Realities of rape: ‘It’s not this gross person who you don’t know’ says Surrey counsellor

Anna Silverman opens up about the time she was raped – and the misconceptions of sexual abuse - during Faces of Courage campaign

What does a rapist look like?

Perhaps not how one would imagine. Perhaps it isn’t the back alley bad guy who drags a woman into darkness when she’s walking home alone. Or the stranger who pulls a woman into a van in an abandoned parking lot.

Anna Silverman learned that firsthand when she was raped by someone she was casually dating when she was 18.

He wasn’t who she thought a rapist would be.

“I think that the myths of rape played a big part in why it was so difficult for me to process what had happened,” said Silverman, a counsellor at Surrey Women’s Centre (SWC). “And why I blamed myself so much. I never thought it would be somebody that I knew, somebody that I trusted, somebody that I was attracted to, that I would’ve consented to having sex with at some point potentially.”

The assault caught her completely off guard, she said, and left her feeling anxious, shamed and humiliated.

Now, years later, Silverman has gone public with her story as part of SWC’s Faces of Courage campaign that ran through June, encouraging people on social media to use the hashtag #ShoutOut4Survivors to show support for women who have come forward about sexual assault.

The campaign was launched in response to recent media coverage surrounding the Jian Ghomeshi trial, accusations of sexual abuse toward Bill Cosby and the gang-rape of a teenage girl in Brazil that was recorded and posted on social media in late May.

Silverman made the choice to share her story, she said, because hers is one that is not often portrayed in the media.

“Some aspects of my story are really difficult, I think, for members of the general public to swallow,” Silverman told the Now. “It doesn’t really fit with more common, more archaic and archetypical narratives of sexual assault survivorship.”

She was not battered or injured severely, she explained. Probably because didn’t fight back, she added.

“It’s typical for life, but in terms of media portrayals I think what made it different was that it was somebody that I did continue to date afterwards, that’s not commonly shown,” Silverman revealed.

“It was someone that I knew, that I had feelings for and that I continued to have a certain amount of feelings for in some way afterwards. It’s happening…. The majority of sexual assault occurs in intimate relationships of some type. Either it’s dating, family members, friends.

“It’s not this gross person who you don’t know,” she added.

In her case, the man was remorseful afterward, she recalled.

“He realized it was not consensual. I was just kind of numb… and horrified. That was it for that time.”

In the days that followed, Silverman said she felt alone and confused.

“I did continue to see him, casually dating, he was almost like a friend. Just for a little while, not more than a week or two,” she said. “It felt really wrong however I just lived in a very confused state about it, like there’s something wrong with me.”

Silverman didn’t want to go to the police and wishes she knew then what she knows now – that she could go to a women’s centre for help.

It’s something she wants all women to know.

“Part of my healing was telling someone what happened, even though it was really hard to do,” she said. “There are women who came before me who paved the way to get the help I needed to heal – by sharing their stories and speaking out against sexual assault. I am now one of those women.”

She acknowledged that “coming out” can be challenging, due to a variety of factors, such as victim shaming.

“It stops a lot of people,” she said. “We internalize social messages so part of it might be, ‘Oh, is it my fault?’ Part of it might be not being able to handle the idea of someone hearing what I’m going to share and saying, ‘How late was it?’ or, ‘How much were you drinking that night?’ It’s done so, so, so often.”

Silverman had advice for women who have been abused, sexually or otherwise.

“Find community,” she stressed. “Whether it is local organizations like a women’s centre, whether it’s online communities around survivorship…. connect with people who understand the impacts of sexual and gendered violence and know how to respond in a safe and respectful way. The difference that can make is huge.”

Silverman said it’s important to remember that reactions to trauma vary, and none are wrong.

“It may not look like an angry survivor going to the hospital. It may instead look like someone quitting their job, not talking to anyone for a while, writing love letters to the abuser. None of that changes the crime.

“Every reaction is normal to sexual assault.”

Amanda Osterman with Surrey Women’s Centre said the Faces of Courage campaign went well through the month of June and “spurred a number of people to come forward about their sexual assaults who have never come forward before.”

Osterman noted that although the campaign was centred on women, a number of men came forward for the first time as well.

“We found this surprising, but at the same time, a good thing as this campaign not only made female sexual assault survivors feel safe to come forward and tell us, but male survivors of sexual assault as well,” said Osterman. “Something we noticed in most cases of survivors coming forward was that they felt comfortable telling us about the sexual assault, but still did not want to give any details, such as their name, picture, job title, etc.

“It just shows that we still have a long way to go with creating a more supportive environment for survivors to come forward publicly without being shamed, blamed or retaliated against in some way,” she added.

MEN ARE VICTIMS TOO

While Silverman’s story is one not typically portrayed in media, men’s stories often go untold in mainstream society, too.

Don Wright founded BC Society for Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse 26 years ago and said he’s been fighting those perceptions ever since.

The organization has grown from a single answering machine to five locations and 12 therapists throughout B.C. They’ve helped more than 11,000 clients over the years.

“I think it’s important for the public to understand that men are vulnerable as well, particularly boys,” said Wright, adding that girls and boys are equally at risk as children.

While it’s more likely for women to be rape victims, it’s happening to men, too, said Wright. And abusers are of both sexes, he added.

In the public eye, women are more often seen as victims and Wright suggests that is due to the women’s movement.

“And that’s not a criticism,” he stressed. “It’s just an observation. Without the feminist movement, sexual abuse would have stayed in the closet…. but understandably it focused on women being sexual abused.”

According to Wright, a failing of the feminist movement is that it doesn’t talk about the capacity for women to abuse.

“They’ve basically denied the existence of female violence,” he said. “I think that will be their undoing when we begin to see the whole picture. There’s never really been a men’s movement that has much credibility…. There are a few men who are challenging a lot of the social norms, some of the misconceptions inadvertently put out by the women’s movement.”

But Wright said the winds are changing.

“When I started (26 years ago), people looked at me like I was from another planet…. But we had a fundraiser in April and there was so much support in that room, I was nearly in tears.”

He said when the award-winning film “Spotlight” won an Oscar for best picture, celebrities began talking about victims and acknowledged both men and women.

“In a way, sexual abuse of men is where AIDS was maybe 25 years ago. Way back when, Elizabeth Taylor was one of the first in Hollywood to talk about sexual abuse,” Wright said. “Now, 25 years later, they’re talking about male survivors. I think it’s beginning to be accepted.”

Looking to the future, he wants to see funding for programs that aren’t restricted to women and children.

“There’s a number of those,” he noted. “And we also work with men who are victims of domestic abuse. There is funding specifically for women fleeing abuse and there should be funding for men as well.”

Wright noted there are about 30 transition houses in B.C. for women fleeing abuse, but there isn’t a single one in all of Canada dedicated to men.

He dreams of purchasing a heritage home to move his head office to, with a suite in the basement that would serve as a crisis shelter for men.

About three years ago, the organization set up an office in Surrey.

“We know men in outlying areas aren’t going to travel to downtown. Some who’ve had drug issues need to stay away from the Downtown East Side,” he explained. “We knew there would be people out in Surrey needing our help.”

WHERE TO GET HELP

  • Call Surrey Women’s Centre 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a week at 604-583-1295 or visit surreywomenscentre.ca.
  • To reach the BC Society for Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse, email victimservices@bc-malesurvivors.com or call 604-682-6482.
  • Call the Crisis Centre BC line at 604-875-3311.
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