sexual abuse

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"That '70s Show" stars Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis.

Actor Danny Masterson, 47, best known for playing Steven Hyde on “That ‘70s Show” from 1998 to 2006, was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison for raping two women in the early 2000s. Throughout the trial, prosecutors argued that the Church of Scientology helped cover up the assaults—an allegation the organization denied.

The victim's dramatic, horrifying testimony revealed Masterson as a violent predator who pried women with substances before having sex with them against their will. One accuser admitted that she thought she was “going to die” while being raped by Masterson.

After Masterson was found guilty, the judge received over 50 letters asking for leniency in his sentence. Two letters came from Masterson’s “That ‘70s Show” costars, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, who are married.

In their letters, Kunis referred to his “exceptional character,” and Kutcher called him a “role model.”

“While I’m aware that the judgment has been cast as guilty on two counts of rape by force and the victims have a great desire for justice, I hope that my testament to his character is taken into consideration in sentencing,” Kutcher wrote. “I do not believe he is an ongoing harm to society and having his daughter raised without a present father would [be] a tertiary injustice in and of itself. Thank you for taking the time to read this.”

Kunis’ letter adds: “I wholeheartedly vouch for Danny Masterson’s exceptional character and the tremendous positive influence he has had on me and the people around him. His dedication to leading a drug-free life and the genuine care he extends to others make him an outstanding role model and friend.”

After Kutcher and Kunis’ letters went public, the couple released a video that apologized for potentially hurting Masterson’s victims. Many who watched the video thought it was cold, ingenuine and more likely to have been written by lawyers than by the couple.

Kutcher notes that the letter was “meant for a judge” and not for public consumption. One wonders if they would have written such glowing letters if they knew they would be released publicly.

“The letters were not written to question the legitimacy of the judicial system or the validity of the jury’s ruling,” Kunis says before Kutcher adds, “They were intended for the judge to read and not to undermine the testimony of the victims or re-traumatize them in any way. We would never want to do that. And we’re sorry if that has taken place.”

Finally, Kunis notes, “Our heart goes out to every single person who’s ever been a victim of sexual assault, sexual abuse, or rape.” It should be noted that for over a decade, Kutcher has worked to help end child sex trafficking, through a nonprofit he founded with his ex-wife, Demi Moore.

The video caused quite a stir on social media, with people critiquing them for looking like they were in a hostage video and questioning the lengths one should go to support a friend convicted of being a rapist.

One of the most critical takeaways from the public reaction to the story is how people who appear to be affable pillars of the community can have secret lives as abusers. The dual nature of these people’s personalities can make it incredibly difficult for some people to accept their insidious nature. But that mask that the abuser wears also makes it easier for them to continue to hurt others.

Masterson’s crimes are despicable and have ruined numerous lives. But if any good is to come of this, it's for the public to better understand how abusers can hide in plain sight. Just because someone has been a good friend or hasn’t shown any signs of being abusive doesn’t mean they can’t also harbor a terrible secret.


When someone is first escaping sex trafficking, it can feel difficult and overwhelming to imagine what's waiting on the other side.

This is especially true for children and minor youth, who make up a sizable percentage of those who are exploited in the United States. While the exact number is not known because many instances of exploitation go unreported, the National Human Trafficking Hotline and BeFree Textline report that roughly 25% of the calls they receive are from minors.

Some have never known life outside their abuse, so picturing a different life can feel impossible. But, no matter how hard it can feel at first, the other side of surviving sex trafficking is more than worth the journey it takes to get there. Because there is always hope and people that are there to help you along the journey — and no one knows this better than the survivor-leaders who've gone on to help other survivors find their strength again.

All photos by iStock unless otherwise noted.

One such leader is Dr. Karen Countryman-Roswurm, founder and executive director at the Center for Combating Human Trafficking (CCHT) at Wichita State University.

Today, she considers herself a “survivor of the systems and the streets." She has been doing anti-trafficking work locally, nationally, and internationally for 23 years.

"My personal experiences led me to this work," she says.

She was hired to do street outreach for the same shelter she once stayed at, and that helped her come to terms with what had happened to her. And because Karen had been in the system, she knew what needed to change — like talking to survivors about what they'd gone through.

"Nobody ever asked me the question, 'what happened to you while you were on the streets?,'" she says.

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She also knew that if anyone could help facilitate that change, it was a survivor like her. So that's exactly what she set out to do.

Today, she's an inspiring leader in the anti-trafficking movement who uses her personal and professional expertise to improve services for survivors of trafficking. Karen has not only worked directly with survivors, but has also conducted decades of research on what helps people overcome experiences like abuse and exploitation. She also has a PhD in psychology — another attribute that makes her instrumental in the fight against exploitation.

Karen's developed services and programs to help survivors reclaim their lives, but she stresses that it starts with "creating a space that allows them to become more than just [their] experience."

After all, they're much more than survivors of exploitation.

Karen explains that "there's a context that created the scenario of exploitation, and that's really what you've overcome."

Finding others to talk to about the trauma you've experienced is integral to overcoming it, and eventually thriving afterwards. A supportive group of people who understand what you've been through is often the safest place to work through feelings, and eventually find some peace. It can also be helpful if you're still dealing with exploitation, and not sure how to find a way out.

[rebelmouse-image 19397894 dam="1" original_size="700x467" caption="Photo by Omar Lopez/Unsplash." expand=1]Photo by Omar Lopez/Unsplash.

Through weekly survivor meetings, mentorship, counseling, and support networks, CCHT strives to give survivors the tools they need to heal. These tools can be especially helpful for survivor youths who may need more help finding a supportive community.

Karen notes that this comes down to forming a "transformational relationship" with someone who can help a survivor "move past their need for a system, so they have support when they need it, but can [also] exist well on their own."

It's also important to remember that it takes time and lots of self-care to go from a recent survivor to being a survivor leader like Karen. Just ask Judge Robert Lung.

Robert is a District Court Judge appointed by the governor of Colorado, an appointee to the United States' Advisory Council of Human Trafficking, and a consultant for the Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime, just to name a few of his credits.

But, while he's a well-known anti-trafficking advocate today, it took Robert, who is also a survivor of exploitation, decades to get to a place where he felt comfortable speaking publicly about his own experience.

Photo via iStock.

"I got involved when I'd had enough recovery that I could engage in that kind of work," he explains.

For Robert, that involved decades and stages of self-care.

“It's always about self-care. Being aware of your needs and meeting those needs as best you can," he continues.

Self-care is an essential part of recovery for anyone who's experienced trauma. For young people, it might mean seeing a licensed therapist or sharing feelings with a trusted friend or loved one. Or it might mean doing something as simple as spending a few minutes a day breathing in and out deliberately (inhale for three counts, hold your breath for three counts, then exhale for three counts, working your way up to eight counts). If you're not sure what to try, these easy grounding exercises are a great place to start.

You don't have to be in an active crisis to do these self-reflective things — they're just practices that help remind you that you're in control of your body and mind. And they don't have to look any one way either. Whatever you choose to do, it's about refocusing healing energy onto yourself, and giving yourself the space and time to process where you're at emotionally.

[rebelmouse-image 19397896 dam="1" original_size="700x394" caption="Photo by Ben Blennerhassett/Unsplash." expand=1]Photo by Ben Blennerhassett/Unsplash.

It's also important to allow your self-care routines to change over time, depending on what kind of support you need.

For example, Robert started going to therapy in his mid 20s, and eventually tried eastern medicine like reiki and acupuncture because as his recovery evolved, so did his treatments. He realizes they may always be a part of his life in some way, and that's OK.

"It's a process, not a destination," he notes.

Both Karen and Robert agree that becoming a survivor-leader is incredibly empowering, but rushing into that work can do more harm than good.

[rebelmouse-image 19397897 dam="1" original_size="700x467" caption="Photo by Daniel McCullough/Unsplash." expand=1]Photo by Daniel McCullough/Unsplash.

"The moment after you realize you're a victim — that's not the time to start doing advocacy work," says Robert.

It's important to focus on yourself and your own needs first. If you haven't fully dealt with your trauma, sharing it could negatively impact your recovery.

That said, once you truly feel ready, advocacy work can help you thrive while simultaneously helping other survivors realize they're not alone.

[rebelmouse-image 19397898 dam="1" original_size="700x467" caption="Photo by Justin Groeb/Unsplash." expand=1]Photo by Justin Groeb/Unsplash.

Robert is a prime example of this. More often than not, when trafficking stories are reported by the media, they're focused on girls and women, which can in turn cause male victims to feel isolated. However, male victims are usually vulnerable to trafficking for the same reasons as females: history of physical or sexual abuse and/or lack of family support. Thankfully, advocates like Robert are working to shed light on the male stories of sexual exploitation.

Survivor-leaders are an essential part of survivor support systems, but they're not the only ones you can turn to for help. Sometimes talking to a trusted loved one is the best first step towards recovery.

Photo via iStock.

It likely won't be an easy conversation, but sharing your experience with someone who cares about you may help give you the strength you need to move forward.

It's so important to have a touchstone like that in your life — someone with whom you can feel completely safe and supported.

With that in mind, if you're not a survivor, but you suspect someone you know is being exploited, the best thing you can do is let them know you're there for them, and there is a way out.

"There is hope in a life waiting for you that will allow you to step into your true identity," says Karen.

And for anyone who's currently experiencing exploitation, please remember, there are people in your community who will stand by you in your journey leaving abuse, even if you don't know them yet.

Life extends beyond trauma — you just may need a little help getting there.

Learn more about community resources that can help you or others overcome exploitation or sex traffickinghere.

In October 1991, Anita Hill sat before five white male senators during Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation hearing and bravely spoke her truth.

As her former supervisor, Hill said, Thomas had sexually harassed her in the workplace. Her recollections and testimony — given long before the #MeToo era helped change the way we see sexual harassment and assault — were criticized, questioned, and brushed aside by congressional leaders. Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court shortly after.

But Hill's voice was instrumental in helping pave the way for survivors to speak up.

Photo by Jennifer Law/AFP/Getty Images.

Nearly 27 years after testifying, Hill — now a professor at Brandeis University — sat down with John Oliver on an episode of "Last Week Tonight" to chat about how we can keep moving forward in ways that empower and protect survivors.

"There's been a tremendous amount of change," Hill said. "There's been a change in public attitude, and there's been a change in the amount of information that we have about sexual harassment."

But for all we've learned, Hill still gets an incredibly frustrating question.

"So far, much of the approaches we've had is to put all of the burden on women," Hill noted. "One of the questions I get that just sort of sticks out with me is: 'How do we raise our daughter to make sure that she doesn't set herself up to be a victim of sexual harassment?' These are the kinds of things that we're thinking — 'If we fix her, then she won't encounter this problem.'

"In reality, she is not the problem."

Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images.

"She is not the problem" — men are. Can we keep saying that until it truly sinks in?

Because instead of focusing on teaching men about consent, society often tells women that their clothing or the amount of alcohol they consume are to blame for the actions of abusers. It's nonsensical.

More awareness campaigns are urging men to speak up and stop sexual assault when they see it. The #MeToo movement has challenged Washington and Hollywood alike to rethink how we view and respond to harassment and assault. So we're headed in the right direction in many ways.

But still, Hill believes men "need to step up."

"At this point in time, there are no innocent bystanders," she continued. "If you are aware of something — you acknowledge it, you know it's wrong, but you don't do anything about it — then it's the same as participating in it."

Watch Hill and Oliver's interview, which starts at about 17:50, below:

Terry Crews' courage and advocacy have made him an important ally in the #MeToo era.

The "Brooklyn 99" star has been an outspoken advocate, opening up about his own experience with sexual assault.

"My name is Terry Crews," he said at the beginning of his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I am an actor, author, former athlete, advocate, and a survivor of a sexual assault."

He was speaking before the committee in support of passing a Bill of Rights for assault survivors in all 50 states. Congress and the White House already passed their own Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act in 2016 that was signed into law by President Barack Obama, but advocates say more protections are still needed at the state level.

"I wanted these survivors to know that I believe them," he said. "I supported them and that this happened to me too."

It's meaningful for people like Crews to speak out about toxic masculinity.

Crews has been praised for his courage in speaking up — but he's also been attacked. After he stepped forward, Crews says he was threatened by a producer on "The Expendables" film series to drop his lawsuit or face being removed from the film.

Rapper and fellow actor Curtis Jackson, aka "50 Cent," publicly mocked Crews through his Instagram after Crews spoke to Congress, suggesting the former NFL star "strap up."

Crews was having none of this, which he made clear in his testimony. “I was told over and over that this was not abuse. This was just a joke. This was just horseplay,” he said. “But I can say one man’s horseplay is another man’s humiliation."

Supporting sexual assault survivors is essential. Moments like this help to make that support an undisputed reality.

There's no shortage of things people can learn about preventing sexual harassment and assault by listening more to the people who have experienced it. Having an open mind and open heart goes a long way toward moving past the culture of toxic masculinity and the problems it creates.

As Crews has said, when women speak out on the issue, men should listen, but men also play a critical role in educating and policing their own communities.

When a celebrity like Terry Crews speaks up, it matters. No one can challenge his stature as a "tough guy." He can admit the problems inherent with the traditionally narrow definition of masculinity that society seems to uphold. He's moved beyond it and hopes others will do the same.