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Sexual assault: Don’t look away

The numbers are staggering, the stories devastating, the long-term damage crushing: it would be easier to ignore it. We mustn't

November 25th is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. According to current statistics, 1 in 3 Israeli women experiences sexual assault within her lifetime.

Even after all my years of working at the Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center, this number still overwhelms me. My brain rebels every time I think about the implications of what this number represents.

One in three!

Despite the outpouring of stories unleashed by the #metoo movement; despite more than 50,000 calls to Israel’s sexual assault crisis hotlines in 2018; despite the breaking news exposing yet another tragic sexual assault, 1 in 3 still boggles my mind. Truly believing on an emotional level that this scale of sexual violence is occurring within Israeli society is devastating.

It is just too painful and my instinct is to disbelieve. My instinct is to minimize, to tell myself that those statistics must be exaggerated. My instinct is to look away. But I can’t. I can’t look away because these are not numbers. These statistics are real women whose lives are torn apart.

I can’t look away because sexual assault is a part of a broader societal phenomenon that ignores or even tacitly accepts violence against women as a given within our culture. I can tell myself that we have come so far, that #metoo has broken open the dams holding back the stories of so many survivors of sexual assault. However, as far as we have come, we still have farther to go. So many brave survivors who have come forward are facing backlash. So many are still dismissed, disbelieved or accused of taking advantage of #metoo for personal gain rather than actual justice.

I can’t look away because the 1 in 3 statistic is connected to another number: 13. Thirteen Israeli women murdered so far in 2019 by those who should have loved and supported them. Three women killed in this last month alone. The ultimate tragedy that occurs when abuse in any form, be it physical, emotional or sexual, is allowed to fester under the veneer of Israeli society.

I can’t look away because I know that sexual assault shakes a woman’s fundamental assumptions of autonomy, control and boundaries. I also know that extensive research in the field strongly indicates that experiencing sexual violence correlates with impaired functioning due to myriad mental health challenges that directly result from sexual trauma. This means that survivors are highly likely to face difficulties with maintaining stable jobs, completing their education and even performing basic activities of daily living.

I can’t look away precisely because I can’t bear the realization that for every three women that I interact with, the math proves that one of them has been or will be sexually assaulted. How can I look away from the three women standing beside me at the supermarket knowing what I know about those numbers? How can I look away from the three women sitting next to me in my doctor’s waiting room, when I know chances are that at least one is coping with an array of post-traumatic symptoms such as phobias, anxiety, depression, insomnia and flashbacks due to sexual trauma.

I can’t look away because I know that for so many survivors the problematic coping mechanisms employed to deal with the fallout of sexual violence include substance abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, delinquency and suicidal ideation among others.

I can’t look away because the number 1 in 3 means that even more women’s lives are lost as they tumble in the downward spiral of complex trauma, as they are no longer able to withstand the mental pain wrought upon them.

I just can’t look away!

I need to stand up and shout out that this can’t be Israel’s baseline.

I need to let these women know that they are not alone! They should not be silenced! They must not be shamed!

Rather it is society that needs to face up to this shame. The jarring reality cannot be discounted just because we are not emotionally ready to accept how widespread sexual violence is.

One in three!

We can’t stand aside!

We can’t look away!

Please stand with us on Monday, November 25th for the annual rally to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women held in collaboration with the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality as well as a host of women’s organizations / NGOs. We will meet at Rabin Square at 6:30 PM. From there we will march to Performing Arts Square (28 Leonardo da Vinci Street – next to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Israeli Opera) where the main rally will be held at 7:45 PM.

Emergency hotline numbers for victims of sexual assault:
Women: 1202
Men: 1203
Religious Women: 02-673-0002
Religious Men: 02-532-8000

About the Author
Miriam Schler is the executive director of the Sexual Assault Crisis Center in Tel Aviv
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