April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). It is an opportune time to place the issue on the table for us mamas. My work as an attorney focuses on representing crime victims, including people who have experienced sexual violence. I help them seek justice and safety for themselves and their families. Sexual violence is difficult for many people to talk about — or even think about.
Recently, however, there has been a welcome shift, thanks to the steady work of victim advocates and courageous victims and survivors speaking out. Hopefully, increased awareness will undo the stigma attached to sexual violence, change how we care for victims, and help reduce the risk factors connected to violence.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines sexual violence as “sexual activity when consent is not obtained or not freely given.” Chances are, we all know someone affected by rape, molestation, harassment, or stalking.
The statistics around sexual violence indicate that it is widespread in our communities:
- Some studies suggest that one person is sexually assaulted every minute in the United States.
- Child victims (boys and girls) are most often assaulted before they turn 12 years of age and by people who are closely associated with them.
- One in four college women experiences sexual assault or misconduct during their undergraduate schooling.
- Most incidents of sexual violence go unreported. Victims fear that they will not be believed, that there will be retaliation, or that the assaults must be kept private to protect perpetrators.
The data and reality are maddening! The good news is, there is so much that we can do to increase prevention, support recovery, and ensure accountability around sexual violence.
There is no magical formula. However, we can increase prevention and safety by teaching and modeling — particularly for young people — important things like healthy relationships, boundaries, consent, mindful socializing, bystander intervention, and safety planning.
So, the worst has happened. Now, what do we do? Whether you are a victim or are helping someone who is, keep in mind that the trauma of violence will impact people differently. Some people will need more time, support, and resources than others to process the injury. Medical attention and mental health intervention are important to help victims get stable and on the road towards healing.
(Colleges and universities usually have their own health centers that provide accessible medical and counseling services for enrolled students who need them.)
People with trauma need people to hear, believe and hold them up. Be a safe person for victims, and/or find safe people in whom to confide about incidents or patterns of violence. Young victims need strong advocacy from parents and guardians to thrive in their home-lives and succeed in school. Unfortunately, many students lack support. The trauma of sexual violence negatively impacts their educational pursuits. Many college students drop out of school and do not complete their studies after the violation.
People who have experienced sexual violence will likely face new and unexpected issues. Added to physical and mental health challenges are crippling financial concerns, devastating interpersonal frictions, and losses of valuable things like privacy.
People in their circles of support can brainstorm ways to rally around victims and survivors to make the healing process less overwhelming and more feasible. Make meals. Donate funds for groceries. Accompany the victim to scheduled appointments and court dates. Babysit kids. so that the victim has some breathing space. These simple acts of love can help restore dignity and encourage victims to persevere.
All instances of sexual violence must be stopped and addressed appropriately. What this looks like will depend on many things, and will look different from case to case. Nevertheless, accountability is best when it considers the victim. When sexual violence isn’t addressed in the right way, it can delay healing for victims and works against efforts to prevent future violence.
When a victim discloses sexual violence to people with the power to do something about it, it is important to protect and not re-traumatize victims. Confidential victim advocates are often available locally. They can offer support to victims, as they navigate the reporting process and all that follows. For students, there are special legal protections and procedures for school-related sexual violence. Parents can learn about those from their school districts (or from university administration departments that oversee student conduct matters.)
As big as this problem of sexual violence is, let’s not shy away from learning about it. The more aware we are, the more our efforts towards prevention, healing, and accountability can strengthen our communities. Let’s research the many available resources and information to guide us in our desire to stem the tide of sexual violence.
Resources for sexual violence victims, survivors, and their circles of support:
Nationwide help and information:
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), www.nsvrc.org
- RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline, 800-656-HOPE (4673)
- Colorado Coalition against Sexual Assault (CCASA), www.ccasa.org, 303-839-9999
- For sexually abused children in El Paso and Teller counties – Safe Passage, www.safepassagecac.org, 719-636-2460