In honor of April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it is important to address our role as a community in supporting survivors of sexual assault.
In its most basic definition, the word “awareness” means to simply be conscious of something, to know that it exists; however, the Miriam Webster Dictionary also defines “awareness” as “knowing and understanding a lot about what is happening in the world or around you.”
When we think and talk about awareness during the month of April, simply being conscious that sexual assault exists is not enough. We need to focus much more on the second definition of the word, on what we truly know about sexual assault and how fully we understand and take responsibility for our relationship to and participation in how survivors are treated in our community.
As an advocate at the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition (DVSAC), I experience firsthand how community response and the stigma of sexual assault shapes the way survivors access support and heal from the trauma of being victimized.
The truth is that we live in a society that often blames the victim for what happened to him or her. Everyone has heard some version of these shaming remarks: “she was dressed too provocatively,” “she was drunk,” “she shouldn’t have been out alone so late,” “she shouldn’t have been alone at all,” “she shouldn’t have gone back to his apartment.”
I could go on but the message we give as a society is clear: victims, especially women, are responsible for their own safety and if they have been violated, it must be because they have done something to put themselves in danger; to “ask for it.”
The deeper implication of these remarks is even more troubling; that women do not have the right to be safe or even independent — that we must always be hyper vigilant, that we should plan for and even expect sexual assault. This is absurd. It is also a deeply harmful notion for anyone who has suffered sexual assault and, unfortunately, one that many survivors seem to have accepted: the CDC reports that only 5 percent of sexual assaults are reported.
It is all but impossible to seek help and healing when you have internalized the belief that you are wholly at fault for the violence perpetrated against you.
However, no victim is ever to blame for being assaulted. If you or someone you know has been raped or sexually assaulted, please call our 24-hour crisis line at 530-272-3467.
Another major issue that my fellow advocates and I deal with daily at DVSAC, one that is especially crucial to fostering awareness of sexual assault in a small community like Nevada County, is the issue of confidentiality. When a survivor of sexual assault chooses to come forward with his or her experience, whether it is with the police, a rape crisis advocate, a friend or a family member, it is absolutely imperative that these stories be treated with respect and kept confidential.
Sexual assault can make you feel powerless. Enabling survivors to tell their stories can help them to regain power over their experience.
As friends, family and fellow community members, it is our responsibility to allow survivors to do this on their own terms and provide them with a place where they feel safe. Trusting that their experiences, not just their names, will be kept confidential is a huge part of feeling safe.
Again, this is especially important in a small town like ours. Details can spread quickly and are often more telling than a name; people are resourceful and quick to make connections. The huge stigma surrounding sexual assault, coupled with the fear that their story will “get out,” often deters people from coming forward.
While it may not be intentional, when we as a community do not take confidentiality seriously we revictimize survivors of sexual assault by making it, at best, terrifying and, at worst, dangerous for them to take control of their experiences and share their stories.
Starting this April, let Nevada County embrace true awareness of sexual assault. Let our small community be a source of strength and support for survivors; let us empower our friends and family to come forward when they have been assaulted, knowing that they are safe from the viciousness of stigma and blame, and that rape and sexual assault is never, ever the victim’s fault.
Allison McCann is a bilingual program advocate at the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition.