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It feels a bit strange to say this, but all the recent news stories of victims coming forward about being sexually abused are a very good thing. They’re good because telling is a big part of healing, and because the stories bring human faces to an epidemic that is too often described in vague terms, with cold statistics and anonymous identifications for offenders and victims.

Terms such as “sexual assault” leave the reader guessing about what happened, unable to imagine that the incident was harmful because the phrase “sexual assault” runs the gamut from a minor touch, to an especially vicious rape.

And statistics don’t connect the public to the intensity of human suffering or the scope of the harm done to individuals, families, women as a class, and societies as a whole when sexual abuse happens. We barely flinch when a news story reports that one million college women will be sexually assaulted over the next four years. It’s impossible to feel empathy toward a statistic, and it’s frankly incomprehensible to visually or emotionally capture the idea of one million women being victimized in an environment where they are supposed to be learning and achieving and preparing to become our nation’s leaders.

As if that weren’t bad enough, it is very hard for most of us to accept that we live in a world where seemingly nice people are capable of great evil. It requires far too much compromise, deep inside, where we cling to the belief that the world is a good place, and that people are inherently kind.

The desire to disbelieve that humans do horrific things to one another is so strong that we accept even absurd explanations as plausible alternatives to ugly truths. It’s why juries often vote not guilty in rape trials. It’s hard for them to look at the face of a man who resembles a brother or the guy next-door and believe that he’s the “type” who could be guilty of something so hideous. If a perpetrator looks like someone we know – or someone we think we know, like Bill Cosby or Kevin Spacey – it’s extra difficult to imagine him committing a sex crime. The evidence just doesn’t stick to our internal narratives about how the world works, so we develop doubt because it makes us feel better, and the end result is an unjust not guilty verdict.

All these factors conspire to make justice elusive. In turn, victims are even less likely to report for fear it isn’t “worth it.”

But with so many victims speaking out recently, that worm may be turning.

A single news clip of a woman sobbing decades after the abuse she suffered ended is a searing example of how much pain is caused by sexual abuse, and how long the pain lasts. And it is powerful proof that sexual assaults are never minor events, or awkward encounters that can be brushed off as bad dates.

An unwanted intimate intrusion of the body is always an extreme violation of a person’s autonomy, and a crushing blow to the essence of what it means to be a free person, with exclusive authority over the self. As the United States Supreme Court said many years ago, short of homicide, it is the most severe harm that can be inflicted on a human being.

Reading about and understanding how many people are abused, and how and why victims suffer so much is important, but seeing the faces and hearing the voices of people in pain better enables us to feel, as we should, disdain for offenders, and empathy for victims.

My Child Was Sexually Abused. What do I do?

Wendy Murphy

Wendy Murphy

Professor of sexual violence law

Wendy is adjunct professor of sexual violence law at New England Law|Boston. An impact litigator whose work in state and federal courts around the country has changed the law to improve protections for women's and children's constitutional rights.
Authors express their own opinions which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Stop Abuse Campaign.

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