Sexual Abuse Survival and Recovery
**Editor’s Note: This article is part of InPublicSafety’s April series recognizing Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Please note that information in this article may be difficult for some readers due to its graphic nature.**
By Michael Pittaro, assistant professor, Criminal Justice at American Military University
After presenting at a recent Human Exploitation and Trafficking (HEAT) community event hosted by American Public University System in Charles Town, W. Va., a friend introduced me to Sarah Lovell. Sarah is a sexual abuse survivor who endured a tumultuous childhood stemming from horrific sexual abuse and an absent father, which led to a destructive path that was intertwined with long bouts of drug addiction and alcoholism.
To compound matters, Sarah encountered abusive relationships with men who continued to exploit her, driving her further into the clutches of substance abuse. Sarah’s lifestyle led to the loss of her first two children and the temporary loss of two others. After accepting that she had hit rock bottom, Sarah fought back. She is now clean and sober and the author of a powerful book about her life titled, One Body: My Story of Trauma and Survival. Sarah is also a public speaker and founder and president of a non-profit organization, One Body Alliance, which helps girls and boys express their needs and concerns of physical and sexual abuse.
Sarah’s Story of Sexual Abuse and Addiction
Sarah’s nightmare began at the age of 11, but continued well into her adolescent years.
“I had already been molested by someone who had been invited into our home when I was a girl, and now, at about 15, a more violent type of intrusion had happened. Even after all the years that have passed, the anger, frustration, and pain I experienced are still powerful,” she said.
“I was either drugged or possibly drunk, since I had never had a drink before that day. I was raped by a number of men, who were at least college age, at a party that my friends took me to. I knew there was more than one guy because I remember seeing different faces hovering over me. When I woke up the next morning, I was in so much pain that I could not urinate without crying, and despite me going directly to the police station, and even pointing out the house I had been in, justice was never served,” she said.
“Instead, I was shamed for drinking and having sex. I lived for many years thinking that I should feel ashamed for what happened to me, but no more. I started to realize that I was not to blame. Those men probably bragged to their friends about the young girl they violently gang banged at a party one summer. They did not know that that girl could barely walk for days after that. They did not know how embarrassing it was for that girl to be medically examined, fingernails clipped, and hair taken as evidence even though nothing would ever come of it.”
“Drugs and alcohol became my way to escape so that I could not feel the pain anymore. I should have been thriving in school and sports, but instead I was crumbling inside. Numbing myself was my way of coping until I realized that it was not my fault.”
Recovery and Reaching Out
Sarah has been clean and sober for more than 10 years now.
“I have made it my job to speak out for those who no one else will listen to. I know the isolating pain that sexual assault victims feel and I never want anyone to experience that pain. I do not know why no one fought for me, but I know now that in order for a victim to become a survivor, the most important thing is a strong support system,” she said.
Sarah continues to help and inspire others. This year, she was featured in a PBS documentary, A Path Appears, which takes viewers on a journey across the country and globe, to drive home the universality of gender inequality and the roots of vulnerability. She also serves as an ambassador for Half the Sky Movement.
About Sarah Lovell: Sarah is a single mother and recovering alcoholic and drug addict. She’s been sober for more than 10 years, and in that time, she went back to school, became a licensed massage therapist, and opened her own business doing massage therapy. Lovell and her daughter were featured in A Path Appears, a recent documentary series based on a book written by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, and produced by Show of Force. The series aired on PBS in January 2015. Lovell hopes their participation in the series will help bring awareness to the plight of trafficked women and children in the U.S. Her memoir is the story of a woman’s brutal early years, subsequent recovery, and attempts to make amends for past wrongs. She hopes that One Body will inspire other women to find the strength to keep going in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.
About the Author: Professor Michael Pittaro is a 27-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of settings. Pittaro has lectured in tertiary education for the past 13 years while also serving as author, editor, and subject matter expert. He is currently pursuing a PhD in public safety/criminal justice at Capella University’s School of Public Safety Leadership.