Why We Should Be Talking About the Media’s Response to AOC’s Sexual Assault.

On Monday, February 1st, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, commonly referred to as AOC, went on Instagram Live to discuss the events of the terrorist attack on the Capitol over the election results by a mob of white supremacists. However, also in that Instagram Live, she spoke about her personal experiences with her own past trauma, disclosing that she had been sexually assaulted. The congresswoman further detailed her experiences in a quote that, by now, has been shared hundreds of times on numerous social media platforms since: “Trauma compounds on each other.” The intention of this article is not to discuss the political implications of such a courageous statement, but rather I hope to aid in dispelling the myth that there is any perfect survivor – or more aptly- perfect time to discuss such a deeply horrifying event.  The response from formal reporters and regular individuals on Twitter alike has been a frenzy of polarized opinions. Some believe she is detracting from the trauma of the terrorist attack on the capitol, others- like myself – find themselves disheartened to see the lack of support and ability to contextualize one person’s personal recounting of experiences from that of a formal report on actual events of the evening. While representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did not go into detail regarding her assault, it is my understanding that the point in mentioning her own survival was to comment on the nature of trauma. From the IG Live it seemed as though she was looking for the words to describe why she had felt so deeply affected by the events that took place January 6th. Of course, I am but one individual and will not proport to speak on her behalf, but the point bears reiterating that some people are quite angry with the method and timing she chose to come forward.

#MARCH4WOMEN Photo by Giacomo Ferroni from Unsplash

To that, I have many opinions and responses, as well, I believe this opens up an interesting discussion about the way the media views survivors of sexual trauma and how our own responses further invalidate and isolate other people from coming forward with their own stories. Regardless of what your political stance is in the matter, it is abundantly clear that this is no longer a discussion about her role as a politician. The microscope all sexual assault survivors are placed under, both in the U.S. and abroad, is one that no other person who has been made victim to a crime is expected to endure. Had this been her saying she experienced a break-in and thus felt triggered by the events at the capitol, I doubt there would be a singular eyelash batted. However, a crime of this nature cuts to the very core of one of America’s deepest and most uncomfortable struggles, violence against women, and women of color in particular. It is much easier to pretend that this issue does not exist than it is to look it in the eye and come to terms with the harsh statistical realities. 1 in 5 women in the U.S. will be sexually assaulted, is a statistic that if you are a woman, have undoubtedly heard. According to the PEW research center, “Counting both the House of Representatives and the Senate, 144 of 539 seats – or 27% – are held by women". The statistical probability of there being many, many more survivors in Congress alone is a deeply unsettling fact many of us have not been forced to sit with in recent times, until the light of AOC’s statement. 

woman holding up me too sign Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Those who wish to subjugate survivors of sexual assault to undue judgement of how/when/why they step forward, are quite literally, missing the point. The fact that she stepped forward at all, is a statistical anomaly, especially for a woman holding such power, and that alone should be supported, regardless of political stance. Furthermore, reports of sexual assault have substantially gone down since the outbreak of Covid-19 due to fears around entering hospital settings and then possibly contracting the virus. The very last thing anyone should be doing is critiquing when and how survivors stand up and step forward, regardless of the office they hold or the context of how it is brought to light.  As a country, we often take sadistic pleasure in both placing women on a pedestal for their fortified emotional strength and criticizing them when they fail to live up to unrealistic and painful standards. I mention women only because of this particular context, but much the same can be said with a different set of expectations for male, trans, and nonbinary survivors of sexual assault. It all stands to reason that a crime is a crime and when a crime has been committed there is no ‘perfect victim’, as much as it would seem those with critiques would prefer this to be the truth. The implication of a “perfect victim”, or a perfect time/place/situation to step forward implies that there is any choice on the survivor’s behalf to have been ‘chosen’ to endure such trauma. And yet, this is not seen with any other recognizable form of violence as depicted by the media. 

Vlad Tchompalov Vlad Tchompalov / Unsplash Why then, do we place so much pressure on survivors of sexual assault to be the silent martyrs of an entire population afflicted with this pain? There are many possibilities- perhaps it is easier to victim blame than it is to dive into solving a torrid history of rape culture and toxic masculinity, or perhaps it is easier to believe that one person has handled it better than others to avoid the introspective nature of how we, as a society, can be expected to cope and live alongside these horrors. Hypotheses can be made all day, truth be told, but one thing is for certain: judging individuals for how they choose to step forward impedes progress altogether and prevents an affirming space for others to enter alongside them. Ignoring survivors that do not “fit the mold” does not make them go away. It does, though, support a historic narrative of deafening silence.