Recently, I was in a conversation with an athletic administrator who shared their realization that more student-athletes than they would have ever imagined are survivors of sexual misconduct. We discussed the need for trauma-informed training for the entire staff including fellow student-athletes. There was a long pause and then I made the statement, “perpetrators are in every space we find ourselves, too.” The administrator’s response, “I never looked at it that way.” Honestly, when I began my journey as a survivor advocate neither had I. Though, it is powerful and true. The athletic administrator then stated, “It is likely perpetrators are also student-athletes here.” I nodded my head in absolute agreement. No words were necessary, the silence was sufficient.
Often, we have to sit with this realization and breathe it in because this is not the narrative we consume.
If we want to support survivors this Sexual Assault Awareness Month and everyday a small start can be recognizing that to support survivors also means disrupting the sexist, patriarchal, homonegative, transphobic, white supremacist narratives we are taught to develop, prioritize, believe and protect. Once we understand both survivors and perpetrators of sexual misconduct are always in our midst, we must take brave moments, no matter how small, to disrupt cultural norms that condone sexual violence.
For example, when sitting at a dinner with friends do we interrupt the friend who states or insinuates a woman shouldn’t be alone at the bar or walking alone late at night? A response may be to inform our friend that 8 out of 10 sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the survivor and in a space the survivor perceived as safe. Further, 55% of sexual assaults occur at or near the survivor’s home and another 12% happen near or at the home of a friend or relative.
When a young person, friend or teammate refers to a sexual encounter as a “kill” do we take a moment to explain how dehumanizing it is to describe a sexual partner (even if only a hook-up) as physically dead?
Are we daily challenging our own thoughts and aware of the harmful societal norms and stereotypes? Are we further mindful of the ways society and the media hypersexualize, exoticize and colonize dark bodies for (white) capitalist patriarchy? Do we realize that sexual misconduct affects every community no matter the socioeconomic class, religion, race, gender, sexuality, nationality, education level and so on?
When we sit with the statistic from Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) that out of every 1,000 sexual assaults 995 will walk free we might recognize the severity of the structural and societal harm we cause survivors. We also might reflect on the ways we are collectively taught to place the burden and responsibility on those who are harmed and violated — our inclination to victim blame while perpetrators go without any form of retribution.
Moving forward when we think of supporting survivors, let’s remind ourselves perpetrators are everywhere we are, too and choose to not be silent when harmful conversations and viewpoints are shared in our presence. This can be one tangible action each of us can take to do our part in addressing a societal problem and social justice issue.
And, dear survivor, I know you did nothing to deserve the harm done to you and that you are more than the pain and experience you carry. Yes, feel your pain and process your experience. Though, choose also to heal every opportunity the universe provides rather than harden with shame and anger. Live with your face towards the sun and shine bright in your truth. We did not have control over what happened to us but we can write our very own beautiful comeback story.