Marissa’s Story

“When I speak authentically and truthfully about my experience, I have power. I am not going away.”

Marissa Hoechstetter was repeatedly sexually assaulted by the OB-GYN she saw during her pregnancy, the delivery of her twin daughters, and follow-up appointments. The perpetrator was well-regarded in the field and was recommended to Marissa by a friend. At the time of the incidents, Marissa trusted her doctor’s treatment and was focused on making sure her pregnancy went well.

“With medical professionals, there’s often a legitimate reason for why their hands are on your body. There’s a gray area and the minute you step into their office, they have power over you,” says Marissa. “Looking back, there were a lot of things that felt odd, but I was pregnant and focused on my babies and after all, this person was the uncle of a close friend of mine.”

During one visit after her twins were born, Marissa recognized that the behavior crossed medical boundaries and knew immediately that something was wrong. “I felt it happen and froze. I never went back.” Despite continuing to feel for years that what had happened was wrong, Marissa did not feel that she was able to report the abuse because all of her time and energy went toward being a new mother, and she also found herself minimizing her own experience in comparison to other stories of sexual assault. “It just kept coming back to me how wrong it was, but I had one-year-old twins and was working full-time. I didn’t have the ability to acknowledge or deal with it.”

Marissa says it was hard for her to speak about the abuse at the beginning, but eventually she realized that sharing her story would allow her both to help others and to begin her own healing. “I got to the point with it all where I really felt like if I couldn’t speak publicly about this, who could? I felt hypocritical raising two daughters and telling them to tell the truth and call out injustice. I thought ‘I’m not doing that.’”

Marissa first disclosed the assault a few years later to her husband and the district attorney’s office, and she decided that she was going to keep telling her story until she got justice. “It’s taken me some time to find my voice—but now that I have, I’m not going to stop using it.”

 

For Marissa, speaking out about the abuse was very difficult at the beginning because she felt ashamed, angry, and confused—often questioning her own experience; but it got easier over time. “Each time I talk about it, it gets easier. I’m at a point now where I’m talking about it quite a lot.” But it was a gradual process for her to start telling her story. “Each time I’ve reached out or made my story more public, it’s turned out to be OK. I’m fortunate that I’ve had really positive experiences.” The MeToo Movement created an environment that validated Marissa’s experience. “I saw things and realized that the same things had happened to me. I felt more comfortable speaking out.”

Through speaking about the abuse, Marissa created the opportunity for other women who had experienced abuse by the same perpetrator to come forward. Of the many survivors, 17 sued Columbia University and its hospitals for the alleged oversights that allowed this abuse to continue over the course of 20 years. Marissa was not the first person to have spoken up about it—she says that others had been reporting incidents going back to the 1990s, but no action had been taken to stop the abuser from seeing patients. Though the other survivors remain anonymous to the public, Marissa says it has been helpful to know that she is not alone.

Marissa aims to raise awareness of sexual abuse by medical professionals both so that survivors of this crime no longer feel alone and so that the legal and institutional systems that allow this abuse to occur can change. “So many people reach out to me who want to talk about sexual abuse by medical professionals. There’s a lot of shame and self doubt. They want to validate their experience. They don’t know what to do, where to go.” “We need to draw more attention to this so that the profession can acknowledge it and take better steps to protect patients. We need change—from the institutions that employ, enable, and protect these abusers, to the governmental structures that are supposed to regulate them.”

Short statute of limitations and limited roles of admissible evidence mean that, often for crimes of sexual abuse that go on over a long period of time, it is very limiting for prosecutors trying to show a pattern and history of illegal behavior. That is why Marissa advocates for increasing public opinion around the issue of why someone didn’t report earlier in order to address the issue of statutes of limitations, which she believes should be reformed. “It’s so great that RAINN has the statutes of limitations state database—so often survivors don’t know what the laws are in their state.”

In terms of giving advice to others about recognizing medical sexual abuse, Marissa says to trust your instincts. “Honestly just trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right or comfortable, go somewhere else.” She also recommends being an informed patient as much as possible. “Be an informed consumer for this like you would be about anything else in your life.” She recommends researching both the healthcare provider and the facility. In addition to reporting sexual abuse to the hospital and police, survivors can also contact their state’s medical board to file a complaint against providers, though unfortunately in most states you cannot access these complaints against doctors. Marissa has been advocating for greater transparency on medical boards.

In addition to the healing Marissa has experienced though advocacy and sharing her story, she has also found the support of family, friends, and therapy to be essential. “Therapy was helpful for working out how I felt about what happened to me and what I wanted to do about it.” Her therapist encouraged to start writing down her thoughts and feelings, which Marissa has continued to do for years. “Putting it down on paper and reading it back to myself was really powerful for me.” Marissa also runs regularly, which is useful to her both for the exercise and for finding alone time to reground herself and clear her thoughts.

Though sharing her story and becoming an advocate for other survivors has been healing for Marissa, she emphasizes that survivors should do what is best for them and should not feel they have to disclose publicly.

“For me, I knew I needed to do something. Speaking out for me was about feeling productive.”

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