Annual Panhellenic Speak Out provides platform for survivors of sexual violence
The Panhellenic Peer Educators at the University of Michigan hosted the third annual Panhellenic Speak Out on Tuesday night, providing a forum for survivors of sexual violence to share their stories in a confidential space.
At the event, attendees were welcomed to share stories in an open, unmoderated session that lasted two hours. Survivors shared stories from a wide range of experiences; some read poetry, some told their stories unscripted and some spoke for friends who were unable to speak.
LSA senior Ally Cohen and Kinesiology senior Cass Bouse-Eaton worked to organize the event, with preparations beginning in August. Both have been involved with the event and PPE for several years, and they expressed their hope it would empower more survivors to share stories and spur action.
“In the wake of the #MeToo movement and everything that’s been going on, I think this is an easy way to start getting involved and for survivors to take the first steps in sharing their stories," Cohen said. “It’s a great way to have a platform that’s comfortable for the survivors — that’s on their own terms — which is very important in our society right now.”
Bouse-Eaton and Cohen emphasized their role was to facilitate conversation on all levels — especially for college students. Bouse-Eaton identified a lack of awareness as a primary obstacle to making progress with sexual violence in society.
“I hope that it opens people’s minds if they haven’t thought about this issue before,” Bouse-Eaton said. “I hope it helps survivors in the room feel more comfortable coming forward, or at least know that they are not alone in their struggle, and that there are people here to support them, whether that’s a peer educator, a friend in their chapter, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, etc.”
To some extent, there has been progress toward this goal. This is the first Speak Out at the University since the advent of the #MeToo movement, which has encouraged survivors to share their stories on social media since late last year. The movement has brought with it one of the most significant ongoing national conversations about sexual violence in decades.
The event also carried a certain additional weight for Michigan residents. Larry Nassar, a former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor, was handed a third sentence of 40 to 125 years in prison on Monday, following three weeks of closely watched court hearings in which victims of his sexual abuse publicly testified about his actions.
Perhaps partially catalyzed by the Nassar sentencing, the #MeToo movement and other public events over the last several years, Bouse-Eaton said she has seen more survivors come out to share their stories with each event.
“It is such a widespread problem, but it’s one that we haven’t been talking about for a long time,” Bouse-Eaton said. “I feel like every year, it’s gaining momentum; people are feeling more comfortable saying, ‘Me too.’”
One attendee, who asked to remain anonymous, went to the event for this purpose — to support a platform for survivors.
“I wanted to be in a space where you can hear people share their stories because I don’t think they’re shared enough,” the attendee said. “And I think it’s important to have spaces where you can be emotional. Sometimes it feels like you don’t have enough time to do that on this campus.”
The attendee also underscored the importance of spreading awareness and thinking about how one might be facilitating sexual violence as a bystander.
Despite the gravity of the subject matter, Bouse-Eaton expressed her hope and confidence that the event — and the work of survivors, allies and leaders — would lead to positive change.
“It’s not really an event that you tell people to get excited for because it’s very emotional and upsetting for a lot of people, but it’s also very powerful and life-changing,” Bouse-Eaton said. “And we tell people every year: It’s not fun, but it’s important.”