TRIGGER WARNING: This article and pages it links to contain information about sexual assault and related violence which may be triggering to survivors. You may consider creating a safe-enough space for yourself if/when you choose to engage with this material, perhaps reading it in smaller increments as needed.
lThe U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that military personnel accused of a rape between 1986 and 2006 - a period previously subject to a five-year statute of limitations - can be charged for the crime.
As you can imagine, this is a huge decision. Not only does the 8-0 ruling from the highest court in the land open the door for Military Sexual Trauma (MST) survivors to seek justice, as attorney and social worker (BSW) Lorna Rose points out it indicates a culture shift around sexual assault and rape trauma. Of special note is that this unanimous decision was bi-partisan and coming from a court that includes Brett Kavanaugh, a man who has been accused of past sexual assault by at least three women.
At first glance, I felt excited about this ruling both due to the aforementioned culture shift and because it allows these perpetrators to be brought to justice. However as a psychotherapist, I soon realized the enormous implications this will likely have on survivors of MST. (For more information on MST click here)
I can see how this news may trigger MST survivors in a number of ways. You may be feeling anger, sadness, ambivalence, fear, confusion, guilt, some combination of these feelings, or something else entirely. You may be thinking any number of these things: “Yes! Now I can finally seek retribution for what happened to me!”, “Ugh… I don’t even want to think about my MST anymore, I put it behind me and want it to stay there, but now this…”, “I was happy to have just moved on but now I have to make a choice”, “I just can’t even go there”, or anything in between. All of these responses are valid. What was done to you is awful and it is important to understand and honor where you are in your healing before you even think about going forward with the legal aspects of what happened to you.
In the words of Lorna Rose regarding the Supreme Court’s decision, “Nobody expects you to prosecute. This is not your personal call to action to take this to the legal circuit.” This is an essential piece to notice. You are never required to take action just because the door is open. And truth be told, there are some major things to consider prior to moving forward with this process.
1. Not all cases are pursuable cases.* There is a certain standard of evidence required to go through with prosecuting crimes (seek out an attorney to discover if your case meets the requirements). This may be a relief for some and disappointing for others. What is important in this is to know that whether or not something can go to court, what happened to you and what they did to you is still real and valid and not okay. Not being able to go to court with it just means that this one avenue of recovery isn’t available.
2. The investigative process can be brutal. In my experience with trauma survivors who have gone through an investigation I can say it isn’t easy and can be traumatic in and of itself. It is rare to be greeted with a warm, empathic, and compassionate investigative team dedicated to your pursuit of justice. Survivors have reported how grueling the investigation is, often being asked the same questions about the trauma repeatedly even if in different ways. Some have shared stories of investigators invalidating or minimizing their experiences in some way (“that’s just what boys do”). Surely this doesn’t happen every time, but I have heard of it happening often enough that it is important to consider if you are ready, willing, and able to cope with what could be (and unfortunately often is) a traumatic experience.
3. Court proceedings can be tough for sexual assault survivors. Besides having your story told in a public forum, your story will be questioned extensively with the defense trying to discredit you and your experience. And sometimes, this information and their portrayal of you can grab the attention of the general public where you could be scrutinized more closely. I believe this would be challenging for most of us in general around how we live our lives. However, for trauma survivors this level of judgment and scrutiny could be devastating, particularly around one of the most vulnerable and painful experiences you have had. That doesn’t mean you can’t choose to proceed if you have a pursuable case. It just means it is important to weigh the potential benefits to the potential costs. At a minimum, it would be essential to explore your thoughts with a trained trauma therapist.
4. Are you mentally and emotionally ready? If you decide to move forward, it is essential to reflect on if you are mentally and emotionally ready for the challenges of pursuing a case (some of which is described above) - to frequently talk about what happened in front of others, to possible have your loved ones learn about what happened (if they don’t already know), to possibly be scrutinized and judged, and to have your story known and “out there”. Even though it is hard, some of us are in a place to truly handle this, while others are not. What matters more than if you are ready or not is that you know which one is true for you and honor that. If you are uncertain, discuss it with your therapist and trusted loved ones to help sort it out.
5. Do you have the support you need? If you decide that it is important for you to move forward with a criminal case against your perpetrator, it is essential that you have the support you need. At a minimum, it is important to have a relationship with a trusted therapist as well as some loved ones (e.g., family, friends, coworkers, etc.) who will support you and ‘be in your court’ so to speak.
With all of this in mind, take time to evaluate if taking advantage of this change in law is something that is truly a fit for you. If you choose not do go forward with a case for whatever reasons, here are some things to consider:
1. A Criminal court is just one piece of healing. There are many avenues to healing. Unfortunately, when someone does something bad to us there isn’t always a visible consequence to them, an apology, or even acknowledgment that they did what they did. As disappointing as that can be, we can still heal anyway. There are many avenues to healing trauma. Check out this post I wrote earlier this year for more information about healing therapies for trauma.
2. You are not responsible for your perpetrator’s behavior now or ever. It is common (but not necessary) for survivors to feel like they have to prosecute in order to protect others from the perpetrator doing the same thing to someone else. Some survivors may even feel guilty for choosing not to prosecute. The thing is you are NOT responsible for the criminal behavior of your perpetrator; only they can choose their behavior. And even if they are prosecuted there is no guarantee it will prevent them from assaulting someone else in the future. So the most important thing to consider in your decision to move forward with a pursuable case is if you are ready, willing, and able for everything it entails AND if it is something that will be helpful to or healing for you in some way.
3. You have a choice. There are some things you may not have a choice about (e.g., if your case is pursuable, if your perpetrator will face consequences, etc.), but you do have a choice about what you do. You get to decide if you even want to think about this right now or not. You have a choice if you want to bring this to an attorney or not. You have a choice if you want to work with a therapist on healing (now or ever) or not. In the face of real or perceived powerlessness, it can help to notice where you have choice and to put your energy there. No one else gets to decide these steps for you. You are in charge.
Whether you have had previous treatment for your MST or not, if you are looking for support or feel ready, willing, and able for treatment, one resource for finding a therapist is Psychology Today. You can even search on therapists in your area who have experience with sexual abuse/assault. If you prefer to use your VA benefits, another treatment option is to go through the VA either seeing one of their providers or checking into your local VA’s Community Cares program which allows you to see providers in the community who have contracted with the VA (are in-network) for this purpose.
You don’t have to do this alone. Help is out there. The first step is mustering the courage to reach out.
Note that this article is for information only. It does not constitute legal or mental health advice and is not to be used in lieu of legal counsel or mental health treatment.
* The legal information in this article is based on my interpretation of a conversation I had with a attorney Lorna Rose who is also a social worker (BSW).
This blog is for information only. Reading this blog or interacting with it is not medical advice and does not constitute a therapeutic relationship. This blog is not a substitute for mental health care. Please be sure to seek out mental health care as needed.