“This thing… it’s gonna follow you”

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An Exploration of Rape Trauma Syndrome in It Follows

Horror films have a complicated and long history of depictions of rape. As many people have pointed out before me (most famously in Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film), the violence in horror movies tends to be undeniably gendered, sexualized, and unabashedly voyeuristic. Also, let’s not forget rape/revenge films: a cult subgenre of horror in which an assault survivor creatively dismembers her (often multiple) attackers after being similarly brutalized herself on screen.

At first glance, it may seem that the rape/revenge subgenre might be empowering for survivors. However, it nearly always simply serves as a vehicle for more and more sensational and gratuitous violence and, ultimately, a reinforcement of the status quo for our society’s understanding of survivorship. While these movies include sexual assault as a direct part of the plot, others feature story lines that present allegories for survivorship — intentionally or not.

One such movie is It Follows, an independent film released last March that was described to me as a story about “a sexually-transmitted haunting.” This phrasing immediately made me think of STI prevention and safe sex cautionary tales. As a lover of horror and sex education, I was on board immediately. I expected images and metaphors of disease transmission, condom use, or the plague fear-mongering so commonly seen in modern zombie films. But instead, the visuals and set-up of this film immediately brought trauma response to mind.

Admittedly, it is not uncommon for me to see symptoms of trauma when they are not intentionally being depicted. I work one-on-one with sexual assault survivors as a Companion, and I am a rape survivor myself who experienced a case of Rape Trauma Syndrome which lasted for years, so it’s not unnatural for me to read my own experiences and training into the media I’m consuming. By the director’s own admission of the inspiration for the film – a recurring dream he has had since childhood – I sincerely doubt the meaning I took from the film was intentional on his part. However, I saw it with a friend of mine, also a survivor, who saw the same metaphors that I did. Maybe the intentions of media aren’t quite as important as the messages the audience can take from it. I believe this is especially true for survivors of sexual assault, who often never feel safe or comfortable publicly identifying as a survivor. In such an isolated state, it’s common for survivors to feel like they are ‘crazy’ or overreacting. Without honest, accurate, and sympathetic depictions of the toll of sexual assault, survivors will continue to feel like they are damaged and alone in their trauma symptoms.

Rape trauma syndrome (RTS), a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is a stress response very commonly experienced by survivors of sexual assault and rape. Symptoms can occur immediately after an assault and may continue for months or even years afterwards. It is characterized by disruptions to normal physical, emotional, and social functionality. Physical symptoms can include shock, sleep and eating disturbances, and fatigue. Behavioral and emotional symptoms cover many issues including disorientation, purposefully isolating oneself, fear of being alone, crying more than usual, feeling restless or agitated, emotional numbness, hypersexuality, increased anxiety, feelings of guilt, feeling alone, and more.

Every survivor’s emotional experiences after an assault are uniquely personal, and symptoms can be as varied as they can be damaging. The symptoms I’ve listed here are only a few of those possible, and I chose to only include symptoms that I saw depicted in the film, which should give you some indication of the scope and variety of RTS experiences.

It Follows focuses on the story of Jay, a girl in her late teens or early twenties living with her inattentive mother and sister. The horror portion of the film doesn’t really start until Jay goes on a third date with a guy named Hugh, who seems to be roughly her age. After having consensual sex with Jay, he then chooses to chloroform her and tie her to a wheelchair in an abandoned parking garage. He does this in order to have an opportunity to force her to listen to some very unbelievable and time-sensitive warnings. He tells her:

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Legislative Updates from NCCASA

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The following are legislative updates from the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NCCASA), provided by Executive Director Monika Johnston-Hostler and Staff Attorney Joe Polich.

New Laws Passed – Long Session 2015

Women and Children’s Protection Act of 2015 – Session Law 2015- 62

Signed by Governor on June 5, 2015

  • Increases wait times and administrative burdens for those seeking and providing abortion services
  • Provides for electronic filing of all 50B and 50C proceedings in all counties in North Carolina
  • Changes the age definitions for statutory rape crimes in NC from “13, 14, or 15 years old” to “15 years old or younger.”

Joe’s take: Electronic filing is a huge success in pilot counties in North Carolina – including Alamance and Guilford counties. Electronic filing increases access to the civil legal system and streamlines the court proceedings in general. In counties with electronic filing, all parties will leave the hearing with copies of any pertinent orders and those orders will already be filed with the Clerk of Court.

No-Contact Order/No ExpirationSession Law 2015-91

Signed by Governor on June 19, 2015

  • Creates Chapter 50D, which provides a non-expiring civil no-contact order for victims of sex offenses that resulted in a criminal conviction
  • Violation of a 50D order is an A1 misdemeanor (the most serious misdemeanor charge)
  • There are increased penalties for the commission of a felony that violates the order

Joe’s take: the 50D order does not require victims of sexual assault to re-live the experience in open court every year to renew their order. However, the major shortcoming to the new 50D order is that it requires a criminal conviction of the perpetrator, which we know is difficult at best to obtain. On the plus side, these orders “have teeth,” violations carry serious consequences.

Protect Our Students Act – Session Law 2015-44

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From the Director’s Desk

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Shamecca BryantDear Friends,

With so many great memories and friendships developed, it is bittersweet for me to share with all of you that I will be leaving the Center at the end of this year.

These last eight years have been an incredible ride. The Center is truly a special place, driven by its mission and commitment to ending violence in our community. Working on behalf of survivors has been so rewarding, and I have all of you to thank for that. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to do this important work.

You are the reason that the Center exists and continues to serve as a safe space for survivors. Each year, we have the privilege of impacting thousands of lives. The support and healing that happens within and beyond our walls is bigger than all of us.

I have expressed my admiration to my colleagues, and I also want to recognize all of you as you advocate in this movement to end violence. All of us are keeping survivors’ stories alive so that the silence does not continue.

Know that our Board of Directors is working diligently to ensure a seamless transition for the agency. Updates on the search process will be posted to our website.

My very best wishes to everyone as we continue to move boldly into a future without violence.

With much appreciation,

Shamecca Q. Bryant
Executive Director

Press Release: Executive Director Transition, Oct 15


Consent Under the Influence?

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Alcohol and sex are commonly tied to one another. We see it intermingled in headlines, advertisements, and rape myths. Media saturates seduction with booze everywhere you turn, but why is drunk sex considered a socially acceptable thing?

rape-time-to-stopI want to start an honest conversation about drinking and sex. I don’t want to say that drunken sex is always wrong and, most importantly, I do not want to victim blame. There is absolutely no question that affirmative consent should always be clear, constant, and coherent. If someone is intoxicated, they cannot give legal consent to a number of things, not just sex. After all, even in Vegas, you have to be sober to get married. Entering into any contractual agreement while incapacitated is usually voidable in the eyes of the law. This is because drinking is proven to decrease cognitive ability and awareness of risk. If you proposition someone while they are drunk, you are entering into dangerous territory, because this person may not be capable of assessing the situation.

Unfortunately, this is not common sense for many people. Many assume that if a person is not completely passed out, then they are accountable for their actions. In reality, the scientific evidence shows a wide spectrum of behaviors when someone is incapacitated. The appearance of being “blackout drunk” can be very different from one person to the next. Therefore, that “drunken escapade” may actually be rape. Read more


Help “Raise the Bar” in Our Community

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Sexual violence happens in private businesses, private residences, and public spaces. We are striving to create a community where sexual violence is not tolerated in any environment. Private business owners who maintain a liquor license can help make this happen by setting clear expectations for their patrons and empowering their staff to a model positive behavior for our community. Private businesses have the ability to prevent sexual violence from happening at their establishments as well as after their patrons leave their business.

Since 2013, UNC Student Wellness has partnered with the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, the Carolina Women’s Center, and the Chapel Hill Police Department to implement Raise the Bar, a training that provides bar staff with the tools to recognize warning signs of drug facilitated sexual assault and strategies to intervene when they see them. Raise the Bar discusses bystander intervention strategies specifically for bar staff.

Alcohol is the most common substance used in drug facilitated sexual assault (DFSA), making bar staff particularly crucial allies in preventing sexual violence. Since we cannot identify perpetrators of DFSA by the way they look, we have to pay attention to their behavior. A perpetrator may take advantage when someone chooses to use drugs or alcohol, or they may intentionally give someone drugs or alcohol. For example, a potential perpetrator may pay a lot of attention to someone who is intoxicated, continue to buy drinks for that person, or try to isolate them away from their friends. They may also test boundaries, and ignore when someone says or acts like they are not interested. Bar staff may witness any of these behaviors and have the power to intervene before a potential perpetrator can harm someone.

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The Red Zone

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red zoneThe first six to ten weeks of the semester are referred to as the “red zone” for sexual assault, meaning that a large percentage of sexual assault on college campuses happens during this time. Understanding the inherent risks of your new environment can dramatically reduce the potential for dangerous situations to arise. It is important to be educated about what sexual assault is and the best ways to prevent harm to yourself or those around you.

Know the facts about consent and interpersonal violence. Consent is a verbal, sober, continuous, and positive yes. If they have to be convinced, it is not consent. If they are not sober, it is not consent. Consent is freely given and freely withdrawn. This means that consent one time or for one act does not mean consent for every time or for every act.

Be an advocate for others. If you are not seeking ways to be a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem. Do your best to watch out for potentially dangerous situations and intervene when possible, keeping in mind that there are resources for help available at all hours of the day and night.

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The Sexual Abuse-to-Prison Pipeline

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At the Intersections of Race, Gender, and Mass Incarceration

Over the past couple of years, sexual violence in America has received much more attention as the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has exploded into the mainstream consciousness. As the public, students, and higher education institutions continue to grapple with this epidemic, the Human Rights Project for Girls reminds us with their recently released study, The Sexual Abuse To Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story, that sexual violence does not impact only college age youth. It impacts young girls, particularly young girls of color (primarily African-Americans, Latinas, and Native Americans) as well as youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) or gender non-conforming (GNC). Young girls of color and LGBT/GNC girls are at a particularly high risk because the justice system punishes youth of color and youth who do not conform to gender norms much more harshly than their white heterosexual counterparts.

What does sexual abuse have to do with incarceration?

Experiencing sexual abuse puts girls at enormous risk for arrest and incarceration. When girls are arrested, it is rarely because they have committed a violent crime. More often than not, they are arrested because they have become truant, run away, or engage in substance abuse (which are called status offenses for youth under 18). Why did they stop going to school or run away from home? The answer, in many cases, is that girls are running away from abusive situations. They are then arrested and locked up for running away.  This is the cycle that is the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline. At the root of this cycle is sexual violence. The reactions girls have to this violence — which they are punished for — are merely coping behaviors.

Wait, so…they are victims of sexual abuse, and they run away to escape the abuse, but running away is a crime, so they get arrested?

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The Untested Rape Kit Backlog – Part 2

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If you missed Part 1 of this story, you can access it here

In the last post, we covered what a rape kit is, and the scope of the rape kit backlog. In this post we will pick up with the progress and challenges of getting to the bottom of the backlog.

Successes so Far

rape-kits-backlogFifteen states and dozens of municipalities have made the pledge to get to the bottom of the backlog, with huge success: thousands of kits have been processed, identifying hundreds of serial rapists. After a 2011 call by the Ohio Attorney General to process old rape kits, over 8,000 kits were sent to Ohio’s state crime lab, and over 4,000 have been tested so far. These tests have resulted in 1,474 matches with the national DNA database—over 35% of kits that had been sitting in storage had a match. What is even more staggering is that at least 200 suspected serial rapists have been identified. Houston mayor, Annise Parker, prioritized the processing of rape kits, even though it cost $5.9 million. They turned up 894 DNA hits on the national database.

North Carolina

The State Crime Lab of North Carolina prides itself on processing rape kits sent to their lab immediately. However, even “immediately” still means survivors are waiting 18 months to 2 years for results. According to a recent report, the state crime labs are struggling with recruitment and retention of scientists, many of whom leave after only a short time for better paying jobs in the private sector. The state is taking steps to decrease turnaround time for DNA evidence by opening a new lab and hiring additional scientists, and the General Assembly is considering salary increases to improve retention. An unfortunate consequence of the delay is that after two years of waiting, it is harder to secure a conviction, and sometimes survivors just want to move on.

In Charlotte, where they have their own crime lab, a spokesperson for the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department stated that even though there is a backlog of 1,019 kits, this number should not be taken seriously, because over 600 of those were from cases that had been closed. But a major argument for the processing of kits in the backlog is to find hits even in closed cases. For example, a kit that was not processed due to lack of evidence could produce a match with DNA previously entered for a no-suspect rape case, or another rape case closed for lack of evidence—putting the pieces together can strengthen both cases and help get serial rapists off the streets. Read more


The Untested Rape Kit Backlog – Part 1

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The CSI Effect

textrib-rapekits-003Crime shows on TV make it look so easy. You see investigators talking with the weeping victim, and then the scene cuts to someone walking in with coffee in one hand and a file folder in the other. The results came back from the lab and they’ve got a match. Unfortunately, in real life, evidence collection and processing after a sexual assault is often a traumatic, time-consuming procedure, fraught with prejudice, victim-blaming, and political pressures.

What is a Rape Kit?

A “rape kit” is shorthand for the process that a survivor can choose to undergo within 72 hours of a sexual assault to preserve evidence that may link the perpetrator to the crime. Essentially, the survivor’s body is the scene of the crime, and a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) collects samples of anything that might contain DNA or other physical evidence, such as swabs of the mouth and genitals, the survivor’s clothing, and brushings from the survivor’s body. The SANE nurse also takes pictures and documents any injuries. Samples of the survivor’s blood, saliva, and hair (both head hair and pubic hair) are taken to compare to any other evidence found. The survivor’s full medical history as well as an account of the assault is recorded. The rape kit collection usually takes four to six hours to complete, during which time the survivor is discouraged from eating, drinking, or using the bathroom. The evidence is then packed up in a box and handed over to law enforcement.

In North Carolina, if the survivor is not filing a police report right then, the box is put in storage for up to one year and can be retrieved if and when the survivor decides to press charges. If an investigation is opened, the DNA collected from the survivor’s body can be compared to the DNA of a suspect if there is one, or entered into the national DNA database to see if there is a match with anyone already known to law enforcement. DNA can confirm known suspects, identify unknown suspects, or eliminate suspects from the investigation. Read more


Everything Is Awful and I’m Not Okay

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Questions to Ask Before Giving Up

everything hurtsAre you hydrated? If not, have a glass of water.

Have you eaten in the past three hours? If not, get some food — something with protein, not just simple carbs. Perhaps some nuts or hummus?

Have you showered in the past day? If not, take a shower right now.

If daytime: are you dressed? If not, put on clean clothes that aren’t pajamas. Give yourself permission to wear something special, whether it’s a funny t-shirt or a pretty dress.

If nighttime: are you sleepy and fatigued but resisting going to sleep? Put on pajamas, make yourself cozy in bed with a teddy bear and the sound of falling rain, and close your eyes for fifteen minutes — no electronic screens allowed. If you’re still awake after that, you can get up again; no pressure.

Have you stretched your legs in the past day? If not, do so right now. If you don’t have the spoons for a run or trip to the gym, just walk around the block, then keep walking as long as you please. If the weather’s crap, drive to a big box store (e.g. Target) and go on a brisk walk through the aisles you normally skip.

Have you said something nice to someone in the past day? Do so, whether online or in person. Make it genuine; wait until you see something really wonderful about someone, and tell them about it. Read more


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