As we are nearing the end of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), I have been thinking about the organization and implementation of sexual violence activism. From large-scale demonstrations like Take Back the Night, to small coalition meetings, it is crucial to keep the experience of sexual violence central to activism in SAAM and throughout the year.
There is no doubt that we live in a culture that permits and excuses sexual violence and perpetuates the suffering associated with victimization (“rape culture”). While it’s helpful to point out the problems associated with “rape culture,” it is so very important to think about how we, as activists, inhabit spaces dedicated to combating “rape culture” to make these spaces fully supportive for survivors of violence. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of ways to improve activist events to ensure they can be productive in combating “rape culture” while providing support for those who have experienced sexual violence.
1. Ground Rules: Lay out some ground rules, write them down, talk about them, and make them visible. Ground rules will look different for various events/groups and should be based on a discussion with all participants. Come up with them organically with your group. Covering ground rules first will help “break the ice” and to form a group consensus about how the event/meeting will proceed.
2. Safety and Accessibility: Make sure to plan ahead and think of ways to make the space more accessible and safe. Think about the place the event will be held in. Is it accessible to everyone? Are the exits marked? How is the room set up? Is the event private? One of the most common feelings after experiencing trauma is being hyper-aware of the space around you. Make your space as physically comfortable and safe as possible for everyone.
3. Be present: It is really important to be present in discussions about sexual violence. Think about what being “not present” might look like (i.e. texting or using other devices throughout the meeting, drinking alcohol, getting up to do something non-essential, etc). Try your best to be present and look present out of respect for the sensitivity of the subject matter and to honor the courage it takes to talk about it. When talking about something sensitive like sexual violence it is totally okay to want to dissociate, or “space out,” and you probably aren’t the only person feeling that way. However, be mindful of what your dissociation may look like to someone else. Don’t let it be mistaken for apathy. And if you need step out for a bit to process what you are feeling, go for it.
4. Check your privilege: Think about what is informing your knowledge of sexual violence. While your experiences may have directed your knowledge of sexual violence, it is important to understand that not everyone had those same experiences, and others may have different ones. Use this time to learn from others about how dynamic of a problem sexual violence is.
5. Speaking: Is everyone being heard? While everyone may not want to speak at your event, if someone does choose to speak, make sure their voice is heard. If someone says something that you believe is not appropriate, speak up if you feel comfortable enough to do so (chances are you are not alone in how you are feeling!).
6. Process: Depending on the event (large scale event vs. small scale meeting / public vs. private) consider reflecting on the event with your fellow organizers and participants. Use this opportunity to think of ways to improve and incorporate new ideas.
7. Make support available: If there are advocates with experience working with sexual violence survivors at your event that would like to volunteer their support, let everyone know! Introduce them and explain their background and training. If possible, designate a place where the advocate can be available to talk. Also, try to find some local and national advocacy groups to share with the group. Here are some great resources:
What is essential to sexual violence activism is to create a space where survivors of violence can feel like they can participate and be in a safe place. For many survivors who have suffered the trauma of sexual violence, engaging in activism may prove difficult. By making these spaces more supportive, survivors’ agency will be fostered, and these voices, which are so important to this activism, will be heard.