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Rape: Lessons for surviving sexual assault

Jennifer Wheatley-Wolf was born and raised in Annapolis, MD and graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1983 with a degree in painting and printmaking. She is an award winning artist who currently resides in Virginia with her ...

Speak up & speak out on rape

On August 21, 1988 I faced the terror of being sexually assaulted. As a survivor, I was overwhelmed with feelings of humiliation, embarrassment and fear, not realizing this was the isolation felt by many other sexual assault, incest and rape survivors.
Strong, proud woman

I didn't see the face of the man who tried to strangle and suffocate me and raped me in my home that late summer night; it would take 20 years for my attacker to be found and brought to justice. He was out there and I had no way of identifying him, an idea that paralyzed me with fear.

Break the silence

Confusion and isolation began for me as soon as I saw the two sentence "Police Beat" write-up about my assault in my local paper. My name was not included. I learned later that all rape survivors’ identities are shielded from public scrutiny by withholding their names in the media. With the police and newspapers not identifying me publicly, I was given the impression that talking about what happened to me wasn't allowed. During the 20 years it took to solve the crime, my confusion and shame turned to enlightenment as I moved on with my life and learned that I was not alone in my struggle. Sexual crimes are the most under-reported crimes and survivors live with the taboo of rape, often believing they "deserved" it as a consequence of their looks, clothes or behavior. Working through their fear in whatever way they can, many victims do not know that help is available.

Rape affects women, children and even men

Eventually, I moved on with my life, even though the man who raped me was still free to terrorize other women and children. Over the years, and especially when I received news that the man who raped me had been identified, I began to realize how reporting my rape and the collection of evidence at the time were crucial to solving this crime and stopping other rapes from occurring. While doing research for a book about my story, I learned that rape affects women, children and even men of all ages. Although our experience may be different, we share some common bonds. You can read my story in One Voice Raised: A Triumph Over Rape.

The key to stopping rape:
Stop those who rape

The majority of rape survivors will not report the crime. Fear of retaliation from their attacker, judgment of others and fear of facing their attacker in court are just a few of the many reasons for not calling the police. However, no reason is good enough for not reporting the crime. The only way to stop rape is to stop those who rape. Reporting the crime and seeing it through to a conviction is the responsibility of the survivor. On January 13, 2010, when I finally faced my attacker in court, I realized just how important it was to have reported the crime all those years ago and how powerful the act of testifying against him could be.

There is no perfect crime

The man who raped me believed he had committed the perfect crime by not allowing me to see his face. I didn't understand the importance of going to the hospital and have a vaginal swab done. What possible good could that do? Although evidence collected wasn’t useful in 1988 in solving my crime, as years passed and technology advanced, this would change. In 2005, using the DNA database, chief investigator David Cordle was able to link evidence from my case to another victim. In 1994, William Joseph Trice, my rapist, was entered into the national criminal fingerprint database (AFIS) after he was convicted of indecent exposure to a minor and served 18 months in prison. It was his fingerprints that were retrieved from the candle on my nightstand on August 21, 1988. His mistake, and our persistence, was what eventually led to his arrest in 2008.

You can move forward

Rape is terrifying and for many, paralyzing. The fear I experienced the night of my attack was like nothing I had ever known before. This fear ruled my life for months. I made a bad choice by not taking full advantage of the services offered by the local rape counseling center, because I believed I was better off with my family and friends. Although my loved ones were extremely supportive, they were unequipped to handle the kind of emotional upheaval I was going through. None of us had even known anyone who had been through something like this before. My life started to fall apart.

I was lucky when a few words from a friend of mine made me realize that every day that I got up and drank my way through it, trying to numb my fear, was a day lost to the man who raped me. I was empowering him by destroying myself. I got help and rebuilt my life on a strong foundation by focusing on my strengths while forgiving myself my weaknesses. Talking about the experience with a counselor will help you to begin healing. You don't have to do it alone. The Rape Crisis Center, YWCA and NOVA (Network Of Victim Assistance) all offer free counseling and have a 24/7 hotline for those in crisis.

Speak up & speak out

It isn't enough to just report the crime. As survivors, we must speak out against our attackers in a court of law. By testifying against my attacker, I was able to redirect the shame and social stigma associated with rape in the appropriate direction — toward my rapist. I found seeing the face of the man who raped me for the first time so empowering I was able, for the first time, to see him as the pathetic soul he was, not the larger-than-life monster I had made him out to be in my nightmares. I’ve shared much of my courtroom proceedings in my book as a way of shedding light on what happens behind those big wooden doors. I believe that in addition to fearing their attacker, many women do not report sexual assault because they do not want to feel they have to defend their honor in the courtroom. Rape reform laws have helped, but not completely eliminated attacks on the victim’s character as a way for the defense to suggest they somehow brought the crime on themselves. It was important for me to understand that no matter what I did in my past, nothing made it OK for my attacker to rape me.

Rape does not define who you are

As a victim of rape, it's hard to remember that the crime isn't who you are, it's who the rapist is; it doesn't define you. Although my life was inexorably changed on the night I was raped, I can say now that not all of those changes were bad. In fact, many of the choices I have made during this journey have made me a much more determined and successful person. If we can only focus on what we have lost or how much we miss the way things used to be, we will never realize that our lives are full of endless possibilities.

More on sexual assault

Talking to your kids about sexual abuse
Surprising crime stats that affect women
Most common crimes against women and how to protect yourself

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