"I Had to Do More": An Actor on Sexual Assault Advocacy

Updated 03/28/18
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A few days after The New York Times' Harvey Weinstein exposé and numerous stories about sexual assault flooded our social media feeds, we were scheduled to catch up with actress KaDee Strickland of Private Practice and Shut Eye fame about her involvement with rape treatment, prevention, and education center The Stuart House. Though we spoke about the nitty-gritty and learned more about what happens behind the scenes at the organization, our conversation inexorably led us back to one question: How do we dismantle the insidious, circumambient culture that enables and normalizes sexual assault? Intimidating in its enormity, perhaps this question—and its ensuing mission—is best tackled in pieces.

As an actress and parent, Strickland began to think about how she could leverage the power of education, storytelling, and media to be a stronger advocate and to create a better future. Below, she writes about the value of choice, raising children who speak up, making the entertainment industry safer for young actors (especially those portraying sexual violence on screen), and why we must never stop bearing witness to these stories. Read how she learned to be an activist against sexual assault in each facet of her life.

Ed. note: This story has sensitive content that might be triggering to some.

Yellow Heart Photography

AS AN ACTRESS

So much of life is about choices. We all have choices to make and those choices matter. As a teenager, I made the clear decision that I wanted to become a working actress. I knew this choice invited immense work and dedication with potentially little reward. I knew the obvious benefits associated with being successful in the entertainment industry. At that time, the distinction between “actor” and “celebrity” was quite different than it is today. I simply wanted to be a working actress. I wanted to use my creativity to reflect many human experiences.

I wanted to grow bigger as a person through the art of storytelling. And being an actress has allowed me to indulge my sense of curiosity in all forms of life. I’ve traveled the world and I’ve met some of my heroes, but mostly I’ve cultivated a deep appreciation for the human spirit.

We are currently inundated by daily revelations about the sexual violence and emotional damage that has plagued so many in the entertainment industry. It is one margin of society. It has many eyes upon it and we all give it power. Herein lies our responsibility: How do we act on behalf of change, make an impact, shift paradigms that have plagued society for centuries, and say “no more” to the structures of power that don’t serve us?

Thanks to Shonda Rhimes’s brave storytelling, I was given the opportunity to portray a character who was raped and battered in her workplace. I immersed myself in research and was guided by people who worked in the field of treatment and prevention of sexual violence. What I learned shook me at my core, what I saw can never be unseen, and my entire being and perspective shifted after this experience.

AS A FRIEND

Years earlier, I studied acting in New York. During a break at the acting studio, my classmate was raped in the bathroom. I rode with her in the ambulance to the hospital and listened to her detailed account of the attack. I explained what had happened to her parents while she was receiving her rape kit. I watched as her world fell apart. Later, I watched her find justice against her rapist due to the evidence in her rape kit. I’ve also seen her create an extraordinary career and family in ways she had never dreamed.

This experience was deeply personal to me, but I held it close. I didn’t know how to process the magnitude of what had happened to a person I dearly loved.

Thanks to the “ask” of my job, and after meeting with other people who had experienced sexual assault and rape, I began to delve into these feelings. My sense of justice on behalf of those violated rose to great heights. I had to do more. I had to experience the deepest levels of empathy within myself to begin to fulfill what my conscience asked, so I began seeking ways to express my need to do more.

AS AN INDUSTRY LEADER

Several years ago, I worked on a film where I played a sex offender. I didn’t seem like the conventional “type” that we associate with people who commit these crimes, but I was surprised to learn that many predators look and behave like the person in line next to us at the grocery store. I felt it was a great opportunity to shift the perspective of who was capable of violent acts like these. My hope was that an audience may think twice about what a rapist or assailant looks like.

To portray the character, I had to leave my personal viewpoints aside and tell the story as authentically as I was capable of. In no way was this easy for me, but it was my job. Part of the story involved my character abducting a teenage girl, and the actress playing that role was in her 20s, but unlike me, she didn’t have a contract protecting her from unnecessary nudity or things she may have found too uncomfortable to shoot. My contract stated that I didn’t have to film anything unscripted. We showed up to film reshoots and added scenes the producers felt we needed to “make it more believable.” The director wasn’t present for these, so the producers were stepping in to “direct added scenes that would make it a better film.”

When the young actress got in a van with me to be driven to set, she began crying. The producers wanted her to be naked and film a scene where my character and another man forced a wooden plank into her vagina. This was “an idea” the producers found “interesting.” I looked at the girl, after calling my lawyer, and assured her I would protect her. She would never have to do anything like that in my company. Legally, she had no leg to stand on, but my contract prevented it if I said no. I was angry that she was even put in that position by these bullying producers, so the choice to say no was clear.

Thanks to my representatives, that choice was also legal, and we never filmed that scene.

AS A PARENT

I am grateful that my unconventional career led me to a distinct fork in the road. How could I help shed light on these stories and voices? How could I help effectively support rather than shame people who have experienced rape and sexual assault or sexual violence? It was my job to show up for the stories.

It is my job to guide my 4-year-old son and teach him about moral courage and responsibility. As a parent, I confront the reality of choice daily. My husband and I have made a conscious effort to impart how important it is to be clear about the choices we make as individuals and how they affect our lives, as well as the lives of others. We want to empower him with the understanding that his choices matter. And that when you make a choice, it can impact everything in your life.

I have to ask even more of myself and my instincts. The conversation about his body belonging to him has already happened. The conversation about no meaning no and not being a voyeur to an event of sexual violence that can be prevented is coming. We will raise our son to be proactive in times where someone may need help. We will remind him that he always has a choice, he always has a voice, and that he can be an advocate if someone is in trouble.

The shame and silencing that plague and paralyze many people who have experienced rape, sexual violence, or sexual assault are still alive and well. But we’re also seeing a shift. Many of the people who have recently come forward with recounts of propositions, unwanted advances, and rape are empowering others to seek justice and have a voice in their own experiences. This is a victory. This is a changing of the times that I relish in and have continued hope that we will see more of. People who have experienced sexual assault, sexual violence, or rape deserve a voice.

There is no gray area.

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