The words “sexual assault” have the power to silence a room, but not Robyn Bowles. Working as a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) and sexual assault response team (SART) coordinator for Collin County and Plano-based The Turning Point, Robyn strives to end the stigma associated with sexual assault.
Robyn began her career expecting to become an emergency room nurse, but when she walked into her first pediatric rotation, she fell in love with caring for children and supporting their families. Every day, she experienced children’s resilience and the way they lived in the moment. “I just knew I was supposed to be there,” she says, smiling.
While working as a pediatric nurse, she developed an interest in adolescent safety issues – specifically sexual assault. Robyn started digging deeper into the injustice she discovered, volunteering in schools and educating with The Gordie Foundation. She grappled with the magnitude of this problem – how often teenagers were sexually assaulted and how often it was swept under the rug, never to be spoken of, never to be seen and never to be stopped.
She decided she wouldn’t be another person to ignore and invalidate what had happened to them. She would be the person who stood with them in their darkest moments, looked them in the eye and told them the one thing they needed to hear more than anything: “It’s not your fault.”
“Sometimes, you’re going to be the only person who says, ‘I believe you, I understand what happened to you,’ and that can be a powerful thing,” Robyn says. “Sometimes that can change their course.” In 2014 she started studying to become a SANE. A SANE is a registered nurse with at least two years of experience providing survivors of sexual assault with clinical yet compassionate care.
Whenever we are able
to talk about sexual assault,
we’re giving people a gift.
The forensic exam starts out with a consent form – the survivor’s first chance to recover some of the control lost during the assault. “The first step in healing is when we can present a lot of choices at exam time,” Robyn says, as she reminds them this is about them; they have power over their exam, their body, their life.
She does her best to prepare them for the exam, to make sure they have a clear understanding of what to expect and there are no surprises. The exam is mostly talking – the SANE guiding the patient through instruction and validation and the patient guiding the SANE through his or her medical history. The head to toe assessment is a small part of the exam and may lead to a SANE collecting and preserving evidence as well as assessing risk of disease or pregnancy.
Though she is a forensic nurse, Robyn’s priority is to first make sure her patient is okay medically before moving on to the forensic exam. Patients can come to her even if they don’t plan to report. She is there to advocate for their health, welfare and safety.
As a SANE, Robyn may be the first person survivors talk to after the assault – the first person who really is able to see them and their story as their own. “Nobody writes you a book about what to do if you’re sexually assaulted, and if they did write it, nobody would read it because nobody wants to be there, ever,” Robyn says. “But when you’re there, you need someone who has read that book – and that’s us.”
Victim blaming is so common in the culture of sexual assault that in some instances it may put a life sentence on the survivor instead of the perpetrator. For the survivors, “it’s so easy to say I shouldn’t have been there, I shouldn’t have done that, I shouldn’t have had that drink, but this wasn’t their choice,” Robyn says, reminding her patients that sexual assault is one-way violence.
Every sexual assault carries with it shame, and that shame only subsides when people find the strength to talk about it – and that’s what Robyn hopes to see in her lifetime: people who don’t avoid the issue, but face it, bravely. “Whenever [society is] able to talk about sexual assault, we’re giving people a gift – we’re not only helping to prevent it, but we’re also helping to take shame away from those who have already experienced it,” she says.
Robyn remembers her first case, and how terrified she felt until she stood face-to-face with her first patient. From then, everything clicked, and her training took over. As a SANE, Robyn has treated patients of all ages – the youngest at age three and the oldest at age 84, but she says the highest risk of sexual assault is at ages 15-25. According to Robyn and The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), as many as one of four girls and one of six boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18.
Nobody writes you a book about
what to do if you’re sexually assaulted,
and if they did write it, nobody would read it
because nobody wants to be there, ever.
“At the end of the day, sexual assault is a form of bullying,” Robyn says. “We need to better educate our schools and integrate it as part of our learning,” defining words like respect and no. “It disturbs me that people are carrying the responsibility that they didn’t say the right thing to get them out of it, when really it’s that someone didn’t understand the meaning of no,” Robyn explains. It’s a reform of thought and a rejection of stereotypes that is needed – and that can only be taught from a young age, in school. This job gives Robyn the opportunity to spark the conversation.
Walking out in the middle of the night, she is thankful she could be with that particular patient in that particular moment. “Trying to be part of the solution is a lot of joy for me; it’s what I live for,” Robyn says.
“Survivors are the brave ones, and I truly believe it is an honor to care for others in their darkness, to help them feel safe, respected, informed and believed,” Robyn says.
As a SANE, she has recognized the power of not looking away – of choosing to not be silenced.
The Turning Point is a Plano-based organization whose mission is to provide counseling, education and advocacy for those impacted by sexual violence. All of its services are free of charge.