How the Silent Evidence Project helped a reporter confront the trauma of sexual abuse and share her own story

A disturbing number of American children and adolescents are sexually abused before they ever turn 18: One in 10, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although instances of those charged with such crimes are initially reported widely in the media, the spotlight can quickly fade. And often times, victims of sexual violence choose not to follow through in helping to prosecute abusers because of the additional shame brought on by being exposed to the general public.

Less than 40 percent of children who are sexually abused tell anyone — and only a fraction of those cases end up being reported to authorities, according to statistics pushed by independent radio producer Tennessee Watson, a journalist who has herself been a victim of this kind of molestation. She said a lot of the more sensationally reported cases don’t address some fundamental issues surrounding child sexual abuse.

“As a result, the headlines about politician Dennis Hastert and retired football coach Jerry Sandusky, and even powerful movies like “Spotlight,” miss the most prevalent story in childhood sexual abuse: The survivors’ long, agonizing and mostly silent struggles to go public, and how that often leaves abusers unchecked,” Watson told Images and Voices of Hope from Mazama, Washington in between work that’s kept her crisscrossing the country. “The other thing that’s distinct is that in most news stories about sexual violence the victim remains nameless and voiceless.”

Tennessee Watson
Tennessee Watson

She never told anyone when she was a gymnast as a child that her trainer began sexually abusing her until she convinced her parents that she wasn’t interested in gymnastics anymore –  just so she could escape the abuse. Watson, now 35, kept it a secret for 25 years until she decided to do something about it in 2006. At the time she had been teaching teenagers how to think critically of “institutions, policies and cultural norms” affecting their lives in unconstructive ways and find ways to tell untold stories while suggesting resolutions through the medium of radio.

Her recordings included self-exploration of the events that still lingered, conversations with her dad about it (her mother died when she was 16) and a call to her abuser, who was stunningly still teaching kids gymnastics at the same training facility in Virginia.

“It was a journey mostly in my head. It was an awesome creative challenge to figure out how to render a silent struggle as an audio based project,” Watson said. “But it was incredibly powerful to have creative control over how my story would go out into the world. I didn’t want to tell it unless I was able to challenge the dominant narrative about victims and perpetrators.”

Her call with her abuser led to a meeting at the gymnasium where she was once violated repeatedly. She recorded the encounter, playing coy, but didn’t confront him then. She knew she needed to involve law enforcement. A long saga thusly began when she came forward to Virginia police in a state where no statute of limitations exists for child sex abuse crimes.

Eventually, her assailant was charged, but only received a misdemeanor conviction. However, she recorded every bit of the process and turned it into the Silent Evidence Project.

“Silent Evidence breaks through that barrier with a story focused on the ramifications of sexual violence, as they are lived by me and the people closest to me, over the course of my 28-year journey to go public,” she said. “Silent Evidence attempts a more holistic approach to that question. It’s not as simple as saying, ‘this shouldn’t happen.’ It’s not just the fault of perpetrator. There’s a role for the survivor, the adults in the survivor’s life, the media, and the public institutions she moves through. Intimate audio recordings of the process bring the listener inside the story and drive the discussion.”

The feedback has been tremendous. Watson said people routinely email her, expressing how the podcast impacted them, and by design it’s reached them in a lot of different ways. One such person was Bridgette Stumpf, who is the Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Network for Victim Recovery of DC.

“I spend my professional life committed to advocating for survivors of crime, particularly survivors of sexual violence, to have meaningful voices in a criminal legal system that more often than not fails them” Stumpf said. “So hearing Tennessee’s story resonated with me in a very deep way. When she called her friend to explain the prosecutor would not be prosecuting her offender but rather offering (what we call) a sweetheart plea deal, I heard the same pain I have heard from so many survivors we work with in DC that receive this same news. Working as a crime victims’ rights attorney is a rewarding yet defeating job.”

Silent Evidence is a multi-platform project in collaboration with multiple outlets. Kaitlin Prest co-produced the 4-part mini season with Watson for The Heart podcast distributed by Radiotopia. It’s an intimate exploration of her struggle to voice her experience with sexual violence. She also co-produced an investigative radio episode with Laura Starecheski for Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. That piece examines her struggle for justice and accountability, and highlights the inadequate response to child sexual abuse by the criminal justice system. There is also the website for the project that includes additional resources and a discussion toolkit.

Watson is currently working on piece for Human Race, the long form storytelling podcast from Runner’s World, that dives deeper into how running has been a part of her journey as a survivor.

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