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With each man accused of sexual assault, a Catch-22 for victims: empowerment, then agony

Harvey Weinstein. Roy Moore. Louis C.K. The floodgates have opened. For women who have experienced sexual violence, watching and reading the news can feel empowering - and exhausting.

Mandy Lange, a mother of four from Chester Springs, wrote a book about her experiences with sexual violence, called “Hands off my Sparkle.”
Mandy Lange, a mother of four from Chester Springs, wrote a book about her experiences with sexual violence, called “Hands off my Sparkle.”Read moreMichael Bryant

The never-ending drumbeat of news about sexual violence serves as a painful reminder for Mandy Lange, a Chester Springs mother of four who remembers the dark office in which she woke up two decades ago. She'd been raped, the skin rubbed off her spine.

When Angel Morton, a 40-year-old photographer from Port Richmond, watches the news, she flashes back to four years ago when she sat bruised and in a haze at the edge of a bed, putting on her clothes after being drugged and raped by a man she'd met at a wedding the night before.

It can be empowering for women who experienced sexual violence when the television flashes the face of Harvey Weinstein or Roy Moore or Louis C.K. or any of the other umpteen men who have been accused of sexual violence, nonconsensual sex, or harassment: Bad behavior is getting its comeuppance.

Though for some, it can feel like a Catch-22: These men are getting called out, but the details of the crimes and the subsequent reactions to them — Why bring this up 20 years later? How come she didn't call the police? — can be exhausting and overwhelming, serving for some victims of sexual assault as a "trigger" for a middle-of-the-day flashback or an inopportune bout of anxiety.

"For me, being triggered is being unable to escape the feeling of terror that I had," Morton said. "It's all of your worst fears culminating in one massive insecurity."

Since Weinstein was accused in October of sexually harassing women throughout his decades-long career in Hollywood, the floodgates have opened. Powerful men in entertainment and politics and media have been publicly shamed, some of them admitting to their transgressions, others contending that allegations against them are lies.

Intertwined in these daily headlines about sexual violence and harassment has been the #MeToo movement, which helped show the scope  — women from every walk of life indicated they, too, experienced some form of gender-based violence.

That's led to a national conversation like never before — one that's caused women to reflect on experiences they might have long ago tucked away.

Monique Howard, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Women Organized Against Rape, said the nonprofit has witnessed a noticeable uptick in calls to its crisis line over the last several weeks — what she attributed, at least partially, to the news surrounding Weinstein and the ensuing #MeToo movement.

She's encouraged victims of sexual violence who are overwhelmed by the news to seek out help from a rape crisis center like WOAR. Other women may find it soothing to talk to a friend or a therapist, or just to simply step away from the TV or the Twitter feed.

Katy Otto of Pennsport, was sexually assaulted by her boyfriend 18 years ago. She has found it helpful over the last few weeks to stop consuming the news, at least for an hour or two each day. For her, questions about why women often wait to report a sexual assault are the most painful.

"The way people talk about things is very hard and emotionally draining," she said. "It reminds you of choices you made. And it reflects a really poor understanding of how these situations play out."

Lara Witt, a 29-year-old who lives in South Philadelphia, is the managing editor of the "intersectional feminist" magazine Wear Your Voice. She recently wrote about Louis C.K. and the "system which allows men like Louis C.K. to build their careers while they harass and assault victims."

She's a victim of sexual violence herself. About a decade ago, Witt was sexually assaulted by a boyfriend after she was too drunk to consent to sex. Six months later, she was sexually assaulted again, this time by a man who approached her on the short walk home from the bus stop. She told police who she thought did it. Nothing happened.

Witt said these days she's found it helpful to navigate the barrage of daily headlines by logging off for a few hours at the end of the work day. Laying down and breathing deeply. Taking a bath.

But one of the best healing agents for her? Being honest about her story and helping others feel they're not alone.

"While it's difficult to be submerged by all the news," Witt said, "having other people come forward has been really great and powerful."

Lange, 39, agreed, saying she feels like "women are rising up." Earlier this year, Lange published her memoir, Hands off my Sparkle: A cautionary tale of self-destruction, about her experiences with sexual violence and mental illness. She said that about two weeks ago, she had "a full-on mental breakdown," taking to Facebook to post a frustrated video of herself crying in the car. Lange ended up deleting the video, but it was a demonstration of pain that was stirred after reading story upon story upon story.

"The thing about sexual violence is that it takes a piece of you," she said. "You don't really ever get that piece back. But you can work on healing the part of you that was taken, and you can put yourself back together."

Still, the number of women speaking out — and being believed — is healing for Lange. In many ways, it's a sign of a cultural awakening, said Kristen Houser, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. That so many people are talking about their experiences demonstrates "the erosion of isolation and shame."

The support helps Morton speak up about being raped and overcoming it. Sure, there are still struggles. She relies often on the lyrics tattooed on her wrists that remind her to "swim" — just keep her head above water — and that "the day is brave."

But at least she's done running from her own story.

"Every time I do that, it takes me back to that moment where he's still victimizing me," she said. "And I can't do that anymore."