This year started with an admitted sexual assaulter becoming the 45th President of the United States. Seven days later, an accused serial sexual harasser, Casey Affleck, and a well-known wife abuser, Mel Gibson, received Academy Award nominations. Affleck even went on to win the 2017 Academy Award for Best Actor. Women on the receiving end of these men’s alleged, and well documented, actions experienced trauma. Affleck, Gibson and Trump, on the other hand, received validation and increased power.
These injustices are sadly common. The public has historically ignored or invalidated violence against women, and in turn, this has normalized sexual violence and other deviant sexual and physical behaviors regardless of gender. President Trump even bragged on a hot mike about sexually assaulting women — and tens of millions of people, including women, voted for him anyway.
Formerly pro-choice but always the Machiavellian sexist, Trump wholeheartedly embraced the rhetoric of the GOP’s evangelical base — a religious faction that always been hostile toward women’s health — while on the campaign trail. Now in office, the Trump administration looks to fulfill and expand on longheld evangelical ideas and GOP policies that aim to destroy Planned Parenthood and women’s health care overall.
And now, we have the monstrous product of an all-male Senate health care committee and the GOP’s unrelenting misogyny and short-sightedness, the newly revealed Senate healthcare bill, currently rebranded as the Better Care and Reconciliation Act: a bill that will also most certainly negatively impact female and male sexual and physical assault survivors — especially the poor and disabled — many of whom have, or will develop, chronic or terminal illnesses as a result of their abuse.
The impact of chronic stress on our physical bodies is well documented. The American Psychological Association published an article in 2006 citing several studies demonstrating how significant and prolonged stress weakens the immune system.
The mental and emotional after-effects following a sexual or physical assault may not surprise some of us. But many in the general public may be surprised to hear that the physical illnesses can result from such violations. Abundant scientific evidence, however, suggests that there is a connection between physical and sexual trauma and physical illness. The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in 1998, demonstrated a link between childhood sexual, physical, verbal, emotional and mental abuse and adulthood diseases, such as cancer, liver disease and autoimmune illnesses.
Judy Tsafrir, a medical doctor who specializes in holistic adult and child psychology, further explains how this can happen: “[Trauma survivors] develop an immune system which is high on alert and oversensitive to threat to the point of attacking their own cells.” It’s also worth noting that, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, three quarters of people diagnosed with autoimmune illnesses such as lupus, multiple sclerosis and scleroderma are women.
In addition, a separate 2013 study by Virginia Commonwealth University of Medicine found that over 60% of all participants had experienced at least one instance of childhood neglect, sexual abuse and/or physical abuse — and one out of ten of those women had a history of cancer.
Eight years after The American Psychological Association study, an article in BMC Public Health concurred with the ACE study, concluding that sexual assault survivors often have a higher incidence of chronic disease.
The current Senate bill would allow insurers to waive coverage of emergency services, ambulatory services and hospitalization – all of which many assault survivors depend upon. Insurers could also waive mental health coverage following an assault despite the need for such treatment in survivors as well as the fact that depression, in general, afflicts women more, according to several studies.
And women on Medicaid can forget abortion coverage and help from Planned Parenthood if a rapist impregnates them.
It’s time to stop turning a blind eye. While it’s understandable that the general population may not be aware of the aforementioned studies, it is not acceptable for anyone to not understand what constitutes sexual assault.
The US Department of Justice defines sexual assault as “…any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling and attempted rape.”
I had endured my fourth sexual assault by the time I reached age 19. My first occurred when I was twelve years old, the age at which the DoJ notes children are most at risk for sexual abuse. After graduating college, I survived two more sexual assaults before I turned 30.
As a result of these assaults, I have lived with depression, shame, anger, low self-esteem and guilt. I have also self injured and attempted suicide. However, I consider my secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, the multiple assaults’ most damaging effect.
While not every survivor will develop a physical illness, the public must consider and comprehend what decades of scientific research has shown us. Now more than ever, politicians, government officials, medical and law schools, doctors, judges, lawyers and citizens have a responsibility not to normalize or enable abhorrent physical and sexual behavior toward women and men.
It’s time to pressure those in power to kill the Better Care and Reconciliation Act on Thursday. We also need to elect more women in the 2018 midterms, readjust education, provide more medical and legal support, strengthen criminal laws, empower survivors and give convicted perpetrators much harsher punishments.
Most importantly, survivors need targeted medical care immediately as well as years after a sexual and/or physical assault.
Knowing what we now know, we must take action. The health of survivors depends on it.
– Laura Durnell
Laura Durnell’s work has appeared in numerous publications, such as The Huffington Post, Women’s Media Center, Trivia: Voices of Feminism, Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Antigonish Review, and Room. She teaches at DePaul University and tutors at Wilbur Wright College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago.