Author and psychotherapist Ashley Warner, a survivor of sexual assault, visited the University of Virginia during a time when local and national media coverage had already been focusing on concerns regarding the safety of women in Charlottesville and on Grounds.
With three University-reported sexual assaults and the disappearance of a female student having occurred the weekend before Warner came to speak, she had a captive audience of U.Va. students and staff members. Before reading from her memoir, The Year After, published in 2013, Warner contextualized the issue. She reminded the group of a sobering statistic: One in every five women in college experience sexual assault.
“The fact is that sexual violence has been a problem since the dawn of time, so it’s no new problem now,” Warner said. “What’s great now is that there is outrage about it and we need outrage about it, but I also think we need hopefulness to move on and to continue to work on solutions, to feel like we are doing something. Our hopefulness comes from the fact that we have made some progress over the past 20 years, thanks to the foundational work of early anti-sexual violence efforts.”
Warner’s first reading was the chapter entitled “The Afternoon,” describing the moment she was assaulted. Within this section, she established the setting in New York City when she was working as a young actress and waitress. She did not know her perpetrator – He was a man who found his way into the apartment building. This is unusual, as Warner says later that two-thirds of the time survivors know or are familiar with the perpetrator.
Following this excerpt, Warner addressed that there is a lot of attention on risk reduction, which is important, but that should “not to be conflated with blaming the victim,” as she noted how she personally took all the necessary precautions. She did not live alone, her assault occurred during the afternoon on a sunny day, and her apartment building was next to a fire station, so she did not feel unsafe beforehand. Warner related President Barack Obama’s recent initiative regarding bystander intervention called It’s On Us, emphasizing the onus of responsibility is really on everyone.
Students and staff, such as Gender Violence and Social Change Director Claire Kaplan, commented on what the University is doing to make students feel safe, especially in the wake of recent reports of sexual assault. Students mentioned the FY seminar that included how to intervene as a bystander. Kaplan further described the Hoos Got Your Back campaign, U.Va.’s bystander intervention initiative, and other action “not yet implemented but will later be rolling out through the year.”
U.Va. launched Hoos Got Your Back at the beginning of this school year. This initiative is aimed at spreading awareness not only among students and those at the University, but also targeting merchants on The Corner, an area of bars, restaurants and stores near Grounds that students largely patronize.
Warner went on to describe how, in hindsight, it was easier for her to call 911 because a stranger was a perpetrator, adding that only 40 percent of all survivors report sexual assault and only 12 percent report it at college campuses. Eventually, her rapist was caught, which is also rare as only 3 percent of rapists serve a day in jail.
“When sexual assault happens, even if it’s a stranger who rapes, it rocks the community of everyone around you,” Warner said. “The world is suddenly not as safe as you thought it was a few moments early, especially when sexual violence is perpetrated by someone known to the victim and often it’s someone known to those who surround [the victim] as well.”
Overall, Warner’s book focuses on the aftermath or “the year after” the assault. She read an anecdote about when a friend invited her to take a self-defense class, she found it difficult to listen to other women in the class talk about how “they would fight back” if they were ever sexually assaulted.
This reading transitioned into a discussion on how to support friends who have experienced sexual assault. Warner advised that the focus should be on empowerment, and to acknowledge self-destructive behaviors that may result but to not push to change too abruptly. According to Warner, survivors of sexual assault are three times likely to suffer from depression, six times more likely to develop PTSD, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs and four times more likely to contemplate suicide.
Ultimately, Warner did not write this book until more than 20 years had passed since the assault. It wasn’t until recently when she was in a writing workshop and had pulled out journals from the past that inspired her to revisit this time.
When she tried to write her story in the first few years or recovery, she couldn’t go through with it because it triggered too much emotionally for her. Warner clarified that “full recovery is possible” and that the delay in writing her memoir was not because it took 20 years to not be triggered: When the writing wasn’t triggering, Warner said she was too busy to complete the memoir and had moved on as she didn’t want to be defined by the experience. Now, as an experienced therapist, she knows that it is comforting to read other survivor’s accounts afterward in order to not feel alone.
“The aftermath of trauma is not pretty […] It’s an isolating, lonely journey […] This book is a day-to-day report from the trenches.”
Story by Agnes Filipowski
Photos by Claire Kaplan