybody.


Lewis-Thompson:  Is different.


Wilhelm:  Yeah and everybody is entitled to that. Like I look at these people when they try to say 'oh that happened 30 years ago.' Well you know what 30 years 30 years ago is a long time. You could be a different person than you were and now you may be like you know I have to own this. I can finally confront this and that's okay. That's okay. You know we have to let people choose the trajectory of their own lives and their own stories.


Lewis-Thompson: Well I want to move over to domestic violence because these two things go hand in hand. Whether you're in a married relationship or you're just partners, domestic violence happens [to] anyone. Why, why does it happen? How does it start? What are the warning signs?


Wilhelm:  Any form of victimization of another person, any form of abuse is all about power and control. It's not about how somebody looks, how somebody acts, what they wear. Whatever. It's all about power control over someone else. And so, you know I always talk about... my term as we learn what we live. And I think sometimes people-- there's no like gene in somebody's body that you can isolate that says they're going to be an abuser, or they're going to be a victim. I think it's just their are environmental issues. I feel like we kind of like I said you live what you learn or learn what you live, and if you grow up in a household where there's good communication and there's ways to deal with conflict that are respectful. You're going to model that behavior as you get older. That's--you're going to look for mutually respectful relationships. However, if somebody grows up in a household where there's not good communication, where conflicts are resolved by screaming [and] yelling abuse. If they see that happening that does kind of change the course of your life, because you're going to think that that's normal. You're going to think that's a normal way And I think that's a normal way of dealing with conflict is to be abusive. So, either you could seek out relationships where someone might treat you that way or you may treat someone like that. So, I think there's an environmental factor with that. I think insecurity plays a part in it. I mean there's no real--it's power and control. It's people that want power control over someone else. And it doesn't start like that I think you and I had this conversation the other day that if somebody were to go out on a date with someone, and the person was rude the whole time, made crass comments, was rude to the wait staff, was just a jerk the whole time through they're not going to go out on a second date. So these relationships don't start out bad, but over time it's the little things it's the the emotional the emotional things: the name calling the guilt tripping the manipulation you know and it escalates further as it goes as it goes on. And the thing to really understand about domestic violence is the cycle of it. You know there's the good period and then it builds up to a bad time whether it be physically or emotionally sexually whatever. And then it's followed up by a good time. So people end up being hooked into relationships and staying into those relationships because it's human nature to focus on the good not on the bad. And so you know those relationships kind of thrive in those in those environments.


Lewis-Thompson:  So going with that according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Missouri, in 2012 40,645 incidents of domestic violence were reported in Missouri alone. Does that number shock you?


Wilhelm: No, because I'm in it. I see it every day. I think for people that maybe don't know as much about it would be shocking. It should be shocking. It should be something that horrifies us and something that we're like 'okay, yeah this has to stop.' That's a lot of people. That's a lot of instances that that's happening.


Lewis-Thompson: Well, what does this look like in Cape Girardeau? What does domestic violence look like here?


Wilhelm:  It looks like anything. Most survivors that come to us who have experienced emotional and physical abuse.


Lewis-Thompson: And this is at Safe House?


Wilhelm: Yes at Safe House. They're experiencing emotional abuse. They're experiencing physical abuse. They're experiencing sexual abuse, because sexual assault is used within a domestically violent relationship as just another tool for power and control. Stalking is also a part of that as well. So we see we see people come in that have been in relationships for a long period of time. They've put up with abuse over years maybe they have children they've waited-- they've waited. They finally leave the relationship, or we see people where it's maybe the first or second time an incident has taken place and they try to leave. There's really no cookie cutter survivor situation. Every situation is different.


Lewis-Thompson: Now when we talk about domestic violence I want to go back again to the male perspective, because it does happen to them. Actually one in four men in the U.S. have experienced some type of physical violence. What does an abusive woman look like? How would you know if your sister, aunt, mother was abusive to their partner?


Wilhelm: We're not necessarily seeing it physical even though that happens for sure. It happens to a male victim, but it's more that emotional that control that psychological that degrading their male partner.


Lewis-Thompson:  What do you mean?


Wilhelm: Manipulating-- that like the name calling. The 'you're so worthless. You couldn't be anybody without me.' You know that controlling where they go, who they see. They leave to go do something, they're blowing up the phone. They're [like] 'who are you with?' You know those accusations. 'Are you cheating?' It's all of that like mental and emotional control over someone else. That's how we see it a lot. We do see physical to you. It's it's really it's the nature and dynamics of domestic violence is the same whether you're male or female it's all about that power control. And again and again it goes against our perception of what we think males and females should be based on stereotypes or traditional male female roles but that control can can leave people feeling like whether they're male or female that they can't leave. That they're terrified of their [abuser]. Maybe there's been threats made, or you know it has escalated to physical. We are seeing a lot more male victims come forward. I just think it's getting more talked about. It's less stigmatized. I think people are talking more about it on a national level so they feel a bit more comfortable, or maybe they're like somebody in their life that said 'you know what that's not right what's happening to you. And just because you're a male doesn't make a difference.' But it's harder. They have a harder. I feel like they have a harder role. They have a harder road to go down, because of perception. I don't know if you've ever seen that show. The 'What Would You Do' show. And I remember there was one episode where they had two actors male and female, and they showed the male screaming, yelling, grabbing the female like shaking her. And people like stepped in like this is not right. But then they reverse this situation went to a different group and had the woman screaming yelling getting in the guy's face you know shaking him pushing him punching him and people just kind of walked away. And it all goes back to that perception like 'oh gosh.' You know they're either thinking 'well, what did he do to make her go so crazy.' Or they laugh about it. They think it's just a girl she can't do anything, but they don't know the mental and emotional part of that. Why that man feels so victimized. So, we have to get as a society we have to realize that you know what it happens to men too. And we need to take them seriously.