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#DenimDay 2016: Epidemics of Harassment and Assault

How one person’s experiences with sexual assault and nursing-in-public harassment helped her to draw obvious parallels – and find healing

By Jill A. DeLorenzo

April can be both a tough and an empowering time. It is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and it is also the time of the Nationwide Nurse-In. Yet it is a time when I need to reflect on the many reasons why we need these events.

Two horrible injustices have happened to me on more than one occasion. They were deeply ingrained fears made flesh. They are the reason for those April awareness events. These things are sexual assault and breastfeeding-in-public harassment.

Before I get into the parallels, let me give you some background.

The first was sexual assault. Both episodes occurred before I became a mother.

I was first sexually assaulted in 2005. I was as a first-year college student, and the incident was during my third day on campus. The assailant was also a first-year student, and he was someone whom I thought would become a new friend.

I was also sexually assaulted in 2012 while working on-site at a federal government building. The assailant was a middle-age government employee and powerful manager. He was the leader of several work Happy Hours that were popular with employees across divisions, including many young people like myself.

The second is nursing-in-public harassment. Both episodes occurred after I had given birth to both of my children.

I was harassed for nursing in public in 2014 at a local gym facility when my youngest was 7 weeks old. I was initially approached by the Controller of the gym and other gyms in the area, and then I was approached by the Vice President of the gym franchise. I was told to “put on a smock” and they contacted their lawyer throughout our conversation to confirm no breastfeeding law was in place.

I was also harassed for nursing in public earlier this year (2016) at another gym facility in the area, this time when my youngest was one and a half years old. I was initially approached by a daycare worker, and then I was approached by the facility’s Manager. I was told to breastfeed in the bathroom, and the reasoning was so that none of the other children in the facility would have to see it.

Here is even more background, describing each of the four incidents above in detail (sometimes painful for me to think about).

2005

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An image of the residence hall where I was sexually assaulted. Seeing it being demolished in favor of new construction was a therapeutic experience for me.

The first time I was sexually assaulted, I felt there was something deeply wrong – but I pinned it on being my fault. I felt this even in spite of having gone to presentations that same day about how sexual assault is prevalent on college campuses and that it is never the victim’s fault. I feared the fallout from the incident. If I took action against him, what would happen to people that wanted to become friends with both of us? Would I be alienated and trashed? Would I want to transfer schools?

I kept the incident to myself for just over a month, until I broke down and told my boyfriend, my mother, and a couple very close friends from home. They were the first to make me realize that what happened to me wasn’t due to anything I did.

At the end of that first semester, I was challenged by one of my professors to write an essay about something that happened during the semester that deeply impacted me. The only thing I could think of was the assault, so I had to write about it. Thank goodness I did, because this professor showed me immense compassion inside my college bubble that had been burst too early. She pointed me in the direction of free, confidential sexual assault counseling. I went regularly throughout my second semester in college. I grew from anxiety, withdrawal, and guilt to a place of acceptance and hope.

As a college sophomore, I spoke out at a Take Back the Night rally for the very first time and received very positive feedback. Telling my story has helped at least two of my friends to come to terms with the fact that they experienced rape, too, and that it was not their fault.

By my junior year of college, I became a leader on campus known for helping women to work through sexual assault. I spoke out against the heinous culture that lets rapists go without consequences and leaves victims with loads of grief and self-blame. I realized that we had the opportunity to pursue action through the legal system, but very few victims made this choice.

I continued to suffer by seeing my assailant around campus as he gained notoriety as a local hero. I learned that he was very involved with the local fire department, and my sorority sisters had even mentioned that he responded to a fire alarm at our house. It was too close to home, but my support system was in place. I was outspoken. If anything were to happen, they would immediately suspect him. Speaking out ultimately helped me to get through my college experience at one university without having to drop out or transfer.

Toward the end of my university career, I launched what I called the Sexual Assault Restorative Justice Project (SARJ for short) – a PostSecret-inspired project for sexual assault survivors. The purpose was to heal the survivor in spite of a lack of formal justice. By writing and then sending off their secret, for the greater benefit and awareness of the college community, these survivors could take one positive step on the pathway to healing. This step might be the realization that they were raped, or it could be fully letting go and forgiving themselves.

https://rcieri.wordpress.com/2009/05/04/justice-on-postcards-postsecret-inspired-student-project-helps-sexual-assault-victims-heal/

2012

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An image of the federal office building in Washington, DC where I interacted with the manager who sexually assaulted me.

The second time I was sexually assaulted, I felt disgusting. Deep down I must have believed that blaming myself would get me answers. How could this have happened to me more than once? Could I really have done something wrong?

Moreover, I had been a hotline and safehouse volunteer at Doorways for Women and Families in Arlington, Virginia, an organization dedicated to ending family homelessness and intimate partner violence. I talked regularly with women in imminent danger. Why couldn’t I help myself?

It took me a very long time to talk with my significant other about the sexual assault. This man, who would later become my husband, could sense from the very week the incident occurred that something was off. I was so embarrassed that it had happened to me again that I instead pinned it on our relationship. “Maybe there’s something off between us. Maybe I don’t know if I want to get married yet.” The truth was that something awful happened to me, and I didn’t want him to know about it.

It took four weeks of back-and-forth with the man who knew me most before I revealed him the truth. After he learned what happened to me, he cried for an entire weekend. He was angry and upset, both at the manager who took advantage of me and at me for having lied to him.

We took the week after this revelation to establish that we would always be there for one another, and that I could count on him to be on my side. With his full support, that Monday I lodged a formal complaint at work with the Vice President of my division. She immediately reported it to the Accountability Board and an investigation was launched.

That week, I traveled with her and others in my division on a business trip to Cleveland. I felt perpetually tired and sick. I went for a massage, but that didn’t help. I felt that the stress of hiding the assault from my significant other had worn me down more than my body could handle.

At the end of that week, we learned why I had been exhausted. We went to a local emergency room with symptoms of lupus and a negative pregnancy test. Yet the test proved wrong. I was pregnant with our first child. I also learned that my engagement ring was on order and that we would be planning a wedding soon.

It was easily the biggest whirlwind of our lives.

I focused on keeping busy with other tasks – my wedding, my pregnancy, the new home we would buy. I even had to focus on my then-fiancé’s surgery to remove over twenty cancerous tumors (as if I didn’t have enough going on). Yet the investigation was always in the back of my mind. At least once per day, I feared what might happen if this man chose to retaliate for my reporting.

The week of my wedding, I got called into the Accountability Board to give additional testimony. At this time, I got to see some of what he had spoken in his own sworn testimony. These included disgusting lies, one of which claiming that he had “given me an orgasm”. Reading this put me into a state of shock and anger. Feeling like I had to answer for these lies made me hate not only him (even more – if that were possible) but the system through which I pursued my justice.

I never got an answer as to what happened to him. I asked my boss once every couple of weeks if there was new information about the investigation or if a decision had been made. It was incredibly frustrating to see justice work so slowly. The week I was due to give birth, I asked about the status one more time and was told that they were “almost done”.

I had planned to go back to work six weeks after the birth of my son. I did love my assigned tasks at the job. Yet the hostile workplace was too much for me to bear, in addition to all of the stresses of motherhood. I could not fathom leaving the son created through love by me and my husband to potentially be in the presence of someone who took advantage of me. Once my husband and I worked out our budget, I submitted my resignation. I left behind the possibility of knowing what would happen to him, and I was okay with that. (I think this is the first time I am admitting this to anyone, including myself.)

2014

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An image from the nurse-in at Gold’s Gym in Ashburn, Virginia. Saturday, November 5, 2014. Photo courtesy of Blaire Elizabeth Ring, Second Ave Photography.

I was in utter shock the first time that I was harassed for nursing in public. Yet I had the presence of mind to obtain a voice recording (legal under Virginia’s single-party recording laws).

I approached my friends and loved ones for their advice. I reached out to the Best for Babes hotline and found tremendous support in drafting e-mails to bring this incident to the attention of the gym franchise’s owner. My descriptive and inviting e-mails were met with hostility, and it quickly became clear that there would be no resolution. I wanted to make sure that no future mothers experienced harassment for breastfeeding their children inside that facility, so I took my story to social media. https://www.facebook.com/jill.delorenzo/posts/10100435724316953

It didn’t take long before my story went viral. Phone calls and e-mails bombarded the gym’s management. They quickly came out with a victim-blaming story that I was approached because I was sitting there with both breasts exposed. (Different versions of this report said different things; one said it was not in the act of nursing, whereas the other said it was while nursing.) Knowing that this was a vicious lie, I was further motivated to have a successful nurse-in and make a difference.

http://www.secondavephotography.com/nurse-in-at-golds-gym-ashburn-va-breastfeeding-in-real-life-event-photographer/

Once this story hit the news, I got in touch with Richmond-based advocate Kate Noon. She wished to use my passion to help pass Virginia’s “Right to Breastfeed” law. I quickly got involved and testified in favor of this law. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/20/virginia-public-breastfeeding-law_n_6721700.html

After the law was passed, I worked to bring awareness to it. I got involved with the Nationwide Nurse-In and launched the Positive Breastfeeding effort. Both are ultimately aimed at eliminating the possibility of a mother experiencing the horrific treatment I did.

2016

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An image from inside LA Fitness, Leesburg, Virginia.

The second time I was approached for nursing in public, I felt fired up but calm. I had obtained a recording like I did the first time, and I was ready to put the law to work for me. I took to social media as a sounding board and to let my networks know that the “Right to Breastfeed” law was already being used to my benefit. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10100700780053133&set=a.890610871693.2235730.18204560

I filed a report with the Virginia Health Commissioner, who informed me that state level breastfeeding groups would be contacted to develop an education campaign to prevent violations of the law.

Not long after this incident, the LA Fitness in Sterling, Virginia proved to me that I should keep my membership with the company. They apologized profusely on behalf of the Leesburg staff and said that such an incident would never happen inside the Sterling facility. I am now a happy member of their gym.

The parallels

I found parallels between NIP harassment and sexual assault almost immediately.

Victim-blaming language is prevalent across the board. This language includes often-used phrases beginning with “IF ONLY SHE”. If only she didn’t want to make friends. If only she had worn different clothes. If only she started that friendship or working relationship with “Excuse me, please, I just want to make this clear that you are not allowed to rape me”.

The truth is…

No matter how well we plan,

No matter our education level,

No matter the law,

No matter our dress,

Rapists and harassers exist.

People can become victims multiple times.

Claiming otherwise won’t protect you from the possibility of being hurt.

Another phrase I heard after my second experiences – and this came from people close to me – was “Why does this keep happening to you?” They probably didn’t realize that they were victim blaming, yet they were. There was no special reason why harassers and assailants came for me. In fact, many victims experience assault and harassment more than once.

If a victim has been vocal about healing from a prior experience, she or he may be less likely to speak up about it the second time. This is due to that deeply-ingrained victim blaming mentality (that has personally taken me years of therapy to move past). Fear of what trusted friends, family, and colleagues might say is enough to silence the strongest of us.

Yet I have also concluded that we are more likely to hear about multiple assaults or episodes of harassment experienced by activists themselves. This is because activists are intimately aware that there is something wrong that has happened to them, and they are already not afraid to speak up. We have established that sharing our stories has led to positive changes.

Why has it taken me so long to talk about my second experience of rape to the public?

It is certainly not a private matter, as it wasn’t when it happened. The silence of survivors contributes to countless assailants getting off without punishment, and of members of general society feeling like this is not a major issue.

I suppose that the second time around, I left my justice in the hands of the system that was established to handle it. With a pregnancy and new motherhood ahead of me, I wasn’t ready to hear ignorant statements from people who had obviously not walked in my shoes. So, I left it at that. I knew that when the time was ready, I could speak out.

Now is that time.

Motherhood, particularly my breastfeeding journey, has provided new opportunities for personal growth. I do feel like a badass for overcoming so many obstacles and being able to help my fellow mothers overcome their many obstacles, too. As my mind fully heals from the trauma of being taken advantage of, my body continues to prove that it is a gift to my children through a beautiful, mutually beneficial nursing relationship.

I have to conclude that I am not weak for having experienced these horrific things more than once. I am strong for speaking up.

Ultimately, I have found that healing lies in two places:

  1. Making the general public aware that the treatment I experienced does happen, and it is happening in epidemic proportions.
  2. Forgiving people who will never apologize.

The forgiveness has come hardest for me. Yet it is the reason why I rely on restorative justice. Sometimes I have to remember that, even people with their own free wills are products of a society that enables disgusting behaviors. They may see no problem with what they did to me, or this realization may be many years down the road. While an apology would be ideal, I cannot hinge my healing on it. All I can say is, “I forgive you for the way you treated me” – even if I never get a chance to say it in person. And the way I say it is by helping others in my society to realize what they did is wrong.

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I debut my full story on #DenimDay 2016. You can learn more here: http://denimdayinfo.org/about/

Denim Day is held on a Wednesday each April. It brings awareness to a rape conviction that was overturned because the justices felt that since the victim was wearing tight jeans she must have helped her rapist remove her jeans, thereby implying consent.

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Here I am, nursing one of my toddlers openly. We are both in our jeans. I’m meeting his needs and fully compliant with the law. We are not asking for harassment. Photo courtesy of Blaire Elizabeth Ring, Second Ave Photography.

This is just my own story. While today I break my silence on being raped multiple times, there are still many suffering in silence. Many have stories like mine, with their own unique twists and turns. I encourage everyone who has experienced these traumatic incidents to please share it with someone, whether a trusted confidante or the general public. The more we speak up, the more society will realize all of the harassment and assault we experience is a real problem.

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