Birmingham rape survivor speaks up

Alexis Barton
Alexis Barton

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is  Alexis Barton.  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

On November 9, 2003, I was raped by an acquaintance in my car behind a Birmingham high school.

This ugly incident challenged everything I assumed or thought I knew about who gets sexually assaulted and why.

When I spoke up in the days and weeks afterward – not for notoriety or to lead a movement, but to advocate for myself as a last resort – speaking up was still taboo.

Fortunately, things have changed. When I share my story with others now, I am encouraged that I can begin with the words “Me, too” knowing that people have some familiarity with the phrase’s deeper meaning. But in reality, my story began with despair as I asked “Why me?”

It became clear pretty early on that the only weapon I had at my disposal was my ability to voice what happened. So I did, even appearing on local TV and allowing my real name to be used. I wanted it to be known that contrary to popular belief, “good” girls from “good” families, with “good” manners and “good” educations were not somehow magically protected from sexual violence.

Since that time, we’ve made tremendous strides in acknowledging the prevalence of sexual harassment, abuse and assault across numerous industries and workplaces and in every community. From Hollywood to the highest rungs of government, people who commit these acts have been summarily informed their time is up.

But we’ve got more work to do.

Recently I participated in a panel sharing the reality of sexual violence to our region’s leaders. Bankers, lawyers, engineers, doctors and other professionals listened as I talked about how I struggled to empower myself after sexual assault, and how critical it is for our community to have access to high quality, affordable care immediately after a traumatic event.

Then it was my turn to listen. There, on International Women’s Day, a guest mansplained to the assembled guests and the other women on the panel. He challenged the notion that someone who has been subjected to sexual violence could legally call him or herself a victim without a jury’s tacit ruling.

I’m mostly for the free exchange of ideas, within reason. Still, at first I was appalled that he would have the gall to raise such comments in such a setting: a sacred place where people who have survived unspeakable acts come every day to begin healing. But as I prepared to respond to his comments, something stopped me.

I realized that hearing his opinion, and having it aired in a room full of some of Birmingham’s best and brightest, was exactly what needed to happen. Because open dialogue is what we need, especially when it comes to our community’s most sensitive issues. Even when an opinion is unpopular. Rape is one of the most – if not THE most – underreported crimes, and it is because survivors fear the response they will receive upon disclosing. That guest demonstrated for the others present exactly what all the panelists had been trying to say about the climate that often greets survivors.

The other leaders in the room needed to see and hear for themselves what survivors face – that is, if they even make it to court. (And the odds are that they won’t.)

The truth is, we can’t afford to go back to the time not too long ago when discussing rape’s collateral damage was taboo. That was the climate when I used my voice to advocate for myself. #METOO is not a moment. It’s a watershed movement.

This is a reckoning.

So what do we — the casualties of crimes committed on our bodies – deserve? This is bigger than arguing over who gets to call themselves a victim.

We deserve a community mobilized to respond with urgency and compassion.

How?

  • Respond to survivors with compassion, not judgment and dogma.
  • Choose officials who will pursue legal remedies swiftly.
  • Help reduce the backlog of untested forensic exam kits (formerly called “rape kits”) and use the evidence to pursue perpetrators. Jefferson County recently received a grant to accomplish this. Over the last 18 months, local authorities have received over $1 million in federal funds to address the current backlog and potentially, provide survivors with options.
  • Put the blame where it belongs: on the people who commit these crimes. Even when they are well-known, well-respected, or well-loved.
  • Support agencies that provide immediate care and wrap-around services, like The Crisis Center and One Place Metro Alabama Family Justice Center
  • Challenge your assumptions about false reporting and rape culture.
  • Speak up. If you SEE something, SAY something – in the workplace, in your place of worship, in your neighborhoods, schools and wherever else you may be.

And when someone you know finds the courage to raise his or her voice and add their “Me, too” to the symphony of voices – whether they become a silence breaker with a barely audible whisper, a trembling voice or a mighty shout – BELIEVE THEM.

Alexis E. Barton is a Birmingham-based writer and communications strategist. She is a member of One Place Metro Alabama Family Justice Center’s board of directors and The Junior League of Birmingham.

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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com

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