As a survivor and victim’s advocate, working to empower others who have been victimized by domestic violence and sexual assault, I’ve spent a lot of time working one-on-one with survivors: learning their stories, advocating for their needs, helping them along their healing journeys, and witnessing so many courageous individuals pick up their broken pieces and begin to rebuild their lives from what feels like rock bottom.
It has become so important to me to raise awareness and speak up about sexual violence. Not only to honor the journeys of the women and children and men that I’ve served and advocated for, but to honor my own healing journey as well. For many years I didn’t know I was a “survivor,” because for so many years I blamed myself. As a teenager I didn’t know what sexual violence really was, and that’s because it’s hidden behind so many myths and misconceptions. Unfortunately, this is the case for many individuals who have been victimized, delaying or preventing them from reaching the hope and help that they need in order to heal. This is why I choose to speak up, because as long as we leave this issue tucked away in the closet, brushed under the rug and hiding in the dark, nothing will ever change.
The reason sexual violence gets brushed under the rug is because it’s an issue that is so difficult to address, and for a lot of reasons. For some it feels like an uncomfortable, awkward subject, while others feel that it’s too politically loaded. Many people hesitate to bring up a topic that is so intimate, feeling that what happens behind closed doors should stay there.
But I think that one of the biggest reasons we- as a society- brush this issue under the rug, is because we- as a society- are all part of the problem.
And that is extremely difficult to own up to.
You see, sexual violence permeates our culture. From violent rape scenes shown on popular TV shows, movies, and other media, to near-daily reports of sexual assaults happening on college campuses. From sexist dress codes and common slang that reinforce victim-blaming rape culture, to athletes, celebrities and elected officials who condone sexual violence through their own behavior. There are countless examples of how our society and culture normalize and even romanticize sexual violence, and every single one of us belongs to this culture.
So how do we change that? What can we do?
The first step toward preventing and ending sexual violence is understanding what it is, as well as the reality and prevalence of it. So here’s a definition and some startling statistics:
“Sexual assault occurs any time a person is forced, coerced, and/or manipulated into unwanted sexual contact or behavior without explicit consent, whether attempted or completed. Sexual assault is not just physical. It can be verbal, visual, or any act that forces a person to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention. It can happen in different situations: in the home by someone you know, within your intimate relationship (including marriage), on a date, or by a stranger in an isolated place.” source
In the U.S., more than 570 people experience sexual violence every single day. More than 160 of them are children.
1 in 5 female students are sexually assaulted during their college experience.
1 in 3 women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime.
1 in 7 military service men and women are sexually assaulted.
About 80% of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows.
Only about 5% of rape reports are false.
Less than 1% of rapes ever lead to convictions.
At least 89% of victims experience post-traumatic stress disorder, including high rates of physical injury, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation and/or attempt.
These numbers are horrifying, but do we really take them to heart? Numbers are just that… numbers. We’re bombarded with numbers everyday- on our paychecks and price tags and traffic signs. Maybe in a way we are numb to numbers, because numbers don’t have feelings. Numbers don’t have fears. Numbers don’t have hopes, and dreams…
But people do.
It’s important to remember that there are actual people behind each of these numbers.
They’re not nameless, faceless people either… they aren’t strangers, but people we love and know. They are our mothers, sisters, daughters, coworkers, classmates. They are our brothers, too. They are our family and friends, the people we care for.
Most of the people we serve at the DOVE Center are reaching out due to incidents that took place right here in our beautiful red dirt town. Every single one of us knows someone who has been affected by sexual violence. And if you don’t think you do, it’s only because the victims or survivors you know have yet to speak up about it.
So it’s not just “1 in 3 women in their lifetime,” it’s one of the three most important women in your life.
But that’s just statistically speaking. I am one of three girls in my family, so I always hoped that because sexual violence was something I survived, my two beautiful younger sisters would be spared. My heart shattered when that wasn’t the case.
Part of understanding that it’s real, is understanding that it’s really close, and really personal.
The weight of this reality might lend you a heavy heart, because understanding that it’s real and that it’s personal, and that you and I are actually a part of it, is devastating.
So how can we turn that around?
It’s all about changing our culture. While accepting that we’re a part of the problem is painful, it’s also promising. Because it means we can contribute to cultural change, simply by changing ourselves. We are the authors of our chapter in the future generation’s history books, and we all have a pen in our hand. We can rewrite the culture of the world today.
I’m not saying you should refuse to participate in anything that perpetuates rape culture, and thus boycott Game of Thrones (although maybe you should, just because season 8 was a total letdown!). I’m not saying you should pack up your things and move to Australia because you can’t stand to live in a country where so many prominent people including the President himself have perpetuated rape culture, or that you should quit watching sports altogether because of “locker room banter.”
We don’t have to remove ourselves from the situation, in fact that’s exactly how we brush the issue under the rug.
What we need to do is find opportunities within those situations to build a better, brighter culture that outshines it.
A culture of consent, and kindness, and dignity, and respect. Such a culture requires:
Speaking up. Simply naming it for what it is and calling it out when you see it.
Supporting survivors. And if you don’t know where to start, start by believing. Most survivors don’t report or speak up or ever get the help they need because our culture informs them that it doesn’t matter and that they won’t be believed anyway. So believing is a beautiful place to start. You can be a safe person that the people in your life know they can come to, trusting that you will believe them and advocate for them and assure them that they didn’t deserve it and that they do matter.
Most importantly, it requires we check ourselves — check our biases and perceptions, our reactions and responses, and especially our own words and actions.
Whether it’s the first date or the 50th, are we asking for consent every time? Whether it’s a one-night-stand or a committed intimate relationship, even marriage, are we ensuring that our partner is willing and enthusiastic and comfortable the entire time?
And what about when consent isn’t given? Are we respectful and kind? When we hear about a sexual assault, do we ask, do we even think, “well, what were they wearing?” because if so, we need to check that, too.
Every 98 seconds someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. That means that during the time you’ve spent reading this letter, about 10 people have experienced sexual violence in this country. That also means that since you started reading this, about 10 people have perpetrated sexual violence in this country. That needs to change.
Eldridge Cleaver, a civil rights activist, stated that “If you aren’t a part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” My hope is that each of us will go forward today with a deeper resolve to be part of the solution.
Just by reading this letter, you already are.
By Breanna Rogers