April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month; if you’ve been opening your social media feeds or participating in society for the past few months, I imagine you are not lacking awareness of this problem. However, you might be lacking hope. It feels like we keep finding more perpetrators, more complicit bystanders and more cultural ills but we aren’t finding paths to healing.
There are still more misconceptions and injustices to unpack, and there will be for decades to come. That is the inevitable result of a political and economic system that was built in part on the exploitation of women’s bodies and labor. But there are still steps we can take to move forward and to reduce hurt in the future. Supporting survivors is similar to other alliances. It means centering survivors and their perspectives, establishing community and holding yourself and your peers accountable in everyday life.
These are all policy matters as well as personal practices. Centering survivors in personal matters means listening, above all else. If one of your friends or loved ones has been a victim of sexual assault, make sure to reiterate that you are there for them in whatever way they need. When they want to talk about what happened or how they are feeling, understand that you cannot heal them, and they know that. Rather, you can be a listening ear who absorbs some pain in the moment and reinforce that their pain and experiences are valid. As the conversation about sexual assault becomes more mainstream, voices of opposition and doubt are also amplified. So, as survivors hear people in the media and political spheres questioning and invalidating experiences similar to their own, remind them the pain they are feeling is real and anyone who had gone through that would feel the same.
Further, make sure survivors are central in activism in discussions of the issue. Do not assume you know what is best for them. It is an intricate issue, and ultimately, those most affected deserve to lead the fight against it. Center their voices and their wishes. Carry this into policy. Ask them what resources they wish they’d had when it happened or what would’ve helped them heal. Our justice system is very punishment focused. This moves the focus of the crime away from victims toward the interaction between the state and the criminal. Many do not find healing or justice through punishment. Of course I am not suggesting there should be no punishment for rapists and abusers, but there should be a shift in focus toward the victim.
When I first brought my case of intimate partner violence to law enforcement, a police officer told me he “doesn’t have time for boyfriend drama tonight.” When a separate police officer called me later to question me about it, he spent the whole time speaking to me, a scared and confused 16 year old, in an incredibly accusatory and aggravated tone. Finally, the judge who heard my case told me and my ex that we should not be involved in these sort of things, that we were too young to be messing up our lives.
I do believe I may have had a particularly bad experience, but I also know I felt no semblance of support from those in positions of power. No one attempted to provide me with resources to begin the healing process, and they treated my abuser and I like we were equally to blame for his actions.
Beyond feeling as if my trauma and experiences were discounted, it made me feel alone. This brings me to the importance of providing survivors with a robust community. In personal matters, this is similar to my last point, except it does not require you to be close enough to be directly listening to someone’s experiences. Rather, it means assuring that those in your community who have endured sexual violence do not feel ostracized because of their experience. Often, when people go through traumatic, heavy situations, others back away because they feel uncomfortable and are unsure how to address what occurred. Don’t do this — no one knows the right thing to say in these situations, but deciding to say nothing and retreat will only make the survivor feel more stigmatized. Being surrounded by people who they love, who love them and who are able to distract them from pain and suffering is important.
In terms of policy, creating community means expanding resources for groups such as the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center that facilitate group therapy and other group healing practices. This allows survivors to share their stories in a welcoming space and relate to others who have been through similar experiences, thus reducing feelings of isolation and stigmatization.
Finally, learn about the culture of sexual coercion and resist against it. Don’t allow yourself to be complicit when you are a bystander in coercive situations. We know much of campus sexual assault does not occur in back alleys with violent strangers as perpetrators but rather in much more casual settings. This makes it easier to see it as “he said, she said,” to brush it off as a misunderstanding that will fade away if we don’t talk about it. Don’t be that person—support survivors by amplifying their stories and voices. Beyond standing up in situations where an assault has occurred, continue to be an ally when your peers use language or exhibit behavior that perpetuates rape culture. This might be as blatant as victim blaming, but it may also appear in using language that objectifies or belittles women, deliberately trying to get a date drunk, or a wide array of other toxic behaviors.
It can be draining and disheartening as a survivor to feel obligated to be your own strongest advocate. It brings up traumatic experiences and makes it feel as though many people don’t care enough about those experiences to act on your behalf. So, to be an effective ally to survivors of sexual assault, help to shoulder some of that burden in a manner that empowers them and prioritizes their perspective.
Margot Libertini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org