Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said Monday she is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and that she is breaking her silence so that other abuse survivors know they are not alone.
“I was abused by adults unrelated to me for many years, starting when I was eight years old,” Hodges wrote on Facebook. “My family did not know. I believed — was threatened into believing — that the slightest indication that anything was amiss would jeopardize the safety of everyone and everything I loved. No one knew until I told them early in my sobriety — not my friends, not my family.”
Hodges, who is running for re-election, did not disclose anything more about the circumstances, but said the abuse helps explain how she could have been an alcoholic by the age of 19, when she swore off drinking in college.
“No one has ever really asked me how one gets to be that far gone that young,” she said.
Hodges declined an interview request Monday. Her spokesman, Eric Fought, said she made the announcement to coincide with Sexual Assault Awareness month, which is April.
The revelation comes in the midst of a heated mayoral election campaign, in which she faces eight challengers and at least two serious competitors for the Minneapolis DFL endorsement.
“Being a survivor has defined so much of who I am,” Hodges wrote on Facebook. “I learned well how to suffer quietly, I learned to meet tragedy with a poker face and a plan, and I learned it was dangerous to share too much about the things I care about most. I am breaking the silence so others can know: you are not alone. I know we can heal from anything, because I have. We can heal, succeed and thrive.”
The outpouring of support on Hodges’ Facebook page was unanimous, and two key challengers for the endorsement, Ray Dehn and Jacob Frey, joined the chorus.
“Thank you for sharing your truth and empowering survivors, Mayor Hodges,” Dehn said.
“Thank you, Mayor Betsy Hodges. Breaking the silence on sexual assault and childhood abuse is critical to empowering others to do the same,” Frey said.
Courageous and risky
Making such an announcement now is courageous but also risky, especially since it was a brief statement on Facebook, said Heather LaMarre, a professor at Temple University who researches politicians’ use of social media.
“I applaud any woman who would go on the record to say something like that about her childhood if they are doing it as an instrument of goodwill in society and to educate the public about violence against women,” LaMarre said.
But since Hodges’ revelation came with no new initiative, specific local event or in-depth interview — things that could help explain the context for the sudden announcement — LaMarre said she opens herself to criticism from cynics and opponents.
“To do this in an unexpected way on social media makes it really difficult for people to make sense of,” LaMarre said. “People who like her will probably admire her more, people who don’t like her are going to use it as a wedge issue, and people in the middle are going to be confused by all the press coverage it will garner.”
Sarah Super, founder of Break the Silence, said Hodges came forward at one of the group’s events at Augsburg College on April 10. She had her photo taken, and asked that her story be posted on the group’s Facebook page on April 24.
Hodges is the 79th person to share an account of sexual assault on the Break the Silence Facebook page. Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, who in 2015 revealed that he had been sexually abused as a child, has also participated. In August, the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution honoring “Break the Silence Day,” and the Interstate 35W bridge was lit teal.
Though every story posted on the page has an impact, Super said, having a public figure like Hodges come forward can be particularly powerful. Survivors of sexual violence who share their experiences publicly are often met with shame, she said, and the suggestion that Hodges’ post was politically motivated is an example of that.
“I think this is a great example of just another method that our community is using to silence survivors — not just Mayor Hodges, but every survivor who wonders if this might be a choice they make in the future,” Super said.
‘It can really help’
Roughly one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, but Kristen Houlton Sukura, executive director of the Sexual Violence Center in Minneapolis, said the statistics are “a fantasy,” and the number of victims is higher.
“Sexual violence is all around us and it thrives in silence,” she said. “Most people not only are not reporting what’s happened to them to law enforcement, they’re not talking about it at all.”
For a prominent woman to say she was abused signals the reality of the prevalence of sexual violence, and the possibility that it can be overcome.
“It can really help for folks to say, ‘Wow, here’s this powerful, successful woman. Even her,’ ” Houlton Sukura said.
Hodges, 47, who grew up in Minnetonka, has long been public with her alcoholism. She told MinnPost that in college she often drank alone in her dorm room, and the drinking became increasingly excessive. She took her last drink on July 16, 1989, she said, while she was still attending Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia. She has not had a drink, smoked a cigarette or tasted sugar since, she said.
Houlton Sukura said she is glad Hodges connected her alcohol addiction to the sexual abuse she says she suffered as a child. Society judges substance abuse harshly, Houlton Sukura said, but “unresolved sexual trauma” often lies beneath drug or alcohol abuse.
Houlton Sukura said Hodges has supported her organization “when called upon,” though she doesn’t have a personal relationship with the mayor, and doesn’t think Hodges bears extra responsibility to advocate for victims of sexual abuse because she is one. Disclosing one’s abuse is a deeply personal decision, Houlton Sukura said, and sometimes victims have a hard time confronting the larger problem since it reminds them of their own trauma.
Council Member Cam Gordon said he didn’t know about Hodges’ experience until he read her Facebook post. But given the prevalence of sexual abuse and assault, he said, it doesn’t come as a surprise.
Gordon didn’t recall Hodges directing attention specifically toward the issue of sexual abuse as a council member or as mayor, but said she’s been supportive of boosting city resources for women and children.
Gordon acknowledged that the timing of Hodges’ post could be seen as tied to her re-election campaign. “If you’re running for office, it’s easy to attribute anything you’re doing to that,” he said.