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Sexual Assault Hotline Callers Report Retraumatization Following Ford Testimony

The National Sexual Assault Hotline reported the busiest day in its history last Friday, following Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about her alleged sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh when the two were in high school. Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, has strongly denied the allegation.

The hotline received more than 3,000 calls — 738 percent more than normal. Smaller hotlines around the country saw the same phenomenon, among them the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago’s Rape Crisis Hotline, where calls have tripled.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks with Anne Pezzillo, director of counseling services at the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, which runs hotlines for all three of the city’s rape crisis centers.

“We had a caller tell us that they had their first flashback in three years, after listening to Dr. Ford’s testimony,” Pezzillo says.

Interview Highlights

On the increase in calls to the Rape Crisis Hotline since Ford’s testimony, and what types of calls are coming in

“It’s been very busy. So the day of the hearing, we received about 30 calls, which is nearly doubled from the week prior and five times as many calls as two weeks ago Thursday. On Friday, our calls were a little more than double from the week prior. And we’re continuing to see an increase call volume.

“We’re hearing comments from survivors that, similar to Dr. Ford, they’re experiencing a retraumatization. … We’re hearing from male survivors that the testimony validated their experience, and they’re still dealing with the impact. We had another male caller tell us that he’s experiencing intimacy issues as a result of childhood sexual assault.

“The symptoms and stress reactions of the trauma are still with folks even decades later.”

On what survivors may experience when they have a flashback to a traumatic incident

“A flashback is, for a survivor, a re-experiencing of that traumatic event. They feel as if they are right back in that moment. They they feel their heart pounding. They feel their thoughts race. They feel intense feelings of anxiety, and it’s like experiencing the trauma all over again, and it’s unexpected, and a survivor can’t necessarily tell what, where, when and how a flashback might be triggered.

“They’re talking about all the details of their trauma. They’re talking about the feeling of being choked, of being immobilized, of being frozen. We know that when we experience trauma, our brain is going to react typically in one of three ways: We’re going to fight, we’re going to experience fright or we’re going to flee.

“What Blasey Ford is reporting in her testimony is that there was an aspect of being frozen, as well as that intense feeling of fear, and we’re hearing that as well from the survivors that we work with.”

On what survivors may experience when they represence to a traumatic incident

“That means that their their body and brain, their neurobiology, literally takes them back to that moment. And we know as we talk to survivors about their trauma narrative, they are able to define — frequently — what the worst part of that experience was.

“It might be the worst part related to the disclosure. It might be the worst part related to the response of the alleged offender. But we know that survivors have the capacity because of the way that trauma is stored in the brain to literally represence themselves and re-experience that trauma in an incredibly intense way.”

On the effects on survivors when people like Trump cast doubt on their experiences

“We’re hearing from callers that they’re feeling dismay that there will never be enough details to convince some people that a crime was committed. They’re feeling invalidated by the national conversation by the victim-blaming, and they know that they will not be able to recall 100 percent of the details, and this fact about traumatic stress reactions — the way the brain and the body processes trauma — is being used against survivors to invalidate their experience.

“That’s the way that the brain and body works to protect survivors, and it’s a part of trauma … To expect a survivor to recall the exact details of a sexual assault, whether that assault was five days ago, five weeks, five months, five years or 15 years, really belies the incredible complexity of the way that the brain operates and honestly contributes to victim-blaming and mythmaking around sexual assault and sexual violence.”

On what the YWCA hotline is expecting after the Senate announces its decision on Kavanaugh’s nomination

“We’re bracing for increased calls to our hotline. We’re bracing for increased requests for counseling. We’re bracing for our current clients experiencing triggers, and I think survivors find themselves in this incredibly powerful moment, caught between pressure to come forward and a feeling that their experience will be invalidated. I think this is an incredibly critical moment for our country, for our government, for survivors of sexual violence across the country.”

If you need support:

There are many resources available, both locally and nationally, for survivors of sexual abuse, harassment, assault or domestic violence to seek help. Here are a few:

  • RAINN, or the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673)
  • The YWCA’s national Domestic Violence Crisis hotline: 877-718-1868
  • Many local rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters and women’s organizations also offer a variety of services and support

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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