April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Many groups on campus are organizing to disseminate information and to discuss solutions for preventing violence and supporting survivors. While I appreciate the opportunity that SAAM presents—a defined period of time in which various organizations can focus their efforts on eradicating sexual assault—the term “awareness” has the potential to generate detachment from the problem.
This disconnect is already prevalent in relation to sexual violence, a common myth being that it only happens to “those people” in “that place” far removed from this community. However, a look at the statistics or conversation with an advocate will quickly reveal that sexual violence is pertinent to everyone: According to a survey by the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, one in six American women and one in 33 American men has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in his or her lifetime. These figures are helpful in emphasizing the pervasiveness of sexual assault, but knowledge of them is not enough to reduce them. Awareness is only one component of the movement to end sexual violence, so I will focus on three main questions and partial answers that have helped me take on a more active role in SAAM.
A critical element of anti-violence work is to evaluate my own prejudices and misconceptions, as these can influence my ability to engage with others. What can I do to ensure that I am fully listening to others’ viewpoints? The answer entails an ongoing dedication to humility and respect, which sounds lofty and vague but can be broken down into concrete steps. I will not make assumptions about others’ identities and experiences, and I will listen to their voices, allowing myself to be open to differing opinions. I will also forgive myself when I occasionally fail at doing this.
I can then evaluate my actions to support survivors on an individual level. What can I do to be a better friend to those who disclose their experiences to me? In order to prepare myself for this at the most basic level, I promise to listen without judgment and believe their stories. I will not blame survivors for their trauma, nor will I assume that I know the best course of action for them to take. In case they wish to speak with a counselor or advocate, I am able to refer them to resources on and off campus.
Moving beyond my responsibilities as an individual, I examine what I am doing to build a community devoted to non-violence. What can I do to help create an environment that prevents violence and supports survivors? I can individually pledge not to perpetrate violence, but I also need to help others maintain that dedication. For instance, I should intervene if I see that my friend is sexually pursuing someone who is too intoxicated to walk. By the same token, I must be open to being corrected about my behavior. This point needs to be highlighted in conversations surrounding any type of anti-violence work, because wide-scale change requires a community effort.
Thus, the goal of SAAM is not to distribute facts, but rather to promote the knowledge and action that will end sexual violence. In order for tangible change to occur, we need to commit to ending violence on a personal and community level. Perhaps these questions and partial answers will be useful tools.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in financial economics. She is a volunteer and peer educator at the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center.