Breaking the Silence About Sexual Violence

If it is true that it never too late to be transformed by the power of a story, it is also true that there is no statute of limitations on our ability to become a transformer. In 1991, Florence Holway, a 76-year-old painter living in Alton, New Hampshire, was raped in her home. When the twenty-five year old man who had attacked her was given a 12-year sentence as part of a plea deal that Florence was never consulted on, her anger became a catalyst for her action.

“The terrible thing about this is not what happened to me, although that was bad enough,” Florence told me when I met her in 2004. “It was that practically nothing was done to keep this from happening again. Well, this little old great-grandmother is going to change that.” Today, thanks to a fight that Florence took all the way to her state legislature – and waged well into her eighties – sex offenders in New Hampshire are given longer mandatory sentences, and prosecutors cannot offer plea bargains without the victim’s knowledge.

That’s the thing about social change. It benefits the next generation, and the generation after that, until someday it is no longer recognized as change at all – it just is.

We work to make the world a better for our children, and to imagine the future as a kinder, more just place. Perhaps we invest so heavily in the next generation because real change, in real time, often seems to be an impossible dream.

Michelle de la Calle
Michelle de la Calle with her son, Julian.

Michelle was raped when she was 17 and for the first year after the attack she avoided talking about it, because she worried that her story might make others uncomfortable. But the silence left her feeling isolated and unable to ask for the support she needed. So she began to speak – and quickly realized that refusing to remain silent made her feel stronger. She’s continued to speak out over the last 20 years.A few years ago, I sat in a light-filled nursery and talked to Michelle de la Calle, a San Jose, California-based nurse. She had given birth to Julian her infant son, over a month earlier. As she held him in her arms we talked about her hopes for his future, and for her own.

“I share my story to break the taboo around sexual violence,” says Michelle. “And I share my story because I want other survivors to know that they can live on. Someday, my son will hear and understand my story. If that helps him grow up to be a man who respects women – well, that’s a pretty good reason to talk about rape, too.”


Anne Ream Anne K. Ream is an author and  the founder of the Faces and Voices Project, and past winner of the Soroptimist Making a Difference for Women Award. The stories are excerpted from Anne’s book, Lived Through This: Listening to the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors.

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