What “Supporting Survivors” Looks Like in Practice

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Photo Credit – Pioneer Press: John Autley

As the University of Minnesota -and beyond- continues to grapple with the implications of rape culture, it’s worth taking a moment to re-center the people most impacted by sexual assault: victim-survivors. While the media may fixate on high-profile sports teams, and the conversation on social media may zoom in on the back-and-forth of the micro-level legal particulars of a given case, victim-survivors are meanwhile left reliving their trauma.

It is up to us, as a community, to support victim-survivors, in terms of the personal relationships we have in our own lives, and in the broader culture of which we are all a part. “Being a good person” is a start, but it is not enough. To really disrupt and dismantle rape culture, we must put our values into practice. How might we do that?

1. Unlearn

The next part of this list deals with learning about consent and rape culture, but to truly support victim-survivors, many of us must first unlearn a few things. This process may be difficult, since myths about sexual assault are so deeply ingrained in U.S. culture.

  • We must question those first impulses to ask questions like “but was she drinking?” or “what was she wearing?” that, intentionally or not, blame the victim. We must change those questions and ask “how did the accused clearly ask for consent and know that consent was given?”
  • We must disrupt the myth that sexual assault is “the stranger lurking in the bushes,” when it is in fact much more likely to be a friend, partner, someone the victim knows, or someone who has commuity power or respect.
  • We must stop saying things like “boys will be boys” or other statements that frame men’s behavior or “mistakes” as inevitable, and forgivable, because of their gender. When we buy into these myths, we’re granting more leniency for male behavior and sustaining a system of double standards that plays out as blaming girls and women. These statements, and the beliefs behind them, normalize, or even trivialize, rape.
  • We must think critically about why so many victim/survivors choose not to report their assault.

2. Learn

This is not an all-encompassing guide to understanding rape culture. That writing has already been done. Here are a handful of existing resources both for individuals to learn more, and for all of us to help educate others:

Title IX requires schools to combat sex discrimination in education. One of the most common objections we hear to campus adjudication is “but isn’t rape a crime?” It absolutely is, and students who report to their schools can also report to the police. However, rape and other forms of gender-based violence manifest and perpetuate inequality, and federal antidiscrimination law recognizes that. To make sure that all students, regardless of their gender identity and expression, have equal access to education, schools are required to prevent and respond to reports of sexual violence. This isn’t a replacement for reporting to the police; it’s a parallel option for survivors based in civil rights – rather than criminal – law [emphasis added].

3. Take Action

Learning and unlearning are both vital, but all of the knowledge in the world won’t create a world free from sexual assault. To do that, to truly support victim-survivors, we must take proactive, intentional action. We will weave our values and principles into our daily practice, in a way that isn’t just symbolic or performative. Taking a pledge or wearing a button is only the beginning. We can do more, and we will.

 

  • Speak out against rape culture, whether that’s knowing how you might step-up if you witness a concerning situation, or something as simple as saying “that’s not okay” when you hear an ignorant comment from a friend or classmate.
  • On an individual level, we can also disrupt rape culture by implementing affirmative consent in our lives. While the “no means no” movement did a lot to increase attention around the issue of sexual assault, that discussion focuses on what consent does not look like, which perpetuates the idea that initiators are free to try whatever they would like until they hear a “no.” We deserve a reframing of sex in which silence does not equal yes, where we do not place a burden on the victim to expressly state the unwillingness to engage in sexual activity. To have equal sexual autonomy across genders, we need to value “yes means yes” over “no means no.”
  • Know Your IX has compiled a short list of do’s and don’ts for when a survivor comes out to you about sexual assault, including additional guidelines based on your relationship to the survivor (family member, friend, professor, activist/advocate).
  • On an organizational level, we can be strategic about disrupting rape culture by proactively bringing these conversations into spaces where it doesn’t already exist. Educators can talk with their students. Coaches can talk with their players. Fathers can talk with their sons. The power of relationships is vital here no training or guest speaker will ever have the impact that a conversation with someone we know in real life can have.
  • We can support organizations (through donations, volunteering, signal-boosting, and beyond) who work to support survivors and dismantle rape culture (through education, direct service, and policy change). Here at the U of M, there is the Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education. In the community, check out the Sexual Violence Center and the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

The odds are very high that everyone reading this has a victim-survivor in their life, whether you are aware of it or not. And just as the narratives around sexual assault is shifting, the narrative around allyship must shift too. It’s no longer just about victims and perpetrators, survivors and rapists. It’s about us, in community with one another, and how all of our actions and attitudes can create the world we want to see.

 

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