By DENISE SEYFER
“On a family vacation near the Wisconsin Dells, Sasha Walters was raped by a 16-year-old boy staying with his family at a nearby cabin. She was 13. ‘I lost forever the person I was before that day. I learned that rapists take what they want, even if they look like – or literally are – the boy next door. They take your childhood, your innocence, your spirit. I am so grateful that somehow I was able to hold on so tight to my own spirit, even during the times when I had nothing left, so it couldn’t slip away. But it was very hard,’” said Sasha Walters, a social worker, who now shares her story on the Voices and Faces Project website.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. As a prequel to this observance, Mount Mary College hosted “Survivor Stories,” the third part of a 3-part series to raise awareness about the issue of human trafficking and sexual abuse. Keynote speaker, Anne Ream, founder of the “Voices and Faces Project” based out of Chicago, spoke to an audience of about 100 participants comprised of both men and women, young and old.
The “Voices and Faces Project” is a national, non-profit documentary project that gives victims of sexual violence a face and a voice. Victims are able to share their pain and recovery through a personal narrative or a poem, a drawing or music. Their stories have the power to change hearts, minds and policies.
Why victims tell their stories
Aggressors use sexual violence as a tool of oppression and control. Being a survivor of sexual violence and abuse doesn’t mean a victim has to “disappear” in shame and in fear. So often, however, victims are forced to hide.
“‘Let’s pretend it didn’t happen.’ The media [believes] and blots out victims’ names and faces; often it’s necessary. Our culture encourages invisibility,” Ream said.
The idea behind Ream’s “Voices and Faces Project” is to help women and children find a way to love and embrace themselves, thus producing empowerment and change.
Reams believes when victims show their faces and tell their stories, it shows their perserverance and bravery. These women and children have dignity.
This action, however, comes at a price.
“Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words,” Reams said. “Coming forward, they’re risking their lives.”
Victims’ faces are recognized. Moreover, they relive the trauma of the sexual abuse. In that story, on the other hand, they show their humanity. Through their telling, victims forgive themselves which tends to be the hardest thing to do. Victims’ feelings of guilt and of weakness overshadow their anger. They work through the healing process.
Where advocates share victims’ stories
Rachel Monaco-Wilcox, justice department chair at Mount Mary, supports the need for Wisconsin to look at Illinois’ legislation which is a more progressive model. In April 2013, the Illinois Senate passed the End Demand Illinois Bill, SB1872, to eliminate felony prostitution in Cook County. EDI still lobbies to end felony prostitution in the state.
“Illinois, while amazing in the amount of progress it is making and support it is gathering, is a different state and a different political climate,” Monaco-Wilcox said. “Wisconsin is going to be best served by analyzing many models of safe-harbor legislation and approaches. We will need the perspectives of all stakeholders, such as victims, families, advocates, police on the street, detectives, health care providers and prosecutors to be successful with passing any new laws or changing existing ones.”
Monaco-Wilcox rallies to spread the word through supporting legislative changes to decriminalize prostitution for women and children under 18 years old. She advocates stricter sentencing for perpetrators of felony prostitution. Further, she encourages government agencies working in cross-disciplinary teams to draft laws which will work in each unique state.
“Wisconsin is in a really important state of alliance building and working with powerful community, inter-agency, and government partnerships, and I have a lot of hope that in the next few years we will see very important policy progress being made in our state,” Monaco-Wilcox said. “We need to be smart about the efforts we put our energy into.”
Ann Angel, director of English graduate program at Mount Mary, launches new forums, such as facilitating support groups for family of victims as well as teaching writer’s workshops for victims of abuse.
Dr. Wendy Weaver, English department chair at Mount Mary, will teach a summer course in “Writing and Teaching Stories to Heal,” as one way to bring what was learned through the “Untold Stories” project to Mount Mary graduate students.
“We believe that if we develop this social justice theme in the classroom, our students will be able to take these skills into the community and their work sites,” Angel said.