Why Sexual Assault Awareness Month Matters Now, More Than Ever
By Johanna DeBari, AIUSA Sexual and Reproductive Rights Advocate Trainer
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It is a national campaign designed to bring attention to the realities of what sexual violence looks like in our communities. The goal is to start conversations about what sexual assault is, how to prevent it, and how to support survivors who have experienced it. While almost 1 in 2 women (44.6%) and 1 in 5 men (22.2%) experienced sexual violence victimization other than rape at some point in their lives, it is a crime people are often ashamed to speak about and shunned (or worse, blamed) for their victimization if they do choose to share their story. For this reason, Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a tool to challenge this stigma.
In addition, this awareness campaign provides opportunities for communities to have a common theme for structuring their conversations about this sexual violence. It provides an opportunity for people to come together, ask questions, talk honestly about what sexual violence means to them, and also share people’s stories. One common event is a “Shout Out Against Sexual Assault” which many college campuses organize as events for survivors to come and share their stories with an audience. To have the support of your community and feel so much love and support can be an incredible experience for some survivors who feel comfortable sharing so publicly.
It is especially valuable because survivors are not always initially met with support. Many other survivors move through the world not getting any support for the violence they have endured, or even don’t feel safe sharing with anyone they are a survivor to begin with for fear of social retribution. Based on what we have seen in the public discourse lately, this fear of reprisal violence is all too real. We have seen how public officials have been accused of sexual violence, and those claims disregarded as just “a jocular moment” or not a big deal because “they let you do it” when you’re a public figure. Recently, a young man accused of sexual assault was met with leniency because a judge determined it doesn’t count as sexual assault if “they [the perpetrator] don’t enjoy it”. Even still, with Brock Turner, the defense attorney argued that a 6 month prison sentence would be a “severe impact” on their life, disregarding the fact that the survivor’s life has been completely changed as well because of Turner’ actions. We see time and time again, victims are blamed for their victimization, the violence perpetrators commit is minimized or ignored, and survivors are further shamed into staying silent.
While Sexual Assault Awareness Month is important every year, it is even more important this year because of the deluge of messaging we have seen in recent news cycles (as evidenced above) about how politicians and public figures view sexual assault. We are living in a time of “alternative facts” and half-truths, where everything is questionable, truth is not valid, and presenting facts in contradiction to the dogma of those in power is blasphemous. For these reasons, it is more important than ever to create an intersectional space for all survivors of all backgrounds to share those stories and counter these narratives. We need to raise up all voices from survivors to speak their truth.
In closing, I ask that this month, and every month moving forward, look for ways you can make space for survivors to speak their truth. Educate yourself about what sexual assault is and what consent looks like. Talk to your friends, colleagues, peers, family, and anyone else who will listen about what the media is saying about sexual assault survivors. Challenge behavior that is harmful and degrading to survivors, especially victim-blaming. And most importantly, critically analyze all information you consume. It is our job to be vigilant and create space for the truth of all survivors to be present, rather than the myths and stereotypes society creates out of ignorance and prejudice. And with this vigilance, I believe we can move towards a world where survivors who have experienced sexual assault are always supported and allowed to pursue a path towards healing of their choosing.
Johanna is one of Amnesty International USA’s Sexual and Reproductive Rights Activist Trainers. To find out how to have one of our SRR Activist Trainers come to your school or group to lead a human rights workshops on SRR, click here