March 2020 was an awful month. In most places, it was the beginning of lockdowns in response to COVID-19. For me, it was also when my 17-year-old daughter told me she had been raped. As a gender, women’s and sexuality studies (GWSS) professor with years of experiences supporting my survivor students, I knew enough to tread lightly. But she was my precious baby girl, not my student. So when she told me, my heart shattered into a million pieces and landed in the pit of my stomach.
I woke up every day, from then on, with the rape the first thing I thought of. I knew enough to be able to envision a scenario, even though she shared very few details. She didn’t show any significant signs of PTSD for a long time. She went to college during COVID, so everything was already sideways. The PTSD kicked in, however, soon after she left. Fast-forward several months, and after many sob-filled phone calls, she eventually agreed to let me find a therapist for her when she came home. I found a trauma-informed woman who was taking patients, and I spent a rushed summer next to my daughter on bathroom floors as the trauma wreaked havoc on her precious body. We tried everything from art to yoga to meds to diet. We celebrated if we went 24 hours without either of us crying. We laughed when we could, often at our own fragility.
Rape used to be something that hurt and enraged me in the abstract. Given that I am a GWSS professor who has taught about sexual assault, violence and rape—and cared for survivors for decades—I had much intellectual insight with which to watch her pain. Eventually I realized that as she got better, which she absolutely did, I got worse. I needed a trauma therapist because I was broken. I wasn’t “on the verge”; I was on the floor in a puddle of my daughter’s PTSD and my pain, experiencing secondary trauma.
I am proud of what I did for my daughter. I believe my efforts helped to get her into a place where, two years in, she is generally thriving and her PTSD is mostly managed, although the bouts of deep sorrow and anxiety continue to punctuate her (and thus my) life. But I’m not writing to offer advice about my daughter. Instead, I write this essay as a GWSS professor to other professors, especially those who find yourselves in contact with students who frequently disclose their own sexual assaults, or who have had the horrific experience of a child or another person close to you personally being sexually assaulted or raped. I want to share some suggestions on what to do for yourself.
- Know it wasn’t your fault. Sadly, rape culture is so pervasive that even GWSS professors who teach about it will often blame ourselves for our loved one’s rape. If you are a feminist like me, you started talking to your daughter quite young about slut shaming and all of the double standards for boys and girls in school. Your daughter has heard your rants. If you are like me, then, you may have thought she was raped because she respected your opinions so much that she was sexually liberated and that led her to the rapist. It took me talking to a therapist to be able to articulate she was raped by a boy/man who abused his power and disregarded her wishes, not because of my parenting.
- Look into paid time off through sick leave. I didn’t know that I could be granted a sick leave. My doctor submitted a form that verified I could not work due to clinical depression and anxiety brought on by daughter’s sexual assault. This made me eligible for paid leave for the semester. I only learned of that option because a staffer had seen me crumbling and told me to look into it. No doubt, different campuses and people’s individual job statuses will allow for different accommodations. For the sake of anonymity, I cannot disclose more, but some options are federally guaranteed, some are provided through union membership and perhaps others your HR office can share with you.
- Reach out for support. Find the right friends and colleagues to tell, with your daughter’s permission. Sadly, it’s possible they will be able to relate to your experience more than you expect.
- Get a good, trauma-informed therapist. It took me at least three months to find a therapist who had the credentials and expertise I was looking for and who was taking new patients. Cognitive processing therapy is an amazing approach. You can get a sense of it from this podcast. Look for therapists who use it.
- Establish boundaries with your students. One of the things that terrified me the most about going back to in-person classes was the unending flow of disclosures of sexual assault that GWSS professors get, compounded by basic emotional labor that women and/or minoritized faculty already do. I am working with my campus’s victim advocate on language that lets students know I hear them but I can’t be their entire support system.
- Talk to your sons. Our high school and college boys need to be the ones to stop each other from assaulting their peers. I have spoken often with my son about consent and sexual assault and other key issues. It’s not enough, as I have written elsewhere, to say or know that “my son would never do that.” You need to talk to your son about preventing other boys from “doing that.” Don’t let him slut shame the girls or stay silent when he inevitably hears people slut shaming. Talk until he’s annoyed and rolls his eyes at you. And if you have Netflix, have him watch Sex Education.
- Self-care. I wish I had a better word, because I really am over “self-care,” as the concept has been so commodified and feels so elite. But in addition to the big-picture stuff I have already suggested, carve out time every day to do something that you find mentally and emotionally nourishing. As professors, we’ve learned early how to cherish our regular writing time. Well, as Janet Alexander and Beth Kelch remind us, we must do the same with self-care. Block out 30 minutes (at least) on your calendar every day and use it for just for you.
Navigating my daughter’s rape is the hardest thing I have ever done from all perspectives—as a mother, wife, professor, daughter and person who needs to take care of herself. For those of you in similar situations, I hope this piece gives you a glimmer of stability and hope.