April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, and with it comes dialogue spread throughout campus about preventing assault and being allies to those who have endured it. Posters sporting the teal blue of the sexual assault awareness ribbon can be found throughout campus, as well as buttons promoting consent. Events like Take Back the Night are also held in support of survivors.
With all this talk of how to prevent sexual assault, it can be easy to overlook the importance of talking to survivors in a helpful manner that will provide support. Sometimes, the comments we make, while well-intentioned, can be detrimental to the recovery of survivors after experiencing the trauma of an assault. Learning to be a good ally to survivors is just as important as learning how to prevent an assault. Rachel Kovensky, a graduate employee for Sexual Violence Prevention and Education with the Office of the Dean of Students, claims that believing a survivor is crucial to being a good ally.
“I think what makes someone a good ally is, number one, believing survivors,” said Kovensky. “I think a lot of survivors report feeling re-victimized because they are not believed by their family and friends, and so I think in order to be a good ally, you always believe a survivor.”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 95% of campus rapes are unreported by survivors of assault. One of the reasons many choose not to report is that they blame themselves for what happened. During the rise of the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport surrounding the Kavanaugh hearings, ABC News interviewed psychotherapist Beverly Engel about why survivors choose not to report their assaults. Engel said that “shame and self-blame are central reasons” for why survivors choose not to report, and that self-blame is often centered around a culture that tends to blame victims for what happened to them.
The victim-blaming culture that has, unfortunately, been so central to the way we address survivors of assault is exactly why learning to be a supportive ally is so important. Asking questions like “Did you have too much to drink?” or “Did you lead them on somehow?” are unhelpful when addressing someone who has experienced assault.
“Victim-blaming mentality really causes more harm, and isn’t true,” said Kovensky. “And so I think as a community here at the U of O, it’s really important to shift that culture and move to a place of always believing a survivor and connecting them to people that can help.”
On the U of O campus, the best places to direct someone in need of help are the Counseling Center located on the second floor of the university’s Health Center and Crisis Intervention and Sexual Violence Support Services located in Oregon Hall. In both locations, confidential employees are available for survivors to speak with in order to learn more about the resources available to them and their options in terms of reporting.
For those who want to educate themselves about safe sex and what it means to be a good ally, Sexual Assault Awareness month could not be a better time to do it, especially on campus. During the month of April, the Office of the Dean of Students has planned almost thirty different workshops and events dedicated toward sexual violence education, many of which are taking place during the rest of the month. The workshops are meant to be fun and informative, and are meant to address the needs of students from all walks of life. For example, the Creating and Maintaining Intimate Healthy Relationships in the U.S. event is meant to educate international students about the cross-cultural differences of relationships.
While connecting survivors to these different resources can be helpful, the best thing one can do for someone who has endured an assault is to be a good friend. Sometimes, the best way to do that is by listening attentively to what they have to say and by being empathetic towards them and their situation.
“Taking the time to listen, to show that you care, to demonstrate empathy; I think that that can be huge,” said Kovensky. “That doesn’t always mean talking.”
The kinds of dialogue we create surrounding survivors of sexual assault can become a large part of how they process what has happened to them and what their next steps will be. Listening to what they have to say, respecting their decisions, and offering support when needed can help them take the first step towards overcoming the trauma they experienced.