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Sexual Abuse

Women embrace Oct. 18 after speaking about the experience of reporting sexual assaults during the public comment period at a Casper City Council meeting.

File, Star-Tribune

Tears clouded Tamara Macnaughton’s vision as she read the online comments on recent news stories — strangers on the internet lobbing insults toward a young woman who had reported she’d been raped by a prominent businessman.

They called the woman a liar, or insinuated she was plotting to take his money. They said the 20-year-old shouldn’t have been drinking or that her friends shouldn’t have left her alone. That women as a whole lie and abuse the criminal justice system to destroy men’s reputations.

The comments reminded Macnaughton of the reactions she encountered when she was sexually assaulted years ago. People then said she was only trying to undermine her assailant’s career. That she just wanted attention.

“Those statements stick,” the health care administrator said. “People don’t realize the impact those comments make.”

For survivors of sexual assault, highly publicized cases and the public reaction to them can stir painful memories. But in Casper, a number of women have found solace in a community of peers who also know those wounds. In that group, they’ve found advocacy and purpose.

For months, the women have worked to better Casper’s resources for sexual assault victims. They were making progress in a series of small steps, Macnaughton said.

Then law enforcement arrested Tony Cercy on charges alleging he raped the young woman. Cercy appeared in court Monday but has not yet answered a plea. His lawyers have not responded to calls seeking comment.

The news spread quickly through Casper’s social media circles. The reactions varied, but many seemed to place the blame for the reported assault on the woman or doubt the veracity of the investigation.

Seeing those reactions is hard for Macnaughton and other survivors and complicates their work.

“So many of us have heard those comments said to us,” she said.

Long-term trauma

The social media comments on news articles prove how much work there is to be done educating Casper residents about sexual assault, said Jennifer Dyer, executive director of the Self Help Center. The Casper nonprofit provides services to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and child and elder abuse as well as substance abuse treatment.

Not only do comments shaming victims affect survivors, but they also keep others from coming forward to report sexual assault, Dyer said. Only about a third of sexual assaults are ever reported to law enforcement, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. It doesn’t matter if the victim had been drinking or if they were wearing revealing clothes — that does not give another person the right to assault them, she said.

Such comments and even news articles themselves can deeply affect survivors. The trauma of an assault manifests itself differently in every person and can be brought to the surface again, Dyer said. For some, it increases anxiety levels. Others become depressed.

The National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health defines retraumatization as the moment when “any situation, interaction, or environmental factor replicates events or dynamics of prior traumas and evokes feelings and reactions associated with the original traumatic experiences.”

“Basically, it’s like going back to when that assault just took place,” Dyer said.

As the news spread, women started reaching out to Casper City Councilwoman Amanda Huckabay, a survivor who has been a vocal advocate for others.

“When a story like this breaks in the news, we’re taken back to our own situations and experiences,” she said. “We feel every bit of this as if it were happening again.”

The community’s reaction to this case has caused Huckabay to have insomnia and nightmares. It’s caused her anxiety levels to skyrocket.

So she decided to make a statement at Tuesday’s Council meeting. She shook as she described one Facebook comment that claimed that Casper’s culture glorifies victimhood. That women feel “left out” or “undesirable” if they haven’t been assaulted.

She shot down that notion. Being a victim is neither glamorous nor fun, she said. She said the assaults committed against her affect her every day.

Then she spoke to other survivors, anybody who might be listening:

“I hope that all victims can know that you are not alone and there is a group of us that you can reach out to and we will hold space with you with light and love,” she said. “There are always going to be people who will criticize you and claim that you are a liar. But know that our voices will be louder.”

Not invisible

Both Huckabay and Macnaughton have found strength in a community of women survivors that has grown organically over the past year.

It started as a few women who approached City Council to criticize how local police were handling sexual assault cases. Then others joined. Soon there were six women, then 12, then even more. The group members support each other and work to make positive change in Casper. They created an official Facebook group this week — Wyoming Women Warriors — that quickly grew to include more than 120 women.

For Macnaughton, the community has validated her experiences and helped her realize she is not alone. Huckabay said she and the others felt a responsibility to reach out to women who might be struggling with a recent assault and to prevent more assaults from happening. Through that work, many of the women have felt empowered again.

“In that process, things are restored that had been taken from us,” she said.

But the work of education and prevention can’t be left to just a select few — it must be a community-wide effort, said Dyer, the director of the Self Help Center. Together, the community needs to support victims and have conversations about assault, like those hosted by the Casper Police Department over the past few months.

“Our juries, our community members who are going to be making these decisions, need to be educated,” she said.

Despite the difficult past week, the women will keep working. And they invite other survivors to join them.

“Whoever you are, there are people and there are resources,” Macnaughton. “Yes, it is scary, and it is humiliating. But there are people who are standing with you and will lift you up when you feel like you can’t do anything but fall.”

Follow crime and courts reporter Elise Schmelzer on Twitter @eliseschmelzer


Features Editor

Elise Schmelzer joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 after graduating from the University of Missouri and interning at newspapers around the country. As features editor, she oversees arts and culture coverage and reports stories on a broad variety of topics.

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