Combating a Culture of Assault; SACI volunteers offer support to survivors of sexual violence

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April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time dedicated to raising awareness for and preventing sexual violence. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), an American is sexually assaulted every 107 seconds; that makes approximately 293,000 victims of sexual assault each year. In light of these and other similarly sobering statistics, we at ing have decided to use this space to provide some basic knowledge about sexual assault and to highlight the vital work of MSU’s Sexual Assault Crisis Intervention team (SACI). This dedicated group of student volunteers operates a 24-hour crisis line, provides medical and legal advocacy for survivors of sexual assault and organizes community outreach events that focus on peer education. SACI strives to create a world in which everyone is confident in their safety, regardless of whether the sun is above or below the horizon.

Sexual violence is a naturally heavy topic, and therefore not a common topic of conversion — its dark nature prompting avoidance. Knowledge, however, is key if we want to reduce the number of sexual assaults that occur on our campus. Kyra Stephenson, SACI’s president and a senior with a double major in Arabic and comparative cultures and politics, was able to provide some important information about the key terms and concepts often used in conversations about sexual violence.

Defining Sexual Assault

Stephenson defines sexual assault as “unwanted sexual contact, whereas harassment is unwanted sexual conduct.” This means sexual assault can be categorized under the broader umbrella of harassment, assault being a much more severe form of harassment. Rape is even more limited, defined on SACI’s website as “nonconsensual, forced or coerced sexual penetration.” Though rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment all have different levels of severity, they all share a supreme lack of dignity for their victims’ physical and mental well-being and can be detrimental to their
victim’s health.

Rape Culture

Stephenson says that the prevalence of sexual violence in America today is heavily influenced by something called rape culture. “Rape culture,” she explains, “refers to the glorification and sexualization of violence … this cultural imagery encourages misogyny and sympathy with perpetrators while blaming victims of sexual violence for their assaults.” The effects of rape culture are all too real, leaving survivors feeling responsible for their own assaults. RAINN notes that 68 percent of sexual assaults are never reported, allowing 98 percent of rapists to roam the streets without ever spending a night in jail.

Giving Consent

When asked this question, Stephenson refers to a poster hanging up in her house that defines consent as “the voluntary, willful and unambiguous agreement to engage in a specific sexual activity during a sexual encounter.” A great concern among many college students is the occurrence of accidental rape, in which one partner assumes incorrectly that consent is given. Questionable situations like this can crop up at parties, especially when alcohol consumption is involved. One important thing to remember is that a person cannot give consent when they are incapacitated or not in the right mind to make decisions — an example of this would be being intoxicated to the point of stumbling or slurring. Another key point is that consent must be clearly expressed to exist: the MSU Counseling Center’s website explains that silence, the absence of resistance and/or previous sexual activity do not imply consent. To avoid any ambiguity, simply ask.

“It’s On Us” Campaign

Stephenson explains that “It’s On Us” is a federal program to encourage bystander intervention. “The goal,” she expounds, “is for us to recognize our complicity in this problem and work together to stop it.” “It’s On Us” is exactly what it sounds like; we are all responsible for educating ourselves about sexual violence and seeking to eliminate it. Sexual violence isn’t the result of a few twisted individuals — it’s the product of an entire culture, and as such, we all have the power to work against it.

Volunteering with SACI

SACI volunteers are all too familiar with the facts, figures and terms surrounding sexual violence, and they do their best to educate others about sexual violence and to provide survivors with the resources they need to recover. This work requires some extensive instruction: a SACI volunteer is required to undergo 40 hours of training before becoming an official member. Gabriella Abalo, a SACI member and junior pursuing a degree in social work, explains that the majority of this training takes the form of role play and lectures on topics such as stalking, rape culture and victim blaming. The role play focuses in particular on helping volunteers establish empathy with the victims who call the crisis line. “When you empathize with a person, and you just listen to what they’re saying and address the fact that you understand what they are going through, it is very impactful on calls.” Volunteers are given specific verbal cues to help convey empathy for callers and offer them proper support. “We are taught how to use specific words that show that you are empathizing and … not judging them.”

Once SACI members complete training, they are given shifts, usually 24 hours long, during which they are “on-call.” Jaeyong Cho, a SACI member and senior psychology major, explains that being on-call includes carrying around a special phone that survivors of sexual assault call for support. SACI has a special process for talking to callers. “When someone calls, if I’m in class or if I’m in in a public spot, I usually go to a private spot so I can talk to them privately,” Cho says. “First I just listen. The caller usually defines a problem they are having, and then I want to make sure they’re safe, so ask I them their location. And then we move on to offer support, whether that’s empathy or giving resources.” After giving the caller several options for what they can do next, the SACI volunteer asks them how they want to proceed. “The last step is to make a commitment that they will go through what we
just discussed.”

Doing Our Part

SACI does some amazing work, but answering a crisis hotline isn’t the only way to combat a culture of sexual violence and support those who have survived it. Knowing about proper consent and informing others about it can greatly reduce the occurrence of sexual assault on campus. In addition, if a friend, colleague or fellow student discloses that he or she was the victim of a sexual assault, Stephenson gives us four points to remember. “I like the mantra ‘I believe you, I support you, it’s not your fault, here are some resources,’” she says. “It is also important to empower the person to make their own decisions about next steps and be there for them through the process.” We cannot and should not force a survivor to report their assault, but we can be there for them every step of the way, assuring them that they were never to blame.

If you are interested in becoming a SACI volunteer, find an application at endrape.msu.edu/volunteer-intern-information and submit it to the MSU Counseling Center. If you have questions about SACI, email or call Bianca Segura, SACI’s advocacy coordinator, at biancas@cc.msu.edu or (517) 353-1669.

Resources

If you are a survivor of sexual violence and want to seek help or counseling, below are some of the resources available to you.

MSU Counseling Center, Sexual Assault Program: (517) 355-3551
24-Hour Sexual Assault Crisis Line: (517) 372-6666
Listening Ear 24-Hour Crisis Line: (517) 337-1717
MSU Safe Place: (517) 355-1100

For more resources, visit endrape.msu.edu/resources.

Take Back the Night

Take Back the Night is a yearly event held during Sexual Assault Awareness Month that seeks to end sexual violence of all kinds. This year’s event, themed “Ask, Listen, Respect,” will be held at MSU from April 7-9th. It will feature guest speakers Wagatwe Wanjuki, a feminist writer and activist, and Ali Safran, the founder of Surviving in Numbers, an online-based nonprofit that shares survivor stories and develops prevention curriculum for high schools. On Wednesday, April 8, there will be a rally and a march to the capital, concluding with a candlelight vigil honoring both living survivors and those who have passed as a result of their trauma. For the more information about the times of these and other events, visit takebackthenightmichiganstateu.wordpress.com.

 

Katie Grimes is a professional writing and religious studies student. She enjoys using obscure words (such as “colloquial” and “pastiche”) in all contexts and has a strange fascination with Star Trek. Her varied interests include feminism, reading Shakespeare and drinking caffeinated beverages.

 

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