Moving on is not an option, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reiterated several times in an Instagram Live on Monday evening. In a stream that lasted over an hour, Ocasio-Cortez revealed that she is a sexual assault survivor, which compounded the trauma she experienced during the Capitol riots last month. Her openness, experts said, could have ripple effects for assault survivors.
Ocasio-Cortez opened up in a stream that at some points had more than 150,000 watching about what happened to her during the January 6 riots, when a pro-Trump mob violently stormed the Capitol building. Ocasio-Cortez recounted holding her breath and hiding behind a bathroom door in her office. She said she heard a loud voice getting closer, yelling, “Where is she? Where is she?”
“This is the moment where I thought everything was over … I thought I was going to die,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
While hiding, Ocasio-Cortez found out that the man was actually a Capitol police officer, but said he did not identify himself initially. She went on to say that the officer — whom she described as looking at her with “a tremendous amount of anger and hostility” — did not give her clear instruction on where to go as insurrectionists breached the Capitol.
U.S. Capitol Police did not respond to requests for comment.
Ocasio-Cortez said her experience with sexual assault resurfaced when she felt her life was being threatened January 6. So when her fellow members of Congress — she named Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, specifically — encouraged Congress to “move on” after the riots, Ocasio-Cortez equated it to the language of abusers.
“These folks who tell us to move on, that it’s not a big deal, that we should forget what’s happened, or even telling us to apologize. These are the same tactics of abusers,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “And I’m a survivor of sexual assault. And I haven’t told many people that in my life, but when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other.”
Telling people to forget, avoid or not think about a certain trauma is “destructive advice,” said Debra Kaysen, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University. “That actually can lead people to have a higher risk of developing symptoms of things like PTSD.”
Historically, trauma survivors are told to deny and forget, said Leslie Lebowitz, a clinical psychologist with expertise in trauma processing. But trauma, she said, can leave an “imprint of pain that doesn’t necessarily fade with the passage of time.”
“The experiences of the past create lenses, which shape our perception and our responses to the present,” Lebowitz said. “Her history of having been assaulted … is informing her perception of what is actually going on, because her deconstruction of what is actually the behavior of a perpetrator is very clear.”
Ocasio-Cortez was among the first lawmakers to call for action after the insurrection, but previously she had shared little details about her experience that day beyond saying she feared for her life. When public figures speak out about their trauma, they have the power to make an impact. Those testimonies can even lead to more people reaching out for help.
“People, particularly those in positions of power or public recognition, who share their stories of lived experience are helping to reduce the stigma and lift the shame that so often surrounds trauma, particularly sexual trauma,” said Anka Vujanovic, the director at the Trauma and Stress Studies Center at the University of Houston.
Although speaking out is not a tactic for all, Lebowitz said it can hold truth to power and create opportunities for coping through a shared reality, especially for women and nonbinary people who disproportionately experience sexual violence.
“[Ocasio-Cortez is] modeling the possibility that recovery and help and healing are possible even in the face of trauma,” Lebowitz said. “She showed a new kind of leadership in which vulnerability and legitimate outrage and fear and power that comes from seeing clearly and speaking strongly can all coexist.”