How Sexual Assault Survivors Got Their Power Back

PHOTO: Ari Mostov and other sexual assault survivors on stage with Lady Gaga at the 2016 Oscars for their collaboration on documentary film Hunting Grounds. (Twitter/ Ari Mostov)

For much of her life, words were Ari Mostov’s superpower. If she were Wonder Woman, she’d be punching bad writing into submission like a demigoddess.

So as the 20-year-old, armed with awards, scholarships and dreams, began a program at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts to train to be a screenwriter, she was looking forward to honing her talent – and who knows? Maybe even win an Oscar someday.

Then the rape happened.

It was a seismic event in her life, wrecking her self-esteem, plunging her into a life of fear that the next person on the street would assault her, and most importantly – robbing her of the power to write. In the aftermath, she found it impossible to wield her pen like she used to, and that meant that she had lost an integral part of her identity, a part that gave her power in life.

“I had these images stuck in my head of him just watching me and judging me, so I completely shut down. I couldn’t put a pen to paper, I couldn’t type, because I still had this mental block.”

It took years and years of therapy and an online community of sexual assault survivors who were understanding and supportive of her trauma to finally bring her out of the mental block. Today, she works as a producer on a TV show and a documentarian, a job that has taken her to unimagined places – including the Oscars stage. Most importantly, she feels like she has her power again.

The after-effects of sexual assault and rape can often be even more traumatic than the original assault. Some have called it a second rape, because survivors often end up feeling just as powerless, violated and wrenched from their identity by the emotional upheaval they are forced to go through that leave them unable to function as “normal” people in the real world.

Usually, it is classified under post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), a condition many people are diagnosed with when they’ve been exposed to violent and terror-inducing events like rape, abuse, war or torture. Those suffering from PTSD may get nightmares or flashbacks, lose parts of their memory, feel depressed or embarrassed or blame themselves or lose their appetite. Some may not be able to concentrate, others are unable to feel emotion. And many others – like Mostov – feel utterly worthless.

“When you’ve been violated, it’s like killing somebody without actually taking their life away. You’re devaluing them to the point that they’re not human anymore. It’s like walking around half-dead inside. You get to this point where you forget how to move through the world. I couldn’t leave my house, I was terrified. I couldn’t go down the street without thinking somebody was going to attack me.”

After the rape, Mostov watched what she thought was her support system melt away around her. She said most of those she had considered her friends at school or before either didn’t believe her, or didn’t publicly take her side. “All my support networks completely failed. Everyone I thought was my friend was no longer my friend and my classes were full of people who didn’t believe me or were on his side.”

Instead, she got the emotional support she needed from an unexpected quarter – an online community of rape and sexual assault survivors. She found it in a Tumblr page called Self Care After Rape, which had answers to questions about how to deal with trauma and on the Facebook page of a group called Coalition of Women Against Rape.

“What’s very hard about these communities is that we’re all in pain. We’re all so raw, we’re all so scared of other people in so many ways. There’s this paranoia that you can’t trust anybody, so it’s hard to work together. But there’s also this complete understanding – ‘oh you had that happen, I went through that too, I had that same feeling’. To be witnessed by somebody who gets it, that’s huge.”

Years later, Mostov’s therapist introduced her to a new form of treatment, EMDR. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of psychotherapy that involves rapid eye movements and is aimed at helping patients with PTSD relive the trauma and process it better. Through EMDR, Mostov began to finally come face to face with the events her mind had been blocking from her and by re-imagining the same scenario in a different way again and again, Mostov was slowly able to regain her ability to write after two years. “It was an incredible feeling,” she says.

EMDR is one of the bigger recent breakthrough treatments that has taken the world of psychotherapy by storm. Though it has its skeptics, many therapists and scientists vouch for its effectiveness in reducing stress and treating PTSD and recent studies have shown that the eye movements help strip traumatic memories of their vividness and their emotional impact.

Mostov then began to work in a production company, writing scripts, and even collaborated on a well-regarded movie on campus sexual assault called the Hunting Grounds, which featured a song written by Lady Gaga that was nominated for the 2016 Academy Award for Best Original Song. Now, she works on her own projects, is happily engaged, and says she finds it easier to navigate through life.

For comedian Ellen Rose Ford, the nightmare wasn’t the rape, it began a few days after – when she realized what had happened to her. The night itself had been marked by binge drinking with her buddies from the construction job she worked at the time, blacking out, and waking up in the morning with no memory of what had happened to her and with a pain in her stomach and genitals that she thought was a part of the hangover. But days later, when she still hadn’t stopped throwing up, her vision was still impaired and her muscles were not working, she decided to seek medical help.

And that’s when the doctors told her she had been drugged and needed to go to the emergency room because of a life-threatening infection that had been introduced into her through sexual contact.

The next two years of her life were spent trying to hunt down who had done this to her, while trying to keep at bay the horror that threatened to engulf her piece of mind.

“I was diagnosed with PTSD by a medical professional. I couldn’t sleep. I had to move out of my house – I didn’t know who knew where I lived. Waking up and operating just had a sense of immediate danger. I felt like I was constantly in danger now, and that was exhausting.”

Ford was already working as a comedian on the side, but now, a darker, more complex thread began to develop in her humor. She began to incorporate rape jokes in her comedy routine.

“Comedy was definitely one way to take back my own power. It was like – ‘If I can make the best joke about it, then I win, then I am able to be in control of how this situation is viewed’. And it made me feel better laughing about it, making light of it – sort of on my own turf, in my own time.”

But it wasn’t only about taking back control in her personal life, it was now also about making people aware through her jokes.  It was no longer enough just to entertain, to make light of everyday things and have her audience go home, happy and unburdened by the weight of the world. Now, with the weight of the world pressing down in her nightmares everyday, she felt compelled to insert rape jokes that make her audience uncomfortable, that make them think.

“It should be uncomfortable. It’s an uncomfortable thing to go through. It should be an uncomfortable act. People are comfortable with rape, because it happens all the time. That’s what’s not okay. So if I can say a few words to make people uncomfortable about it, to change their behaviour and shift their paradigm and realize – ‘this is not okay’, all the better.”

Referencing rape in jokes has been controversial ever since feminists began to point out how they were cultivated in and continue to contribute to a culture of misogyny – not just in comedy, but everywhere. And Ford agrees. The difference between those and the ones in her routines, she says, is that she does not use rape jokes to minimize the act or humiliate women, but to represent the point of view of survivors. She uses them to make things better, not worse. The butt of her jokes aren’t rape survivors, but the sexist culture that hurt them in the first place.

“The rule is that if the person who’s been raped finds it funny, then it works,” she says.

Today, Ford is in grad school at the University of Southern California, learning to use her comedy powers for good. The hunt for her rapist is not over, but the hunt for justice is what keeps her from giving in to the terrible days when anxiety revisits her. “You never really quite cope with it. I think everyone who’s gone through this is coping every day. Some days are worse than others, some events happen that are like a trigger and you go back to that immediate trigger that’s in you.”

It’s a struggle that Kristine de Leon knows all too well. Two years ago, as a 26-year-old  environmental science doctoral student at the University of Arizona, de Leon was sexually assaulted by a professor from another university at a research camp in Alaska.

When she decided to speak out about the assault and report it to the university’s investigatory community, nothing prepared her for the contempt that she was greeted with by her peers and mentors.

“In academia and science, there’s a stigma if you have personal issues. If you’ve been through something like assault or depression, it’s assumed that you will become sloppy. When you’re a scientist, you are supposed to have no emotions,” she says.

So when de Leon returned from the Alaska camp, almost everyone she worked and studied with – from the chairman of her field at her school to her PhD advisor to even her classmates – made it clear to her that in “showing weakness” by reporting her assault, she had compromised herself as a scientist.

Some around her hinted, others outright told her she should leave the sciences – including her PhD advisor. “I felt like she didn’t see me as fit anymore to be a scientist because I’d be distracted. She told me she’d prefer I didn’t continue with grad school because I have issues, and told me to find something else to study.”

The assault and the rejection from those in her field had started to shatter her mental strength and her peace of mind. “It destroyed my confidence in my work and I started to doubt myself. I thought I couldn’t be a scientist, that I was too dumb. I felt powerless and that I couldn’t even do what I loved. So I quit.”

Leaving science was not easy for de Leon because it had always been such an integral part of her identity. “It was something I defined myself by. If I wasn’t a scientist, then I was nothing, because my whole life revolved around science.”

Severing that part of her identity was so painful for her that it pushed her to try to kill herself.

She had a stash of Vicodin from a prescription that had been given to her after a previous bike accident. “So I tried to calculate the lethal dose of Vicodin, combined it with alcohol, and took them. But I was an amateur at this and it didn’t work. I was asleep for two days and then sick to my stomach when I woke but I was disappointed to find I was still alive.”

That was de Leon’s first attempt to take her life. She made two more. The second time, she took enough pills to damage her heart and be hospitalized for a week.

At the end of that period, the therapist admitted her to the psychiatric ward, despite her objections.

“He threatened to pink-slip me if I left. I was already in the hospital and because of that, it was easy for them to take charge of me. If I tried to check myself out, he could have me in there by law.”

And that enforced time away in the hospital, away from her usual life, was what eventually pulled de Leon out of her misery.

“I met people. I met good people. All this time I was in a bubble. But when I was in the hospital, I saw there are a lot of other bigger problems out there. My roommate there was a heroin addict, and I saw what it was like for her to go through withdrawal. And then I became interested in people’s stories. I spent time away from academia, and I slowly cut ties with my former peers.”

Suddenly, De Leon was interested in the world again. The farther she removed herself from the world of science and academia, a world she came to realize was confining and narrow and whose culture suffocated her, the more she felt her confidence flowing back.

One year and a few months after that third attempt, De Leon is in grad school again. She has a new goal now – learning to be a journalist, and telling people’s stories for a living.

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