Dear Donna Rotunno: Sexual Assault Is a Public Health Crisis. Your Reckless Words Hurt All of Us | Opinion

Last weekend, Harvey Weinstein's lawyer, Donna Rotunno, penned an op-ed for this same outlet chastising the public and the media for "pre-determining guilt" against her client.

It is hard not to find this argument ironic, given that Rotunno's media presence over the past few weeks has put blame, shame and guilt not just on the courageous Weinstein accusers—but on survivors everywhere.

As women and trauma psychologists, we had to catch our breath last week when we heard Rotunno say she's never been sexually assaulted because she never put herself in the position to be victimized. We had already been reeling from the rape myths that Rotunno and her colleagues had promoted at the trial—for example, bringing witnesses to testify that Weinstein's accusers seemed fine right after the alleged assault and claiming that therefore no assault occurred. These are jaw-dropping mischaracterizations of sexual assault and the potential responses to it.

These kinds of misperceptions and flat-out untruths not only hurt survivors' psychological health, but also distort public knowledge, attitudes and behaviors. Let us help to set the record straight.

Sexual violence in our country is at epidemic levels. At least one in three women experience some form of sexual assault during their life, and, believe it or not, at least one in six, but more likely one in four, men have such traumatic experiences as well.

Survivors do not bring sexual assault on themselves. There is nothing they did or didn't do to warrant such attacks. The responsibility for the violation rests with the perpetrator, and the perpetrator alone. It is offensive and inaccurate to have any other interpretation.

Of course, no two survivors respond to sexual violence exactly alike. Some may appear emotionally distraught or fearful, and others may feel numb or even seem fine. Why would people seem OK after a sexual assault? There are many possible reasons, including that they just went through a trauma. In the aftermath of trauma, survivors may be in a state of shock, going through the motions or trying to make sense of what just happened to them.

Sexual trauma is often so jarring to the psyche that people "go away" during the event. This may sound weird, surreal or sci-fi. But, we assure you, it's not. It's a common and protective phenomenon called dissociation.

Dissociation happens to us all in mild forms. Let's say you're driving on a familiar major highway, something like Route 95 or Highway 101 if you live on the coasts. You've taken the road so frequently, that sometimes, while you're driving, you temporarily space out. Before you know it, you've reached your exit, and you're thinking to yourself, Wow. How did that happen? I'm already here. It's like I was on automatic.

When a person experiences traumatic events, such being sexually violated, the mind can go away. Being sexually violated is so intense and painful and frightening that people lose themselves for a time. Survivors describe seeing themselves being raped as if they are outside their own bodies, as if the rape is happening to someone else's body. They describe losing their sense of time and place, as well as focusing on minute details, such as the pattern on the carpet or the shape of an assailant's eyebrow. In short, their minds took actions to protect them from fully encoding or feeling the experience.

As trauma psychologists, we find it very disheartening that Weinstein's legal team has recycled tired rape myths to protect their client—arguing that the women must be lying if they waited years to tell anyone, have false memories of the sexual violation or kept in touch with Weinstein.

These are harmful and untrue claims that have been debunked scientifically. Spreading these blatant falsehoods misinforms the public and does a disservice to the millions of women and men who have been sexually assaulted in this country.

Harvey Weinstein and Donna Rotunno
Harvey Weinstein leaves with his attorney Donna Rotunno court on February 19 in New York City. Jeenah Moon/Getty

Another one of their ploys meant to create fear and rally the public to Weinstein's defense is claiming that all men should now be afraid. Rotunno explicitly made this claim in her New York Times interview. We guess the thinking goes that if women are coming for Weinstein, they will come for your son, your husband and maybe even you next. The truth is, most men have nothing to worry about. Why? Most men do not perpetuate sexual violence.

Rotunno stated in her op-ed that "the world is watching." We agree. The world is watching. And the world is largely made up of survivors of sexual assault and their families, friends, neighbors and colleagues. Misperceptions and rape myths hurt all of us. This public health crisis is so widespread that, if you aren't a survivor yourself, you surely know and likely love someone who is.

Joan Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11.

Anne P. DePrince, Ph.D., is a psychologist and professor in the department of psychology at the University of Denver whose trauma research focuses on the consequences of violence against women and children.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.

Dear Donna Rotunno: Sexual Assault Is a Public Health Crisis. Your Reckless Words Hurt All of Us | Opinion | Opinion