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Leslie Ioffredo: A survivor's story highlights how we should observe Sexual Assault Awareness Month

“Does he hit you?”

These four words changed the course of Tanya Selvaratnam’s life and led to the resignation of the most powerful man in law enforcement in the state of New York in 2018.

For one year, the acclaimed author and Emmy nominated producer said, she endured intimate violence at the hands of her then-partner, former New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

As we observe April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it’s a good time to read Tanya’s recent book “Assume Nothing: A Story of Intimate Violence.” It helps us understand the complexities of intimate violence and learn how we can best support survivors.

Intimate violence is often part of intimate partner violence, as it was for Tanya. It is sexual violence that occurs within an intimate relationship. While it occurs in all types of intimate relationships involving all gender identities and sexual orientations, most perpetrators are male and most victims are female.

Abusers coerce victims into sexual activity without their consent. They take what they want while inflicting emotional and sometimes physical harm on their victims. Afterward, they gaslight victims and disregard their injuries.

You probably know someone who has been affected. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey, one in four women and one in 10 men have experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime, frequently before the age of 18.

Tanya’s story helps us see that intimate violence is found among people of all backgrounds, ages, education, income levels, cultures and religions. It is rooted in power and control and usually occurs alongside other forms of abusive behavior.

Schneiderman, like many abusers, demonstrated both Jekyll and Hyde personalities. Publicly, he was a champion of women’s rights. After initially charming Tanya, patterns of abuse emerged. He isolated her from her friends and family. He demeaned her by criticizing her body and inflicting slave fantasies during sex. He slapped her and spit on her.

None of this behavior was consensual and some of it was extremely dangerous. During sex, he often tried to strangle Tanya. Research demonstrates strangulation is a major risk factor for homicide.

The psychological trauma of intimate violence is debilitating. According to the National Center for PTSD, up to 94 percent of female rape victims suffer PTSD after being raped. What many don’t understand is that being sexually assaulted by an intimate partner is generally more traumatic than being assaulted by a stranger. It involves a phenomenal betrayal of trust, and victims often sleep next to their rapists and can be raped repeatedly.

Like other abuse victims, Tanya feared leaving her abuser. She reported that early in their relationship Schneiderman said as “top cop” in New York he could have her killed if she ever left him.

Filing a police report or getting a restraining order without his knowledge was also impossible.

Tanya felt compelled to share her story hoping to stop Schneiderman from abusing again. As is common with survivors, she feared no one would believe her. Especially in cases involving high-powered men, a victim’s injuries and trauma hold less value than the abuser’s resume, reputation and assets.

Writing about the #MeToo Movement, Catherine MacKinnon argued, “It typically took three to four women testifying that they had been violated by the same man in the same way to even begin to make a dent in his denial. That made a woman, for credibility purposes, one-fourth of a person.”

And in Schneiderman’s case, it did take four women. An investigative article in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow brought forward three more of Schneiderman’s victims. Within three hours of the article’s release, he resigned. In his public response, Schneiderman contested the allegations, claiming he never engaged in nonconsensual sex. He has never faced criminal charges, but his license to practice law was suspended for one year. Denying his actions constituted assault, he has claimed responsibility for his behavior in his intimate relationships, saying he didn’t fully understand consent. He also maintains he will never run for political office again.

What can we do to support abuse survivors?

If someone discloses to you, believe them and ask what you can do to help. Assure them they’re not alone. Trust survivors to know more than you do about what’s best for them.

Make referrals to Elizabeth Freeman Center, the front line and major safety net in Berkshire County for anyone affected by domestic or sexual violence. We offer free and confidential services addressing emergency needs, ongoing needs and prevention programs for kids. We are accessible 24/7 via our hotline: 866-401-2425.

Work for social change. Interrupt sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist behavior wherever it surfaces. Work for pay equity, affordable housing, child care and health care. Examine the gender roles you are passing on to your children.

Help fund critically needed services. EFC hotline calls have increased by 300 percent since before the pandemic. Donate at elizabethfreemancenter.org.

Help spread the word. Misinformation abounds. Help destroy negative stereotypes. To do this you must educate yourself. Survivor stories are one of our most important sources.

Join the Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force, the District Attorney’s Office and Elizabeth Freeman Center on April 13 from 7-8:30 p.m. for a webinar presentation by Tanya Selvaratnam. Learn more about how her friend asking “Does he hit you?” led to her bringing down one of the most powerful men in New York and why that was a victory for abuse survivors everywhere.

Leslie Ioffredo, of Stockbridge, is a member of Berkshire One Book and an Elizabeth Freeman Center board member.

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