A new culture of support

Emotional support for survivors is just as important as institutional support and justice

Take Back the Night is a tradition that started in the 1970s with the goal of eliminating sexual violence. One of the first marches was held in Philadelphia in October 1975 after Susan Alexander Speeth was stabbed and killed while walking home alone.

Take Back the Night has evolved to incorporate ending sexual assault, intimate partner violence and sexual abuse into its goals. Here at the University, Take Back the Night offers a full week of events geared toward education, community solidarity and survivor support, centered around our University peers who have experienced sexual assault.

We have written on several issues surrounding sexual assault particularly on college campuses, including the importance of prevention, and the need for discussion about “ask first” consent and the role of intoxication. Now, we address the need for survivor support.

That doesn’t just mean support through specific institutions like the Women’s Center or the Sexual Assault Resource Agency. These organizations do admirable work, and we should continue to disseminate information about how they can be of help to survivors. But getting to these resources requires someone to step outside her own counsel — to say the words aloud to another person. We still live in a world where people are ready and waiting to shame survivors, to blame them, to steal their words from them all over again.

You don’t have to look very far for evidence that we live in a culture full of victim-blaming. You can see it in the discussion on CollegiateABC in which a Vanderbilt student who reported a rape is labeled a “rat.” You can see it in the person who approached a member of One Less following Take Back the Night’s survival panel Monday and said anyone who talks openly about sexual assault is “dying for attention.” Reactions like these discourage survivors from admitting what happened to them, seeking help and seeking justice.

During the question and answer panel following the Sexual Misconduct Board mock trial this week, co-President of One Less Staige Davis said the first thing you should always do if a friend tells you she was sexually assaulted is say “I believe you. This is not your fault.”

Whether you come to the entirety of the rally and the vigil tonight, or come for just 15 minutes, you are saying to survivors, “I believe you. I support you. I will work to build a community that supports you.” That solidarity is just as important as the policy issues we have discussed thus far.

Some say a shortcoming of events like Take Back the Night is that they are preaching to the choir; the people who attend already know how to offer support. It may be true that these events may not directly affect people who perpetuate attitudes of shame and criticism, but they will likely affect them indirectly. As a supporter, you can speak up and make a correction whenever a rape joke is made in casual conversation. You can speak up and say it is not okay to declare someone deserved to be raped. Messages of support can spread like shockwaves. We can work to change the culture if we pay attention to all of the small details — all the breadcrumbs it leaves in its wake.

One in four college women has survived a rape or attempted rape. Look around you and count the women in your classrooms, at the gym, in the dining hall. That’s a large part of our community who at one time in their lives has felt powerless, violated or broken. We can stand together to help survivors reclaim that power — to tell them that they deserve a better community, and we will not stop fighting until we make one.

Published April 17, 2014 in Opinion

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