How the Idaho Legislature handled sex assault case sends wrong message to victims, survivors

Emotional impact to survivors when they’re outed only perpetuates feelings of helplessness, writes guest columnist Angie Hernandez

May 7, 2021 4:15 am
Idaho State Capitol

The Idaho State Capitol on March 21, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

In my years as a licensed clinical professional counselor working with people who have experienced sexual trauma, I have noticed a few things. First, there is a real lack of public education on what sexual trauma looks like and what survivors need in the aftermath to ensure they are not further harmed once they find the courage to speak out about their experience.

One clear example of what not to do is evident in the situation surrounding the 19-year-old Hispanic intern who told the Idaho Legislature’s sergeant-in-arms that Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, sexually assaulted her. After that, a system of confusing procedures was put into motion that this young woman, who was a volunteer intern at the Idaho State Capitol, could not control.

I hear similar stories from others who experience sexual assault when they seek the help of authorities. What’s worse, in this young woman’s case, people in positions of authority took steps to dox her publicly, putting her name, face and personal contact info on the internet along with abusive and humiliating labels and attacks on her character.

This is horrifying behavior. And it has harmful ripple effects that extend far beyond this one case.

What’s more, this young woman’s trauma was further compounded when she was followed and harassed after testifying about her trauma in front of a committee and a room full of people. She collapsed to the floor in a state of extreme trauma, as her supporters tried to shield her and protect her identity and humanity. All this did was add yet another layer of trauma.

The emotional impact to sexual assault survivors when they are outed and harassed only perpetuates their feelings of helplessness and shame. This experience goes beyond being a retraumatization from the assault.

Doxxing uniquely traumatizes the person who experienced the assault; face-to-face harassment during a dissociative episode will likely prolong the time it takes someone to heal. With every negative experience, the survivor is placed in a powerless position that can directly affect their recovery and healing.  

For people who have experienced sexual violence, the decision to share their personal story comes at a great cost, both personally and professionally; hence, why many times they may delay sharing their story or never reveal it. Many factors go into wanting to defer disclosure, including feelings of guilt and misplaced self-blame that they contributed to provoking the perpetrator. All these factors exacerbate the situation and can be amplified when others do not believe them or dismiss their truths.  

The power imbalance between a perpetrator and the survivor complicates the ability to speak up leading up to the assault, during or after it. Misuse of power in professional relationships can place undue burden on survivors and create a barrier for them to seek support.

After overcoming those complicated feelings and bravely choosing to speak her truth against a man twice her age and who holds a position of extraordinary power over her, the teen mom in Rep. von Ehlinger’s case faced public humiliation and doxing by a publicly elected official, and other people with massive platforms and power. This could only serve to compound her feelings of fear, shame and devastation as she navigates a large and overbearing legislative inquiry.

The journey for each sexual assault survivor is unique, yet we know that their ability to talk about their story on their own time and with the appropriate support behind them are fundamental factors to minimize retraumatization. 

The response from some lawmakers who have abused their positions of power in this case has created two outcomes. First, additional layers of trauma have been heaped on the intern who experienced sexual assault – all because she had the courage to come forward. Second, the doxxing, including by at least one legislator, sends the message to future victims of sexual assault that if they come forward and the Legislature is involved, they will face more attacks, humiliation, and support for the perpetrator. 

This is not how we should treat Idahoans who have experienced sexual violence. The young woman in this case was betrayed by those she should have been able to trust with her trauma which has pushed more victims and survivors of sexual violence further into the shadows.

The Idaho Legislature has a lot to make up for. All of us must do better, starting with listening to survivors and understanding that they do not deserve to be further traumatized.

It is up to our representatives to engage in protecting her now, including by holding their colleagues accountable.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Angie Hernandez
Angie Hernandez

Angie Hernandez Harris is a licensed clinical professional counselor, and owner of Angie Hernandez Counseling, LLC, in Boise.