Sexual assault awareness should put survivors first

Sexual assault awareness should put survivors first

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month and it is an effort in which our campus wholeheartedly participates. Quotations from victims across the nation dot the long walk along West Pine, supplemented by similar signs with facts about sexual assault. Not surprisingly, facts about sexual assault are sobering: 80 percent of reported rape victims knew their attackers; one in every five women and one in 71 men will be raped in their lifetime; one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted in college (National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2015).

These numbers are astounding. Even more disturbingly, these numbers represent only the instances of sexual assault that have been reported, meaning that they are artificially low. While there is always more work to be done, SLU and its students have shown themselves to be very attuned to the importance of this issue. Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) has become a mainstay on the campus; Student Online Sexual Misconduct Awareness Training, “Haven,” is mandated.

New to these efforts is the “Breaking Out Campaign”—a series of photographs of sexual assault survivors holding posters with pieces of their stories written on them. The stories within each picture, often statements made by the perpetrator of the assault, are poignant, raw and particularly horrifying in their familiarity. These are not impossible stories; these are stories of terrible suffering that happens more often than anyone, particularly colleges, would like to admit.  The campaign is startling, to say the least, and undoubtedly an act of great courage on the part of the participants.

The Breaking Out Campaign began at Duke University about five years ago, sparking extensions of the campaign nationwide, with the goal to end the suffering of silence. In its own words, it is intended to “encourage healing through art and counter the culture of silence that shames, blames and isolates survivors of sexual assault.” Fear of speaking out about sexual assault is real and, unfortunately, exists for good reason. Time and time again, victims are told that they brought the traumatic experience on themselves: it was your clothes, your smile, your personality. Why were your jeans so tight? Why were you out so late? Why were you asking for this?

Thankfully, efforts have been made to counter this de facto rule of silence, leading to some, such as those involved in the Breaking Out Campaign, to feel comfortable enough to share their picture and their story (or a small portion of it) with their community. This change represents huge progress toward greater understanding and, hopefully, a decrease in the violent acts themselves.

With any subject of this magnitude and complexity, however, spreading awareness and promulgating societal change is never cut and dry. Though some survivors may feel solidarity with those who chose to be photographed and inspired by their courage, for others, the effect may be quite the opposite. That is where our concern lies.

In experiences as incomprehensible and traumatic as sexual assault, survivors react in different ways at different times. Any effort to raise awareness, no matter how well intended, ought to be cautious about its impact on those most vulnerable to its message — sexual assault survivors themselves. While those depicted in the Breaking Out Campaign may feel empowered by sharing their stories, others may not even feel prepared to think about the assault. For these survivors, visual or written reminders of their trauma could be startling, disruptive or even damaging.

There must be ways to spread awareness without retraumatizing victims. Campaigns such as Breaking Out, with its stark retellings of trauma, could potentially be moved to a space where people can choose to view them, as opposed to prominent locations like the BSC. Perhaps the intensity of the campaigns themselves should be toned down, or presented with more subtlety. In either case, visibility may be inhibited,  but survivors would be given the priority they are due.

Sexual assault awareness and programs dedicated to furthering it are important, and we by no means advocate anything to the contrary. Our worry is only that, in bringing awareness to the greatest number of people, sexual assault victims will be made all too aware, pained by the unexpected reminder. In a tragic sense, the question becomes: what is the price of spreading awareness? And, subsequently: at what point does that price become too high?

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