VOICES in the DARK
ON THE INTERNET, SEXUAL ASSAULT VICTIMS ARE TALKING ABOUT THEIR ATTACKS.
By SAM MILLER THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
For months after she was raped by three men at a house party, Sharon cried at night and wondered whom she could confide in.
The 19-year-old Cal State Fullerton student had avoided talking about the crime with anyone. She had to be persuaded by roommates to call the police. Her family was supportive, but discussing the rape caused tension.
Even talking to her therapist left her unhappy. “No matter how much training she has, she didn’t go through it,” she says.
One night, she went online to scour Web sites for statistics about sexual assault. She stumbled onto the site of Los Angeles artist David Ilan, whose newest project compiles the experiences of thousands of rape survivors into a single portrait.
She found the stories. Some were 500 words long, others just a devastating sentence or two: “I was assaulted by my now former best friend. And everyone still thinks he is the best thing on earth.”
FORUM FOR CHANGE
On the Internet, sexual assault victims are coming out of the shadows. Experts say rape has long been thought to be an underreported, rarely discussed crime. But survivors now use aliases, anonymous Web forums and blogs to talk about their attacks, and their recoveries.
“It’s clearly the case that people reveal things online in ways that surprise other people,” says Larry Gross, director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication. “There is an aspect of semi-anonymous confession that people find comforting. The emotional value of talking to someone is important.”
For victims who had kept their stories private for many years, it is a dramatic change in the way we acknowledge sexual assaults.
“Not having to use your voice makes it more anonymous, and people just feel safer,” says Penelope Hughes, vice president of online services for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. “There is a stigma that has been attached to a sexual assault victim. Sex in general is something that people are less comfortable talking about.”
On Ilan’s site, pointswithpurpose. com, 1,500 people have written about their experiences. At survivingtothriving.org, 300 people have submitted stories.
The forum aftersilence.org hosts hundreds of discussions on message boards. “I’m sorry you have a reason to be here, but glad you found us,” forum users write to new members.
And at a handful of blogs, survivors write in detail about what happened to them, and how they’re recovering.
“I get people calling me a radical, but I don’t feel like I’m a radical. I’m just telling my truth and looking at this situation from a very logical point,” says Marcella Chester, a novelist and rape survivor whose blog at abyss2hope.com has had nearly 100,000 visitors.
She says discussion about sexual violence needs to enter the mainstream, and people writing about their experiences are part of that.
“There are whole bunch of people who, if they could find the words and they could say ‘Yeah, I have mixed feelings about what happened to me, but I’m not going to have this be my deepest, darkest secret,’ they can make a difference in having people respect each other.”
MAKING A POINT
The message board on Ilan’s Web site was actually an afterthought.
Ilan uses a method of art called pointillism, in which thousands of tiny dots combine to make a larger image. He made a name in Los Angeles doing celebrity portraits, including the cast of “Seinfeld.”
His latest project was more ambitious, and was inspired by two exgirlfriends who had been raped. He’s making a drawing of a woman, using more than 100,000 dots. Each dot will represent a man or woman who has been sexually assaulted, and who has contacted Ilan. He has 4,000 dots so far, enough to fill in the face of his subject.
And the message board? “I was just thinking, what can people do once they get their dot on there? And it’s turned into a huge healing mechanism, to get a huge secret like that off your chest,” he says.
“The first person told me they now feel less alone. I was thinking, why would you feel alone? You’ve got millions of people with this shared thing in their life. … But they’re not talking about it.”
‘SENSE OF RELIEF’
Sharon is a dot on Ilan’s drawing, but she still hasn’t written out her story on his site – she says it would have just made her cry more to do it. She has written about her feelings on her own blog on MySpace, in poems and cryptic apologies.
And she says she feels relief when she reads the stories on Points With Purpose.
“You’re having a bad day, you find one of those sites, it helps you heal. You get to see someone else who went through it. It gives you the sense of relief,” she says.
Having shared parts of her story online, and having read other people’s accounts, she is more confident talking about it in person.
Last week, as she prepared to return to classes for the first time since the attack, she spoke about that night. Her black nail polish was chipping away and her eyes were dry as she sat in a Starbucks. She told of how she felt betrayed by her friends, and how for months afterward she cut herself with box cutters and scrapbooking scissors until she bled.
The evening after that conversation, she said later, she felt unusually calm. She didn’t cry, as she has most nights in the past year.
“Other people will not think it’s a good idea (to share stories), that it’s something that should be left private. But it’s a healing thing. It’s definitely a healing thing.”
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