Billy Dees invited me to talk about my journey as a sex abuse survivor. While the term “survivor” sounds like it has finality to it, that is very much not the case. We talk about the intricacies of abuse and its aftermath. And he asks me about my experience interviewing sex offenders from the view point of a survivor.

Video Transcript:

Billy Dees: Hello everyone and welcome to the Billy Dee’s podcast. I’m absolutely thrilled that you are here if you’ve never checked out our program before, we are primarily an interview and a commentary podcast. You can find our podcasts pretty much anywhere podcasts are found, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify. It’s a pleasure to have you before I introduce our guest i just want to say that we probably should issue just a little bit of a trigger warning. If you are a trauma survivor of any kind there might be some things that are discussed in today’s program that could be a trigger for you and we don’t want that to happen. So, I just kind of wanted to put that out there. Our guest today is Erika Port. Erika how are you doing today?

Erika Port: I’m great. How are you?

Billy Dees: I’m doing fantastic. Let me tell the audience just a little bit about you. Erika is a businesswoman from the Cleveland area. She is an advocate for abuse survivors, especially in regard to why many of them do not realize that they have been abused until years later, and as you well know, that often comes up when these stories break on the news. Everyone always asks, “Why did they wait so long to say anything?” We’re going to discuss that today. Erika is also somewhat unique in her study of this subject because she has also interviewed sex offenders, which I have to say is somewhat unique, and she’s done this since 2015. Erika has heard sex offenders share how they became sex offenders. Wow, that’s quite a mission. Now, you are in Cleveland? Were you always from Cleveland?

Erika Port: Yeah, born and raised.

Billy Dees: So, obviously you’re in business, you do a lot with advocacy, you’re very busy. In your spare time, are you like a Browns fan? You got to be a Browns fan right?

Erika Port: Well my husband’s the Browns fan.

Billy Dees: Oh, okay.

Erika Port: I support him in that though.

Billy Dees: Very good. Yes, I’ve been a suffering Browns fan for a long time, but this last year as you probably know, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel, so we’re hoping for the best for next year. You yourself, as we discussed, have a journey as a survivor. Okay, do you want to share a little bit about your experience so the audience has a basic understanding of what you’ve been through and where you’re coming from with all of this?

Erika Port: Sure. Thanks for asking. So, I was abused starting at the age of 14. It was my freshman year of high school and a senior started paying attention to me. So, I was kind of at the bottom of the totem pole. It was a very new environment, new people, and I was excited that someone was paying attention to me. This particular individual was showering me with compliments and saying all the right things, and things that I wanted to hear, and got into a relationship pretty quickly. The abuse happened pretty quickly and the abuse entailed verbal abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and it was really detrimental to me because this was my first relationship. So, it really kind of set me up in my future relationships, not necessarily on the best path.

Experience of teen dating violence

Billy Dees: And this is something that a lot of people from my experience, I’m not an expert, but in talking to people who have gone through these types of situations, especially with a an abuser in a domestic situation, it’s very seldom that abuse just starts on one day. I mean, like one day, they’re prince charming and the next day it, it gradually happens and I just wanted to know if that’s kind of how this led up to the situation in your case. I mean how did this all start? How do you feel that you were singled out so to speak?

Erika Port: Well, I will say this, that no one gets into a relationship wanting to be abused. No one gets into a relationship thinking they’re going to be abused. And it often does happen very insidiously. As I look back in hindsight, I remember questioning, “why me?” And I was very vulnerable. Not only being a freshman in a new environment, but when you really look at how 14 year olds are, they are very curious, they want to fit in with their peer group, they want to have more independence. I also grew up where my mother was a single mother. So, I didn’t really see what healthy relationships were supposed to look like. And we didn’t really talk about those things either. So, I was just very vulnerable. I do think that abusers target individuals and I also think I did not have good boundary knowledge then. I actually didn’t even really know what boundaries were. It was something where I knew it was a word in the dictionary, but I did not know how boundaries applied to my life. And so there was a lot of boundary testing early on. I just think there are a lot of factors that factored into how and why he chose me.

Billy Dees: Yeah, how long did this go on approximately?

Erika Port: Yeah well, we dated for, I want to say roughly a year and a half and it was a very rough relationship. It didn’t end when we broke up. This was something that lasted even into my 20s where he would reach out to me when I had asked him to not reach out to me. He would just find ways to find me.

Billy Dees: Sure, one of the questions that people often ask survivors is “why didn’t you just leave?” and a lot of times that comes from not understanding the psychology and the cycle you can fall into. In your case, in youth certainly, you were at a stage in your life where your emotions were coming out and you didn’t necessarily know how to handle that, so you had a lot on your plate. But can you speak a little bit as to why sometimes it’s not as easy as people say it is – well just walk out the door, why is it more complicated than that?

Erika Port: It’s so complicated. And first I want to say that I think it’s really important for people to start shifting the narrative. So instead of saying, “why did a victim do or didn’t do something?” really look at questioning the perpetrator and why they were abusive…why they did criminal behavior. There are so many reasons people stay and one of the biggest reasons that people say is because actually leaving and exiting a relationship can be one of the most hazardous times to leave. Oftentimes there are threats. Oftentimes, there’s more violence. It could be a financial issue. There really is a host of issues and I really encourage anyone listening to this to look up ‘why don’t victims leave their abusers?’ I mean, there’s a host of reasons.

Red flags of an abuser

Billy Dees: Yeah we’re going to talk a little bit about one of the red flags. I’m going to presume we’re going to talk about control because that’s usually one of the red flags for somebody who’s in a new relationship. When people want to know who your friends are, how often you’re seeing them, and they want to get control of the bank statements and all these other things, that’s usually, in my estimation a red flag. When did you realize that it was time to take action – how did that come together in your mind?

Erika Port: Well, for me with my personal journey, my abuser was not only abusing me but he was abusing my friends. And my friends were also minors at the time. I think I just hit a rock bottom emotionally, and I remember just like praying to something, “Please help me leave this relationship,” And I was able to move on physically because I actually got into another relationship quickly. So, I was able to move on from that, but there was just a moment of a rock bottom for me that I just, I could not continue on that way.

Hindsight is 20/20

Billy Dees: Yeah, That’s so often the case. When I talk to people and they have a personal journey of some kind, whether it be addiction or what have you, it’s unfortunate that it has to be one of those rock bottom situations, but sometimes that’s when you have nowhere else to go. You realize that you have to take action. How did you begin your recovery? You reached that threshold where – Okay, I gotta change this – You were able to take action. You had to realize that you were hurt and possibly traumatized by all this. How did you begin your recovery?

Erika Port: I think when I was in the abuse and experiencing it, I knew it didn’t feel good a lot of the time. But I did not recognize labels associated with it. I did not recognize “rape.” I did not recognize “emotional abuse” and all those labels of what those types of abuse entail. So, it actually was in my early 20s, almost a decade later, that someone had to actually tell me those labels: Erika, that’s sexual abuse. Erika, that’s emotional abuse. And I was in a place in my life where I think, especially because I was out of the abuse, I could hear it for what it was. I could bask in what I was being told and just have this moment of “oh my gosh, it really was that bad.”

Billy Dees: Yeah that’s something that I think is important to anyone listening. You didn’t realize how bad it was until you were out, which can be real problematic to anyone who’s in the situation. They may not realize how bad it is. So we spoke about red flags and I alluded to a few of them. What would be some of the red flags – I had a friend I was talking to, her daughter got into a situation where she was married to an abuser. Some of the things that she learned about how her daughter was behaving early on, she knows now we’re red flags. One of which he took control of the finances. He did other things, but what would be some of the red flags that you would want to point out?

Erika Port: Well I think if I were to say if it’s from a parent and their child is in a new relationship, I will say this having been in support groups with parents of children who have been abused, to is really trust your gut. You know your child. I understand there is a big difference of understanding what is teenage behavior versus other behavior, but if you feel something in your gut is wrong, please follow that intuition and that gut feeling because it’s there to tell you something. I also think that some other core aspects of abuse and control is abusers isolating their victim. So, this could be where maybe they were once a bubbly person, had a social life, and all of a sudden they’re spending most, if not all, of their time with their abuser. I also think, like you mentioned before, there’s the financial abuse piece that often can come later on.

Billy Dees: Yeah, it’s not like someone gets into a relationship and hands over the book.

Erika Port: Yeah, and I also think, too, that there can be different power dynamics. Like, what are the power dynamics of the relationship? Are there age large age gaps? I mean, there could be myriad different things to look at. But yeah, I would say control and isolating a victim are certainly hallmarks of abuse.

Interviewing sex offenders

Billy Dees: Yeah. You have interviewed sex offenders in a lot of cases. My first question would be how did you get started doing that? I mean, what was the catalyst to get that started?

Erika Port: Yeah great question. So, I am also in a survivor’s group and the offenders that we interview, part of their program and treatment is to actually sit in front of a group of survivors to have a dialogue and have an interviewing style-type question and answer. It’s interesting to hear their journeys, but I also think they find it interesting to hear survivor’s journeys too and the impacts of their abuse. So basically, it’s from a survivor support group and we partake in it, but certainly I was intrigued to be part of it. And like you said, I’ve been part of it since 2015.

Billy Dees: Yeah. Your first time talking to one – were you nervous?

Erika Port: Heck yeah. I went into it not knowing what to expect because I knew it was a very unique, different experience. Ans while they weren’t my abuser, they certainly were an abuser for other people. I also found it cathartic to do it, to be able to walk in – and I will tell you, I think a lot of victims carry shame with the, but I will tell you the interesting dynamic is when I walked into the room to interview these offenders for the first time, they had a very hard time looking at us and making eye contact. It almost was like the dynamic changed. It seemed like they actually carried the shame, which was interesting.

Perpetrator backgrounds that have led to becoming a sex offender

Billy Dees: Yeah. What are some of the common paths that they had in their background that led them to this kind of behavior?

Erika Port: So, there’s different types of sex offenders right? There’s offenders that have physical victims, online victims and I’ve been able to interview different types of sex offenders. So when we look at their path and how they become a sex offender, oftentimes it’s a culmination of family dynamics and their upbringing, but a lot of them actually experience a lot of isolation depression. They feel like they don’t measure up with their peer group. Some antisocial personality disorder. There definitely is a core commonality, generally speaking, across the board.

Billy Dees: That’s interesting. This next question I am going to throw a curve ball. Was there any time when you were talking to some of these sex offenders that you felt any compassion for them? Any sympathy for them? Any empathy for them, because I mean, on the surface someone would probably say you’re going to feel anger. You’re going to feel hatred. Those would be the ones that I would say are easily predictable, but was there ever a time when maybe you felt bad for any of them?

Erika Port: Yeah, so when I first started interviewing offenders, I remember thinking I want to scratch their eyes out. But then but then I quickly realized that my consequences would be more harsh than theirs. Oftentimes these offenders really only get slaps on the wrists and probation. So over several years, I’ve gotten to know some of these offenders through their treatment programs, and I’ve been able to have empathetic responses of “Wow, I did not realize that was your experience and I think understanding their journeys was really helpful to know. By all means, it does not excuse their behavior. Some of these offenders were also sexually abused themselves and that’s still not an excuse. There are plenty of victims who have been sexually abused, but they don’t go on to offend. But it’s been interesting to get that to know them in a more personal facet for sure. But yes, it’s been quite interesting to understand how they became offenders. It’s not like they woke up one day saying, “I’m going to go offend and do this.” It really is a combination of different factors that led to that point. So, yes, I do have empathy after hearing more of their experiences, but I do think that there needs to be better rehabilitation programs more and accountability on their end.

Billy Dees: Have you ran across someone who might have been a sex offender who was just totally oblivious to any wrongdoing and was just somebody that inspired nothing but anger in your in your heart?

Erika Port: Yes. In my experience interviewing these offenders, I have been able to kind of extrapolate the offenders who I think have a fighting chance of actually having successful rehabilitation and there are certainly offenders that I’ve seen that severely lack empathy and I know will be habitual re-offenders.

Criminal vs. victim rights

Billy Dees: Yeah, that’s a tough one. You alluded to the fact that a lot of sex offenders get a slap on the wrist and sometimes not even that. Do you want to talk a little bit about your feelings about that one – and i’ll i’ll throw my two cents in before you start – I feel that we are a society that is obsessed with the rights of the accused. And I understand why that’s important. I understand why that’s important because the room for abuse is there. However as a victim and i’m going to use the word victim in this case, someone who has been victimized as a victim, you have no rights. You have no habeas corpus, none of that. You don’t have the right to an attorney. You don’t have free medical attention. As far as I know it might vary from state to state, but you have very little resources as rights when you are the victim of a crime. So, what what what’s your take on that?

Erika Port: I’m actually studying policy through a public health program and you’re right. Criminals have a right to an attorney. Victims do not have a right and so oftentimes if a victim cannot afford an attorney, they have to rely and reside to Legal Aid or these other funded legal systems. I’m going back to the offender piece and the slaps on the wrist. So how the program will start off is, we’ll go around and say a little bit about our experiences. The offenders will go round saying, “This is my crime. Here’s the time I served, if they served, and I will tell you, it is so common to hear that they were told to do “x” amount of time in jail but they get leniency or they only get probation or they serve half of their time. I think the most amount of time I think I heard a perpetrator serve was three years. And when it comes back to the survivor group, I really like to tell the offenders, “you know, while you got these slaps on the wrist, survivors and the impact from abuse really get this life sentence because we carry the effects of abuse with us.” By all means, it doesn’t have to define us. It doesn’t have to run our lives, but for many of us, it does, and that’s so unfair.

Billy Dees: When it comes to sexual crimes, it’s often, the cliche is, it’s a he said she said situation and nine times out of ten they walk away. If they get any sentence at all, it’s very light. Is that kind of how you feel about it, am I right in that assumption?

Erika Port: Yeah, you know sexual violent crimes are the most underreported crimes and they are often the most difficult to prove. I think a lot of times, and I’ve actually gone through the legal system myself and have worked with abuse survivors helping them navigate that – you know, there’s so much burden on the victim. There’s asking them to recall their traumatic experience numerous times and how trauma works is over time, you might remember more details. It’s hard to piece together and so detectives trying to solve this crime if there’s new parts to the survivors experience, they view that as “oh well that’s not what you said before and their story doesn’t “match up,” but that’s how trauma works. The burden is just so on victims.

Men are abuse victims, too

Billy Dees: I understand why police make people repeat the stories because oftentimes if there’s inconsistencies, that can be a problem. Okay but by the same token, it doesn’t put someone who’s been traumatized, especially in the most personal manner, in a very good situation. I feel there has to be a better way to handle that. Speaking of being underreported, one of the reasons why women don’t come forth a lot of times is just as you said, because what they have to go through versus what what the chances are that you’re going to get anything back is very small. And men are often survivors as well. They often have things done to them and they have the the societal pressure of having as a man to explain how they’ve been victimized. You’ve talked to a lot of people. What’s your kind of take on that?

Erika Port: Yeah, men certainly are abuse victims and they also have different challenges than women face. If they were to disclose or come forward about their abuse, you know, I think sexual violence in and of itself is very difficult to come forward but I think with men, it’s their own set of stigmas. A lot of people believe men can’t be raped. A lot of people don’t understand – If a man comes forward and especially if they were molested or inappropriately touched or anything by a woman, a lot of men view that as ‘oh man you scored! Why do you care? And it’s still super traumatizing. Men just have a whole different
battle to climb. The message I would have to men is if you believe that you need help if something has happened to you sexually or otherwise and you feel that you need help.

Billy Dees: A lot of times, men don’t want to come forward with emotional problems because they feel it’s a sign of weakness. That’s not something that men do as it were and so many times, help is just that far away all you have to do is take a step and ask for it and getting around those roadblocks of whether it be shame or anything else. In the long run, you feel so much better when you just get the help that you need. Speaking of help, what message of hope would you have for survivors and their families and what are some of the best recovery resources that are out there that that people can use?

Resources for abuse survivors

Erika Port: Sure. So, first I just want to say that on average, it takes roughly 10 years to come out to talk about abuse. When I say the average, that means some people carry it to their grave with them and some people disclose at the time that it happened. But on average, it’s almost a decade later. I also want to say that it’s never too late to heal. It’s never too late to talk about what happened and just from personal experience and helping other survivors, both men and women through this process, oftentimes survivors will report just having this weight lifted off just even talking about it. I just want to say that if you’ve experienced abuse, it’s not your fault and there’s certainly many resources out there. A lot of free resources even. In the Cleveland area there’s a great resource Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. They have tons of free resources and counseling services along with live chat, text options that are all anonymous too. There is also RAINN, which is a national network. They can also assist you with local resources. And certainly a lot of people find counseling helpful. But I think really the first step is talking about it and doing what’s best for you in your own time. That’s what I would have to say in terms of resources and advice.

Why many abuse victims wait to come forward

Billy Dees: Yeah that’s one of the things that when something breaks in the news, an accuser comes forward and it’s a public figure and it’s something that happened 20 years ago. Typically, people jump on it and quite frankly I’m not one for any type of knee-jerk reaction. I don’t want to automatically convict someone, but I don’t want to automatically discredit someone either. I think you have to be objective. You have to take these things seriously. One of the things people often question in that scenario is ‘why did they wait so long?’ I know you spoke about that a little bit. Is there anything more you want to add as to why sometimes when it’s a public figure – it might be, I’ve heard being the age of 50 a lot of times, to the point where you have the maturity and the understanding of what happened to you to be able to talk about it?

Erika Port: There’s so many reasons why people wait, especially when the abuse is happening. Say it’s in a work environment. If it’s by a boss or a co-worker, often times victims would worry about being ostracized at work or retaliation, or fear of not being believed. Fear of being blamed – who is the abuser? Oftentimes abusers will insert themselves into these positive lights so a lot of times we see pastors abusing, right? Because if they’re accused, they’re in this positive light or they do so many good things for the community or they just have this good reputation. It then becomes very easy to believe the perpetrator and the one accused than the victim(s). So often times, we see people come forward years later about an individual. You know, these perpetrators often, if not most the time, have numerous victims. It’s not like they offend just once, so over this time, they have numerous victims. And when one person comes forward, it gives courage for other victims to come forward who carry that experience alone and in their own shame. They see someone else coming forward and they say, ‘oh my gosh, this happened to me too.’ And that’s why we see people come out numbers, oftentimes years later.

Billy Dees: Sure, yeah and I want to stress to the audience in the last couple of years with the #MeToo Movement and everything, you’ve heard the mantra ‘always believe victims.’ It doesn’t necessarily mean try and convict them. What it means is give the accusation enough credence to investigate it. Like you said, so many times somebody in a position of authority, let’s say for example, may abuse someone who is addicted to drugs. Naturally, everybody says, “well who’s going to believe the quote unquote drug addict” in relation to the councilman and that’s where those things get dismissed. And that’s where you have to give that accusation an investigation. You have to give it credence. You can’t just dismiss anything out of hand. That’s what they’re really trying to say. Am I right about that?

Erika Port: Yeah and I will say this too. One of the biggest fears victims face is that when they do come forward that they won’t be believed. So when people do come forward publicly – we all see the comments blaming and not believing the victim or asking what the victim did or didn’t do or why this or why that right? That response and treatment is incredibly difficult for a victim for a crime that befell on to them. It’s so important to believe a victim when they come forward because it really can shape the trajectory of their life and healing process. Like, we all know that there are perpetrators out there right? Like we all know that, and so when someone comes out about being abused by someone, why are we dismissing it so quickly? Why are we not investigating it to the level it deserves.

Abuse victims should not be political pawns

Billy Dees: Yes, I would only add this and I’ll ask your opinion about this, that political ideological filters are now playing a big role in this. If someone gets accused and they’re a popular Republican the Republicans and the Democrats are on opposite sides and the exact same thing happens when it’s a Democrat, they flip. Who was for before is against now and the other way around. There should be none of that and the idea that you’re defending someone because they’re politically aligned with you or you enjoy their music or their entertainment. That all has to be stripped away. You’ve got to look at the situation.

Erika Port: Correct. Abuse and sexual violence in and of itself doesn’t discriminate. Certainly there are areas of higher rates of abuse. It could be disability, individuals who face substance use, really just a host of different inequities really. So it’s really important to put aside anything political because sexual violence does not discriminate. It can happen to anybody.

Billy Dees: Yeah and the last thing you want to do is as a good person is put someone who’s a survivor to begin with, they’ve been traumatized, they have to go through, in the case of rape kits and all that, very invasive humiliating tests they go through. All these interrogations and then the last thing you want to do is make them a political pawn or something like that. Sometimes, I wonder if as a society we’re just as bad as victimizing them all over again.

Erika Port: Speaking of offenders, I have another experience to share. The offenders that have online victims that look at child pornography, their mental gymnastics that they have is that ‘well it’s already out there, like it’s not a physical victim, I’m not physically doing anything,’ but what they don’t realize and recognize is that they’re creating demand for that child pornography. It has been interesting to just hear the mental gymnastics that they have.

Billy Dees: Yeah it’s amazing how they will work around the things that they are doing wrong. I have experience with what I would call “bad behaving people.” None of them sexually, but what I would call a criminal element. There’s always an excuse as to why whatever they did isn’t as bad as what the other guy did and it’s an interesting psychology for sure. All right, we have been talking to Erika Port, a businesswoman from the Cleveland area and very much an advocate for survivors of abuse sexual abuse. Thank you very much for coming on the program today. It really means a lot to me. I know it’s a tough subject, it’s a sensitive subject and quite frankly, sometimes it’s one that I’m a little nervous talking about because I don’t want to offend anyone. I certainly don’t want to offend you or the audience, but you made me feel very comfortable and I really appreciate you coming on.

Erika Port: Well, thank you so much for having me and I appreciate your curiosity and having me on.

Billy Dees: So awesome. I am Billy Dees and as far as my social media presence, you can find me on Twitter. that’s kind of like my social media home. I happen to feel that Twitter was built for podcasting. @BillyDees on Twitter and actually, @BillyDees is my screen name on everything. I’m on most of the major platforms so you can find me on social media as well @BillyDees. Thank you again Erika very much and I’ll also say thanks to the audience. We’ll be back again next week. Thanks for checking out the podcast.