They spoke out pre-.MeToo and cheer it, with note of caution

  • Feb. 6, 2018 2:34 p.m.

NEW YORK — The newspaper was about to come out with Leesa Perazzo’s account of being raped at 16. She was relieved. And petrified.

She had never told her story so publicly but thought it could help other victims. Yet Perazzo, a Schenectady city councilwoman, worried that people might think she was lying to get attention or that the crime would become inseparably attached to her public identity.

Going public about the rape “was terrifying and amazingly empowering, all at the same time,” the 52-year-old Perazzo says. The repercussions she feared didn’t come to pass. Instead, other women confided their own experiences and thanked her for speaking out.

“It changed me, and I’m grateful for that,” she says.

Now, little more than a year later, she and other sexual-assault victims who came forward before the .MeToo movement emboldened multitudes of women are heartened by its message of speaking out and strength in numbers.

It can be healing and liberating to come forward, say victims — or survivors, as many prefer to be called. To Perazzo, disclosing the rape meant “I’m not going to feel stigmatized by it anymore or feel like I care if you’re judging me.”

At the same time, she and others know how difficult and risky it can feel to go public, and they caution that not everyone should feel compelled to do so.

“I’ve seen these women gain strength by making the choice to share their story,” says Trisha Meili, who publicly identified herself in 2003 as the survivor of one of the nation’s most notorious sex crimes, the 1989 rape of a jogger in New York’s Central Park. But “I don’t want people to feel pressure that ‘Oh, now I have to go on TV.”’

Long after Meili was raped and beaten into a coma in an attack that became a symbol of urban breakdown, her family was wary of her going public. But the investment banker-turned-non-profit-executive wanted people to know her as more than a “rape survivor,” a “brain injury survivor” or the “Central Park jogger.”

Ultimately, “I felt proud to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to say that I’m those labels … and I’m also a person who loves and can be loved,”’ says Meili, 57, who wrote a book about her recovery and became a motivational speaker. She encourages sexual assault victims to let someone know, whether privately or publicly.

In the name of .MeToo, countless people have spoken up about being sexually assaulted or harassed. Some are actresses or pop stars others are private citizens. All have gone public despite the risk of being vilified or threatened online or being branded troubled or attention-hungry.

After a quarter-century, Lauren Leach-Steffens remembers a former boyfriend asking her whether she was making too much of it when she first publicly discussed being raped by schoolmates at 13. She says she felt as if the disclosure cast her as “the person with the problem” in other people’s eyes.

Later, as a behaviour science professor at Northwest Missouri State University, she would tell students who confided in her: “I’m open about this, but I don’t know that you should be open about it.”

Now, “I would say they’re going to get less blowback,” at least offline, says Leach-Steffens, 54.

After .MeToo erupted from the sexual assault and harassment allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the sentencing of sports doctor Larry Nassar for molesting gymnasts and other young athletes became another powerful forum for speaking out.

Some 200-plus women and girls, including former Olympic team gymnasts, told of being abused by Nassar. Some requested anonymity. But many did not, despite the possible consequences of going public.

“Every time someone Googles them, for the rest of their lives, they will see the sickening things we’re talking about here today,” said one victim, former gymnast Marion Siebert. “When they apply for a job, when they go on a first date, they won’t be able to be the ones to fully make the choice on when to talk about what happened.”

Artist, writer and activist Charlotte Farhan has found support and common cause in sharing her story in 2016 of being raped at a party when she was 15. But she has also faced online vitriol.

She suggests others think first about whom they want to tell and how, what they hope will come from it and whether they can handle reliving the ordeal and fielding questions.

“Know that you don’t have to share your story to be a survivor,” says Farhan, 34, of Portsmouth, England. “You have survived. That is enough.”

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