“I Asked Him for My Clothes and My Phone”
No one expects to be sexually assaulted. Then it happens.
Prevention efforts and supportive parents won’t always insulate people from becoming victims of sexual crimes. The way we respond as a community needs to be informed, too.
“When someone reports a sexual assault in Arlington, we’re here to coordinate services and give them the best of all our resources—from legal action to medical treatment to emotional support,” says Candice Lopez, program and prevention specialist for Project PEACE. This means that law enforcement, the judicial system, hospital staff and advocacy professionals are working together to minimize trauma and promote safety and healing.
One significant community effort, a program called the Arlington Restaurant Initiative (ARI), is playing out on the front lines, in local bars. Launched in October 2018, ARI sends county police officers to businesses that hold liquor licenses to train waitstaff, bartenders, managers and security personnel how to identify risky behavior and intervene as needed. Perhaps you’ve seen the “Ask for Angela” posters in restaurant bathrooms? They encourage patrons who feel threatened to use those code words to covertly ask restaurant staff for help—whether that means extricating themselves from a bad date, stealthily securing a safe ride home or calling the police. Currently, nearly two dozen Arlington establishments are ARI accredited.
Involving police doesn’t always mean pressing charges. “We use a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach,” says Eliseo Pilco, Arlington’s Special Victims Unit supervisor, reiterating that Doorways’ services are presented as an option even for those who are reluctant to pursue legal action. “If they decide to have evidence collected, we’ll hold it for at least two years in order to give them time to consider what action to take.”
Some survivors seek help years after the scars of trauma have set in. For Sara, an Arlington resident who prefers to keep her last name anonymous, that step would become the light at the end of a decades-long tunnel of despair, and a life that had been defined by sexual assault.
“My pastor found Doorways for me because I was at the point where I needed to be hospitalized,” says the now-37-year-old. “I didn’t want to live anymore. I didn’t think I could ever have a meaningful future because I couldn’t make any sense of my past.”
Sara points to three incidents in her life that chipped away at her emotional and psychological well-being. The first was when she was a child growing up in Oklahoma, where, from ages 7 to 10, she was sexually traumatized by a slightly older neighbor—who Sara now believes was also a victim of sexual trauma.
The second occurred when she was in junior high, after she moved with her family to Ohio. A boy she’d developed a friendship with through church convinced her that it was God’s will to have sex with him. She resisted in the early stages of their friendship, but eventually acquiesced—and instantly regretted it.
“I wanted to stop it and I started protesting, but he freaked out in a way I’d never seen before,” she says. “He was screaming and saying abusive things to me. I just froze. I felt like it was my fault, that I had ruined his life. From that point on I don’t remember saying no to anyone, ever. I felt like I had no agency over my own decisions.
“I grew up in an Evangelical Christian culture,” Sara continues. “I only really knew a language of shame around sex and sexuality, which set the stage for my confusion around boundaries and unhealthy relational dynamics. I put up with abusive or coercive partners, knowing that it felt bad or felt wrong but not knowing that there was any other way of doing things.”
In 2010, after a concerted effort to turn things around, Sara went out with friends to a bar in Alexandria and ended up drinking too much. She stepped into the parking lot for some fresh air and was picked up by a man she’d never seen before whose name she doesn’t remember. He drove her to an apartment in Springfield. Once there, she drifted in and out of consciousness, recalling the event only in hazy images. “I remember he laughed as he was raping me, telling me it looked like I was dead.”
Over the next six years, Sara struggled with alcohol abuse and PTSD. Eventually, the pastor at her former church brought her to Doorways. For the first time, she was able to come to terms with the memories that haunted her.
“Doorways didn’t try to pathologize me,” she says. “They saw and treated me as a human being who had experienced complex trauma. I was in a safe place knowing that I could finally tell the truth—all the truth—and not have it define the way I was treated or looked at. I can’t go back and change what’s happened to me, but I can choose to move forward with hope.”