Real Talk: We Need To Keep Talking About Sexual Assault
Foxxtales reached out to entrepreneur and sexual assault advocate, Sheri Poe, to continue the conversation about sexual assault and to shine a light on a devastating and dark trauma.
After being violently raped as a college freshman, and further suffering from victim blaming, Sheri Poe became a silent sufferer of depression, PTSD, and bulimia. She began to heal, decades later, through therapy, meditation, sharing with loved ones, and publicly telling her story.
Sheri has been speaking for 23 years on college campuses nationwide to inspire survivors that sexual assault is never their fault and they are not alone.
Today, at age 64, Sheri continues to share her story as an entrepreneur, motivational speaker, and advocate for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. She is a dedicated mother of 4 grown children. Sheri encourages survivors to speak up, and get the support they need, so that they can begin the healing process, and someday, they too will thrive.
How did you get involved with being a sexual assault advocate?
First, I should say that, 45 years ago, I was raped as a college freshman by a stranger with a gun. That’s what happened to me. I was 19. I didn’t share my story because I was a victim of “victim blaming” which is still prevalent today. The police blamed me. The hospital blamed me. Everyone blamed me. They said it was my fault. Back then, it was your fault no matter what. There was no consciousness or compassion around this horrible issue. So I stuffed this incident internally and didn’t tell anyone, except my brother. I never told my parents. I never told friends. I decided to pretend it didn’t happen.
When trauma lives inside of you, all kinds of havoc is wreaked on your body physically and emotionally. So, I developed PTSD, depression, anxiety, and severe bulimia. [The bulimia] became life threatening to me with four miscarriages. It was a horrific experience. I was extremely depressed and didn’t have a life. This went on for a number of years before I slowly started to get help, when I was in my 30s. I did therapy. I went to India and meditated a lot. It took me decades to really start to heal.
After a couple of years of running my company Ryka, a shoe wear company dedicated to women, it came to my attention that 1 in 4 women were still being sexually assaulted on college campuses. That had not changed in 45 years. It was 1 in 4 women then; and it is still today 1 in 4 women. That was shocking to me. Then, I found out that 1 in 5 women in the general population are also sexually assaulted. You got to remember that these statistics are only people who have reported. I was pretty horrified. In a moment, I remembered saying, “these women are buying my shoes, I have to do something.” The only way for it to be genuine was for me to come forward and share my story.
Before that moment, do you think you did not want to share your story because you didn’t realize how prevalent sexual assault was?
That’s exactly what happened. I felt deep down inside that if I shared my story and I was honest about it, those women would somehow be helped. I just felt it deeply inside of me. In 1990, it was very risky. People weren’t talking about it. At the time, I had a public company and I was its CEO. We had shareholders so making that decision was a big decision. There were a lot of disgruntled shareholders who wanted me to shut up. But, I wouldn’t. I started speaking [and doing speeches across the country.]
Wherever I went [to speak], women were moved, encouraged and inspired. They would wait, until after my speech, for hours to talk to me one on one and tell me their stories. 90% of them told me that they had never told anyone. Why? Because they were ashamed and they were embarrassed.
So what’s the biggest problem facing sexual assault victims today?
The difference between today and 45 years ago, there are rape crisis hotlines and tons of resources. First responders have been educated. There are programs. There is so much now available for victims. The problem is - the one that hasn’t changed in 45 years - that I have never met someone who does not feel so ashamed and so embarrassed and so much blame. If I could’ve done this… I should’ve done that… So, I am so passionate about being an advocate for changing that. In this country, we have an epidemic happening here. This is an epidemic. The only way for it to change is for people to keep talking about this. We need to keep talking about it. We need to allow these people to feel safe enough and brave enough to go and get the help that they need.
What are some of those misconceptions about sexual assault that you’re trying to change?
The belief that people have is simple. A lot of people still look at victims and the first thing they say is, “What did you do?” That’s what it is. That’s why Joe Biden’s campaign is so powerful. His message is, “It is not your fault.” It is never your fault. Also, you are not alone. We need to keep talking about this and changing the conversation. We need to change people’s consciousness about these situations. Then, we can embrace and comfort these victims.
What can someone do if they know someone who has been assaulted?
Let them know, “I am there for you.”, “I’m not judging you”, “I love you”, “I believe you.” Those three words, I believe you, can transform this issue. If you say, "I believe you”, it’s going to make her feel like this was not her fault. She can start to stop blaming herself. Then, she can feel safe to get help. On my website, you can find more tips about what to do if you know someone who has been assaulted.
Is there anything else you’d like to us to know?
Parents need to educate their children about what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate a lot sooner. I’m not just talking about sitting down with them in high school. We need to start talking on the junior high level, 6th grade and 5th grade. [Kids need to know] it’s not okay for someone to touch you, it’s not okay for someone to scare you, to bully you or to emotionally threaten you. Keep educating them, as they get older. So when they go into college, they have their radar up. Sexual assault is not just limited to women too. 1 out of 9 men in college are sexually assaulted. We can’t forget about them.
To connect further with Sheri, please visit her website: www.sheripoe.com
Sheri has a dedicated resource page for victims of sexual assault that can be found here.
Sheri Poe also provides sexual assault coaching and entrepreneurship coaching. You can learn more about it here.
You can also contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). If you are in immediate danger, please call 911.