While conversation is moving us in the right direction, there is still a lot of work to do when it comes to ending sexual assault. Rachel Freeman has been dedicating her services to this work at the Sexual Assault Center (SAC) for 17 years, and three months ago, she moved into her new role as President & CEO. For nearly a decade, Rachel has helped to foster safe spaces for therapy and counseling for children and teens who have been sexually abused or raped, adults who were abused as children, adult rape survivors and non-offending caregivers, family members and loved ones of those who have been victimized by sexual violence — with a focus on outreach to the Latin, African-American and LGBTQ+ communities. Through trauma-informed and culturally sensitive services, a staff of nearly 30 direct-service providers serves more than 700 survivors in Middle Tennessee. Survivors are empowered through navigation of the criminal justice system, social support connections, medical and legal accompaniment and a 24-hour crisis support line. SAC works with students and adults through prevention programs, and that’s only the beginning. For Rachel, no two days are alike, but with every step, she is envisioning ways to make a bigger impact in our community so that survivors of sexual assault know where to turn and that their prevention efforts are truly making a dent in this horrible crime. Welcome Rachel Freeman as today’s FACE of Nashville!
What are some of the most successful (or memorable) moments you have had at SAC?
The creation of the SAFE Clinic is the most successful moment of my time at SAC. This is something we’ve been working on in some capacity for nearly a decade, and it’s absolutely amazing to see the final product.
I experienced a lot of memorable moments during my time as a therapist at SAC. I once worked with a 4-year-old girl who was sexually abused by a family member. As heartbreaking as it is to think about such a young child experiencing this crime, over a matter of months, I watched this unbelievable transformation. She was a young girl with no voice, fearful of everything, nightmares almost every night. And after working through her trauma with play therapy tools and interventions, she regained her voice and stopped having nightmares. At her last therapy session, she came dressed as a princess and stood on the kid-sized table in my office, waved her magic wand and said (very loudly!), “I can say NO now!” That’s why we do this work. There are nearly 700 similar stories each year of hope and healing that we are privy to at SAC. That’s success to me.
What are some unknown facts about sexual assault in Nashville and all of Tennessee?
Most people don’t realize how prevalent sexual assault is. Statistics include:
- 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually assaulted before their 18th birthday.
- 1 in 6 women and 1 in 17 men will suffer rape or attempted rape in their lifetime.
- 1 in 5 females and 1 in 16 males will be sexually violated while in college.
- Only 1 out of 12 child sexual abuse victims will tell someone.
- About 90% of victims know their offenders.
- Nashville provided 263 rape exams at Nashville General Hospital last year, and rape is one of the most under-reported crimes.
These numbers are heartbreaking. If we work together to better respond to and prevent sexual violence, we can change these numbers in Nashville.
It’s clear that women have been emboldened by the #MeToo movement. Have you seen changes since the movement began last fall?
In all of my years in the sexual violence field, I have never seen or experienced this much energy and willingness to talk about sexual assault. This has always been a taboo topic in our society, and the #MeToo movement has certainly helped de-stigmatize sexual assault and give power to survivors everywhere. We still have a long way to go, though, and it’s really important that we start talking about what to do next. It’s not enough that people have been inspired to share their #MeToo stories. Now we have to ensure that support, resources and healing are available for all those who need it, and we have to take steps to stopping this before it happens in the first place.
This month, the Sexual Assault Forensic Exam (SAFE) Clinic will open at SAC. Tell us about the decision to open this clinic and the impact it will have on the community.
SAC is so excited to announce the opening of the SAFE Clinic in June 2018! Did you know that if you are raped in Davidson County, there is only one place that provides rape exams? Nashville General Hospital (NGH) has been the only place in our community, for decades, for rape survivors to receive these forensic exams. For a student or faculty member of Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt Hospital is an option as well. NGH has an incredible team of nurse practitioners who are well-trained and highly experienced in performing sexual assault forensic exams. However, the vast majority of rape victims do not need the care and services of a hospital emergency department.
Through two years of collaborative, multidisciplinary work with several community partners, the unanimous recommendation was to create a trauma-informed, non-hospital setting where rape survivors can go for a rape kit. Now, when someone is raped in Davidson County, they can choose to come to the SAFE Clinic — a calm, nurturing space that exclusively treats sexual assault survivors. SAC Advocates and the nurse practitioners from NGH will ensure the best possible care immediately following a sexual assault.
How can we change the culture around sexual assault?
Talk about it. Our ability to talk about sexual violence is key to changing the culture. We have to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations. Private body parts shouldn’t be bad words. Children, teens and adults shouldn’t have to feel such shame around disclosing a sexually abusive experience. Change the conversation; instead of what did she or he do to deserve it, we need to hold the offender accountable for his or her actions. We must practice, talk about and teach consent. And we have to speak up when we see something inappropriate happening. Bystander intervention skill-building can help us do this in a safe way. It is so important that we let survivors know we believe you, it wasn’t you’re fault, and we’re here for you.
When do parents need to start the conversation with their children about sexual assault?
Early and often. There are age-appropriate ways to talk to our children about healthy sexuality, private body parts, boundaries, safe and unsafe touches, secrets versus surprises, qualities of safe people, healthy relationships, consent and respect as early as preschool. It’s so important to open the lines of communication early about these issues. That way, if anything concerning were to ever happen, your child already has the tools and language to disclose and the relationship with you to decrease the fear and shame of having this conversation. The more we talk about these topics, the greater likelihood we have of actually preventing sexual assault. We don’t think twice about talking to our children about things such as stranger danger, fire safety, looking both ways before you cross the street. If we consider body safety in the same way — a life-long safety lesson we are providing our children — then it’s much less scary and uncomfortable, as a parent, to have these conversations. Our children need us to be brave for them and decrease the stigma and taboo around sexual violence.
Who is inspiring you right now?
My staff inspires me every day. I’ve never known a group of people with such caring, compassionate hearts. Dealing with sexual assault every day is hard work, and I feel blessed and inspired each day to walk into a building where life-changing work is happening. Outside of the office, my husband and children inspire me. I have three young children (Katie, 8; Grace, 5; and Will, 2.5); they are the reason I do this work. I hope and pray every day that through the efforts of the Sexual Assault Center, my children (and yours) won’t ever need our services. My husband is currently running for a Tennessee House of Representatives seat, and he is inspiring me through this admirable decision to spend his time making our community and great state a better, safer place to live.
What is the best piece of advice you have received and from whom?
My first supervisor when I finished grad school with a master’s in social work told me that MSW does not stand for Must Save the World. It was a punch to the gut at that naïve time in my career, but it has really stuck with me over the years, and I’ve taken it to heart. Remembering this is part of the reason why I’m still in this field. Of course, I want to save the world, but surrounding myself with allies and partners, I’ve learned we can save the world together! That’s a lot less pressure than trying to do it alone.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Diet Coke, running and cheese dip
Thank you, Rachel, for your dedication to our community! A special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s gorgeous photos!
Regina Bartlett began her nursing career back in 1978. Now, nearly 40 years later, she’s at the helm of TriStar Hendersonville Medical Center. Get to know this woman, who is both warm and dynamic, and find out what inspires her work and the secret to work-life balance. Click here to meet our newest FACE of TriStar!