Although she wouldn’t talk about it until her professional playing days, Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart began scorching the status quo as a little kid — by telling on her abuser. In a riveting interview with Julie Foudy, Stewart recounted the details her early-life heroism to save her own soul (if not her life — sexual violence kills victims every day).
Stewart doesn’t remember a specific event that pulled her out of bed one night to wake her mother and disclose what had been happening to her for years. But she links it to the anxiety of nighttime — the part of the day when sleepovers would turn from fun and games with her cousins into nightmares at the hands of her aunt’s husband.
But Stewart told and, most importantly, she was believed: first, by her mother, then by her father, then by her aunt and, finally, by the police.
Predators are skilled at selecting their prey, often choosing the shy or quiet or awkward kid they feel they can manipulate and control. By telling, however, Stewart upended the abuser’s sense of power. It probably never crossed his mind that young Breanna would report him. And it is that sense of complacency which led him to be caught off-guard when confronted by the police, which resulted in his confession.
Arrests, convictions and confessions are often rare, and victims too often are not believed. So, it is important for those who were never believed, or who never had safe parents to tell, to know that the fault isn’t theirs, but society’s. It is important for people in this group to find a way to move forward even in the face of injustice.
As Stewart’s comments indicate, legal justice can be a part of the healing process but it does not make the scars go away. Some people never get justice and go on to thrive, while others get it and meet their demise. Still, Stewart’s story shows what things look like when the system functions as it should — something we don’t often see because the system so often fails.
If it’s not safe to report an abuser, victims should seek the counsel of people trained in these situations. Most of all, victims should know it is never their fault, even if no one believes them, and even if the abuser does not go to jail. They also should know that the courage to report the abuse reveals strength and character beyond anything their abusers could ever hope to have.
The Body Issue — an odd choice?
Some may consider Stewart’s choice to pose nude in ESPN’s 10th annual Body Issue — to expose the body that had been violated — a questionable one. Some may consider the female body, especially when unclothed or partially clothed, to be an invitation for sexual harassment, abuse or assault. But those people would be very wrong.
Stewart was a nine-year-old girl when the abuse started. If her abuser, or any abuser, finds the body of a child to be an invitation for sexual advances, the problem rests solely on the abuser — not the child.
But grown women are victims of sexual assault, too, and it doesn’t matter whether they are wearing skimpy clothes, no clothing at all or dressed from head-to-toe in winter gear. People, not just women, of all ages and in all forms of dress have been the victims of sexual abuse and assault. There is no action a person can take to prevent it from happening to them other than changing the culture of toxic masculinity and male entitlement that is at the core of many of these scourges on society.
It is about defying the status quo, one story at a time, until reporting abuse and winning convictions become so commonplace that sexual predators — man or woman — live in persistent fear of making a wrong move.
It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault. It is never the victim’s fault.
Whether age two or 82, male or female, naked or dressed in a snow suit, sexual harassment, abuse and assault happen every day in this world. And the prevalence shows that there is nothing victims can do to prevent it other than to work towards a society that has a zero-acceptance policy on these crimes.
Instead of growing into a body cloaked in shame, Stewart grew into a body cloaked in pride — contingent upon her hard work in training rooms and on the basketball court. “Once I really fell in love with basketball, I realized that I’m able to do a lot of the things within the sport,” Stewart said. “I realized there weren’t a lot of players like that.”
Instead of being a vessel for abuse, her body became a temple of achievement and superior health. Her differences, like super-long arms and a 7-foot-1 wing span, became assets on the basketball court that led her to a dominant collegiate basketball career and WNBA Rookie of the Year honors in her first season in the league.
Instead of blaming her body (and herself) for the depravity of one man, the way society so often blames victims, Stewart nurtured it. Self-care is important for those with histories of sexual abuse, so by caring for her body to become an elite athlete, Stewart also nurtured her recovery from the abuse that happened to her (whether she recognized this process was underway back in her middle-school days — a time when she was so thin a teammate nicknamed her Bean).
“I’ve invested a lot into my body because I want to take advantage of my time as a professional basketball player as much as I can,” Stewart said. “I put a lot of time and care into my body, because I know that if my body is prepared well, I’m going to go out and perform well.”
So, by embracing her body, relishing its power and training it to do incredible basketball feats, Breanna Stewart further saves herself. And she has done a great service to anyone with a history of abuse, by removing the cloak of shame and showing her body off.
Scorching the status quo
Why does it matter that Breanna Stewart and other high-profile people speak out against various forms of sexual abuse or violence? Because these crimes happen with epidemic frequency and perpetrators often get away with them. Only by bringing the problem out of the shadows can anything change.
And, just how big is this problem?
- Every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted
- Nine of every 10 victims are female
- 60,000 children are victims of “substantiated or indicated” sexual abuse every year
- One out of every 6 women in this country have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape
- 55% of assaults happen at or near the home
With these staggering numbers, it is no wonder that the United States was recently named one of the 10 most dangerous countries for women in the world. A society is only as great as its treatment of its most vulnerable populations, so it will be hard for this country to return to greatness without busting up entrenched norms that do not find these statistics to be outrageous.
What’s at stake, truly, is people’s lives and their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Stewart is fortunate to have a supporting parents who believed her and fostered her ability to get justice. But for those lacking in support structures, or whose parents are their abusers, or whose stories are not believed, the outcomes are often very different. Many victims of sexual violence develop mental illnesses like depression or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia, self-harming behaviors like cutting or burning and issues with alcohol or drug abuse.
Too many go on to attempt or complete suicide.
In other news ...
- Willie O’Ree, the first black hockey player in the NHL, will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
- Caroline Wozniacki has been ... problematic, in the past. But she is right about the necessity for Serena Williams to be seeded at Wimbledon. Maybe this is her act of contrition, after those sins of the past?
- NBA still leads the way in its commitment to inclusion and diversity in its hiring practices. Not a knock against the league, but hiring practices in so many industries are so biased and discriminatory that anything the NBA does looks good at this point. This means everyone else needs to step up.
- In the US, discrimination against women is often covert, insidious and hard to prove. Elsewhere, it is right out in the open, such as the struggle of Iranian women for the right to watch soccer in stadiums, like any soccer fan would desire.
Tonight in the WNBA
Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm
Dribble around the block
Tina Charles, New York Liberty
New Yorker, through and through
Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun
From shy to out of her shell
How to #WatchThemWork all season
Shine brighter. * flicker flicker *