Sexual Assault Awareness Month and The Activist Impulse

Today’s blog post is from senior Women’s Studies minor Megan Smith, who is completing a practicum focused on sexual assault and relationship violence.   Her post today considers issues associated with sexual assault, but also serves as an important reflection on her experiences with Safe Connections on Campus, a terrific group based in St. Louis that has been active on  our campus.  

Happy Sexual Assault Awareness Month, everyone! Is it possible that it is already April? It sure doesn’t feel like it. With this being Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I figured this would be the perfect time to tell you all about my practicum experience with Safe Connections. Safe Connections is a non-profit organization in St. Louis whose mission is to reduce the impact and incidence of relationship violence and sexual assault through education, crisis intervention, counseling and support services. How Safe Connections got their start gets any true feminist fired up. Safe Connections’ story begins in 1976 when a group of local college women noticed the complete lack of resources for survivors in the area. They took action and began a grassroots crisis helpline in their apartment. Today, Safe Connections is located on Hampton Street, just minutes from the St. Louis Zoo and Forest Park and is home to a variety of services for the St. Louis Metro area. Over the years it has turned into an amazing agency that offers a 24-hour crisis helpline and free individual and group counseling services for women and teen boys and girls. In the Prevention Education Department, Project HART does workshops with local teens around issues of teen dating violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and many other topics, Girls Group and Guys Group work with smaller groups of teens to go deeper into those same issues, and finally, Safe Connections on Campus works with area universities to engage students, faculty, and staff in the movement to end relationship and sexual violence on and off campus. Safe Connections on Campus has been where I have spent my time and energy this semester, but before we dive into that, lets back up for a minute.

Why? That’s often a question I find others asking me, or I am asking myself. Why this field? Truthfully, that’s still a question I ask myself. How does someone become interested in working around the topic of sexual and domestic violence? Well, for me it all began right here at this university. I must embarrassingly admit that when I was just a wee little sophomore here I thought, “Oh, what the heck, I’ll take Women’s Studies 200 because it fits in my schedule and I need a filler class.” Little did I know I would be so blessed to have the opportunity to take this class with Professor Carly Haden-Foster, to whom I owe all of my interest in women’s issues to. It was in this class that I was able to hear Marci Jacobs from Oasis Women’s Shelter ramble off mind-blowing statistics about domestic violence. I remember sitting there thinking “how in the world am I just now hearing about this issue?” The speech from Marci was all it took; my fire had been lit. I spent most of my time doing my own research, and dove face first into perusing a minor in Women’s Studies. I have learned an enormous amount of information surrounding the injustices that women face in this country, from social issues, to legal issues, and beyond. While I truly have enjoyed learning the abundance of information surrounding these injustices, my heart has always been with domestic and sexual violence. With my time at SIUe coming to an end I thought what an awesome experience it would be to actually go out into the field and work with people who care about this issue just as much as I do, and that is how I wound up working with Safe Connections on Campus.

The goal of Safe Connections on Campus is to build relationships, share information, and plan campus activities that raise awareness about sexual violence; they also provide resources for those seeking help. Lauren Keefer, my supervisor and the Safe Connections on Campus Coordinator is in charge of all of the above, and she does a phenomenal job doing these things. One of the major projects we have been focusing on this semester is Safe Connections Student Coalition. The coalition is a place for students of local college campuses to come together and share ideas about sexual assault awareness on their campuses. Things like what works and what doesn’t? How to get administration on board? How to get students to attend events surrounding sexual assault awareness and prevention? These are all questions that we come together and ask one another. As well as that, we also have plans to have speakers from other local agencies come and speak to the group about what they do at their agencies. The coalition is a great opportunity for students to network and get to know one another, and I have no doubt that the coalition will be around for the long haul, as it is just in its infancy.

Lauren and I also were given the opportunity to decorate the bulletin boards outside of the Women’s Studies office. We chose to decorate one of the boards with information surrounding consent and what consent is, and the other with information surrounding survivor support. We felt that these two topics were of most importance on our campus and hope that students will also find them helpful. We also were able to come to campus and give a talk on healthy relationships, consent, and some bystander intervention techniques. This month Lauren and I will be running around like crazy people, as we will be helping support college campuses in their events for Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Consent

On top of my work with Lauren I have also had the opportunity to see the agency from different angles. I have had the pleasure of sitting in on quite a few all-staff meetings, and being able to see how the organization runs from all different angles; not only the prevention education side of the agency, but also therapy, marketing, financing, as well as how an non-profit agency functions as a whole. I also was able to take part in six trainings surrounding the topic of sexual assault.

While my work this semester has been awesome, amazing, fulfilling, all the positive adjectives you can think of, I believe it is also important to share the reverse side of the coin with you all as well. Working with rape victims and survivors is a very emotionally taxing job. Like any true feminist doing what they love, it consumes me all day every day thinking about the many women who have and will have become a victim. One of the hardest things I have dealt with this semester is trying to learn how to separate myself from the job. Safe Connections, and especially my supervisor, Lauren, stresses the need for self care. My first week at Safe Connections I had to attend an eight hour training on the history of the violence against women movement, sexual and domestic violence, and guiding principles of advocacy; after this training I had dreams all night about my friends and family being victimized, and I myself being victimized. I put this in my blog not to scare other people away from wanting to enter this field, but as a disclosure to forewarn that people must realize the very real impacts it begins to have on your life when doing this work. It has made me become very aware of my surroundings and the situations I am choosing to put myself in, and this can be both a good and bad thing. I want to be sure I am keeping myself out of dangerous situations, but I also must not let this keep me from living my life in constant fear that I will be sexually assaulted. Ok, tangent over.

So, after reading all of that you’re (hopefully) thinking, “Well, what can I do to help?” One of the most helpful things I have learned at my internship is language use.  Language can be very triggering for a survivor, and it is one of the simplest ways to help be supportive to an individual that you may not even know is a survivor. For example, instead of saying, “shoot me an email” you can choose to say “send me an email” which is the nonviolent language choice. I often catch myself doing it now in my every day language; making sure to use nonviolent language versus violent language. Another way is to just be mindful that this problem does exist, and more often then not, 1 in 4 persons, we are in the presence of a survivor.

Bystander intervention is a great way to help others. If you are at a party and see a girl being led to another room when she clearly is in no condition to consent, create a distraction. What is the best way to get people to scatter at a party? Yell that the cops are coming. No really, yell it. Do something, do anything, to create a distraction to help out. Also, if you are interested in this issue, take a class, go to a campus event, volunteer! There are many ways to be involved from the simplest ways to the most radical. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.

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