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January 26, 2012

This week, Project Unbreakable came to my attention. Grace Brown, a 19-year old woman from New York, started photographing survivors and victims of sexual abuse who are holding up signs with things their attackers said to them during said abuse. She began posting the pictures online and soon people asked if they could submit their own photos. Some submit pictures with quotes, others with statements about how they felt during or after their assault. The people in the photographs are of all genders, ages, backgrounds, and nationalities. Some were molested or raped as children (even babies), some as adults. Some were attacked once, others several times or systematically. The one thing they all share is that each picture is gut-wrenchingly sad.

For a class, Brown made a video in which she tells some of the stories behind the pictures she’s taken and cites the by now all-too-familiar-but-never-less-terrible statistics: 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime. Over the shot of a New York street scene she asks, “are you a statistic?”

I remember all too well that moment a few years ago when I suddenly started applying the statistics to people milling about an urban train station during rush hour. I began counting the women I saw. “One, two, three. You? One, two, three. You? One, two, three. And you?” I became overwhelmed. I started hoping that maybe the statistics were different for The Netherlands. Maybe they were less bad. Maybe it wasn’t one in three, but one in six. I started counting again. “One, two, three, four, five, six. You? One, two, three, four, five, six. Maybe you?” It wasn’t any better. It  didn’t, doesn’t, matter what the statistics are; every single victim of sexual abuse is one too many. I couldn’t even do this count for the men in the station. My head grew dizzy and I had to sit down.

When it comes to sexual abuse, assault, rape in our society, the silence is deafening. Though I believe the Internet has made a big difference for victims and survivors by giving them options to share their story publicly, privately, among a reasonably anonymous group, faceless, nameless, open, and unrelenting – whichever one they choose – and though society at large will shake its head and say mournfully that “yes, of course these are terrible, terrible things,” many are still silent out in the real world. How often do you really hear your acquaintances, friends, family, coworkers, teachers, students, bosses, fellow moms and dads waiting for their children at the school gates, neighbors, and so on, say that they were sexually abused or assaulted? If you think this is a strange question to ask, because it’s private or painful or embarrassing, maybe ask yourself if you would find the following a strange question: “How often do you really hear your [all of the above] say that they were mugged, had their home burglarized, had their bank account skimmed, were robbed while working in a store, had their mode of transportation stolen, were attacked by someone in the street, were the victim of some kind of crime or violence?” You probably wouldn’t find people talking about those things strange at all, right? Now, I’m not saying sexual assault/abuse is like those crimes, but it is a crime. It is the one crime we feel should be reported and punished, but after that is done, we don’t really want to hear about it. And if it is done, well, that’s a whole different ballgame. Because no victim of a crime is vetted, badgered, questioned as much as a victim of a sexual crime. And no victim of a crime is opened up to slander and further abuse as much. “Shit Everybody Says To Rape Victims” has a good sampling of the kind of stuff that’s thrown at victims and survivors. The following graphic is also helpful:

And if a victim or survivor for whatever reason won’t or can’t go to the police, then forget about it. They immediately lose any right to their feelings and own experiences. On top of that they are often given an unhelpful extra serving of guilt. “Well, if you don’t come forward, he/she might do it to someone else. Can you live with yourself knowing you could have stopped it?”

Grace Brown is hoping to take her project on tour, photographing survivors all over the world in order to bring their stories into the public sphere and allowing them to use their own attackers’ words against them in a reclamation of power. The story of this project has been picked up by major news outlets in England and The Netherlands already, so hopefully she’ll find some funding that will allow her to realize her dream. I wish her the best of luck, because I no longer have to count in a busy station and wonder if the statistics are true. I only have to think of everyone I know and have known to remember the late nights, the tearful confessions, the hugs, the confusion, the sadness, the anger, but also the love. When I remember, I know their names and see their faces. One in three.

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