AWARE Executive Director Saralyn Tabachnick, Program Manager Ellen Andrews and Volunteer Coordinator Swarupa Toth answered questions Wednesday regarding Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Here are some of their responses:
Why is Sexual Assault Awareness Month important?
Andrews: "It's important for a number of reasons. I think the main reason is sexual assault affects many women, whether they are primary victims or secondary victims.
"It's a topic that people have a hard time discussing and exploring. It's also a crime that's difficult to prosecute for a variety of reasons.
"There also is a lot of isolation around sexual assault. There is so much isolation that I think so many people live in silence about it, people who have dealt with it or lived in terror of feeling abnormal. It's a difficult thing for people to talk about. ... "
Tabachnick: "Awareness helps take away the shame. This, and domestic violence, is a crime where victims feel a lot of shame. And really, they have done nothing to be ashamed of. So the more that it can be public and people can talk about it. People should be able to say 'This happened to me, and this is absolutely not OK.'"
Why do you think there is so much shame associated with sexual assault?
Tabachnick: "There is a fair amount of victim-blaming, which makes it difficult."
Andrews: "There is a misconception of victims having control in a violent act like sexual assault. 'You could have done something about it,' 'You could have been more proactive,' 'You could have avoided' - there's this misconception that you could have prevented it.
"We talk a lot about risk reduction, and that's a worthwhile conversation, but there also needs to be tremendous acknowledgment that when a perpetrator of sexual violence wants to perpetrate sexual violence, they're going to make it happen and overpower and be coercive and be manipulative and prey on people."
Tabachnick: "We think of prevention in terms of the perpetrator not perpetrating, versus the woman not wearing such a short skirt or being out at night or any number of things people do all the time."
What is the first thing you tell a victim of sexual assault?
Andrews: "It wasn't your fault."
Tabachnick: "It's not your fault. Yep, I think we all agree on that. It's not your fault this happened to you."
Andrews: "No one wants to think that they're blaming victims, and I think a lot of people unconsciously do. A lot of the reason behind that is just fear based. It's more comfortable to think about an issue like sexual violence and think about it in the way of 'Well, you could have prevented it,' than really sitting with the fact that many times, it's not preventable.
"And there's so much fear with that, it makes people uncomfortable. So to kind of soften it for the community, understanding that a lot of times, the reason behind the blaming is fear."
Tabachnick: "To be more specific about it, if I believe that a woman was raped because she was wearing a short skirt, then if I blame her, I can keep myself safe by not wearing a short skirt."
What kind of path do you see victims generally take after accepting that it's not their fault? What comes after that?
Tabachnick: "Safety - to identify what you need to feel safe. So maybe you need to get a dog, change the locks on your door or stay with a friend, at AWARE or with your mother. You know, whatever feels safe."
Andrews: "And acknowledgment too, that it takes a long time to ultimately feel safe, to ultimately feel whole. So really, identifying what your support network looks like and making that a priority to figure out how to access support on a daily basis and understand that it's a process."
Tabachnick: "It does look different for everybody, so there's no way that it has to look this way or be this way or take this long. It's just allowing people to just be in the process, saying, 'You don't have to know. It's OK to be in this uncomfortable place.'"
What was the response from the April First Friday exhibit?
Tabachnick: "The exhibit was excellent. It was really nice, just that night. I thought it was kind of profound actually. ... At the time of the program, the room was filled with people, and the program was just a few speakers (AWARE staff), but it was just profound."
Andrews: "I'm coming from an outside perspective, because I was away when it happened, but just hearing about it was really exciting. Hearing about the culmination of it not really being about anyone necessarily going through it or not going through it or whatever, but just acknowledging that this affects so many people, really everyone would have something to say. Because it seems like every human being knows someone who has been affected in that way somehow.
"I know the exhibit was really powerful and it had a great attendance. I think it was a huge success.
"I can't imagine what it felt like to be in that room and have so many people willing to just be present with that topic. I just think it's a huge accomplishment on the part of certain staff members in our agency wanting to bring this to the community."
Toth: "For me, it highlighted what you were trying to say: The point of Sexual Assault Awareness Month is to gather members of the community who are willing to turn their light, spend some time looking at these darker places in the community, all sorts of personal violence.
"It's really about engaging the community members in what it is that we do everyday so that there is a sense of the whole community healing. It's not going to happen if one little pocket just takes care of all the trouble for everybody.
"So this was our chance to open the doors, and for the whole month of March, we had all these artists participating over at The Canvas. It was pretty amazing. It was quite crowded at The Canvas, and that night, there was the sense of the community being quite engaged in these rather provocative pieces, written works and images that the people had created, and there was a meeting of the artists with the community there. That's what we wanted to achieve. Just shine your light on it, just acknowledge it, and then that will help this healing process happen."
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