Centering Survivors

On Tuesday, October 9, 2018, members of the Tufts community gathered around the cannon to listen to the words of survivors of sexual assault. Organized by Tufts Action for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP), Survivor Speak Out was an open event intended to center the voices and experiences of survivors, providing a platform to share their stories and publicly voice their demands. The event was organized in response to the recent media attention to sexual violence in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation as Supreme Court Justice and Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations and testimony of assault against him. In a conversation with the Observer prior to the event, Isabella Spaulding, co-President of ASAP, emphasized the importance of centering survivors in collective activist spaces right now. “Yes, we’ve heard Kavanaugh constantly and been berated with images of him,” she said. “But in reality, all that matters is survivors in this time.”

As Spaulding and ASAP co-President Erin Viola began to speak, the gathered group grew as students paused their walks across campus to listen to survivors’ words, amplified by a megaphone. “In the past four years, with perpetrators elected into the highest political positions in the country, it is difficult to believe that we have made any progress.  It is difficult to feel like nothing has changed,” Viola said.

Their voices remained steady throughout the speech. “However, throughout our work on campus,” Spaulding continued. “We have found a powerful community of survivors.  Survivors who are intelligent, brave, selfless, creative, endlessly compassionate and supportive of each other.”  As they passed the megaphone off, the words of survivors echoed throughout the Academic Quad.

Junior Sophomore Han Lee articulated her experience and anger in a poem, saying “I am so tired of having to become a movement to be heard.”

Amira Subaey, a senior, ended her words with a call to action. “I want to ask what every non-survivor here is doing to prevent sexual assault and rape culture? What is every cis man doing to end toxic masculinity and patriarchy which pave the way for gendered violence? Because if you are not actively, passionately, and wholeheartedly fighting rape culture, if you remain silent, if you remain passive—you are perpetuating and contributing to it.”

One speaker, who preferred to remain anonymous in this article, decided to speak because of the increase in popular attention to issues of sexual violence in the wake of Kavanaugh’s hearings and confirmation. “Initially, as I was writing what I planned to say, I felt very nervous about [speaking publicly]… but I felt that with the way things have been in the news, it was time to speak up.,” they said.  “To actually do so was very empowering.”

Many of the students present at the event were also members of groups like It Happens Here (IHH), a nationwide movement with a presence at Tufts. Through IHH, survivors are able to submit their stories to be read anonymously at an annual event in the spring. Others came from Green Dot Bystander Intervention, which works to educate and train bystanders about how they can play a role in reducing violence in their communities.

Alexandra Donovan, Director of the Center for Awareness, Resources, and Education (CARE) was also present, showing her support for the student advocates, many of whom she has worked with directly through her position. In discussing her role with the Observer, Donovan emphasized that there wasn’t a member of the Tufts faculty prior to her arrival in 2014 “whose entire job was to build on awareness and education and training and to empower students to move it forward, and also to be a confidential resource on campus.” She pointed to the palpable increase in student involvement in efforts surrounding issues of sexual violence since she began in this role, saying, “there’s so much more student involvement in programming, in trying to change our culture, in feeling that they’re empowered to do so and that its their responsibility to do so… we are definitely now in a place that we’ve never been before.”

As one of those students at the forefront of creating change on campus, Spaulding also commented on the difficult nature of processing and coping with an assault in the aftermath of Blasey Ford’s testimony and Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Sexual violence is once again being debated publicly and constantly, similarly to the way it was at the outset of the #MeToo movement, and that takes its toll on survivors.

“That is the most fucking exhausting thing, to listen to someone debate a narrative and its worth,” she said. “I think all survivors will put themselves in those shoes, and think ‘Imagine if I’m on the stand in 30 years, what part of my story won’t stand in front of the public and how could I be villainized.’ That’s an awful thing to have to think about, and we shouldn’t have to.”  Spaulding’s observation is corroborated by the 738% increase in calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline on the day of Blasey Ford’s testimony. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), which runs the hotline, the Kavanaugh hearings coincided with the busiest day in the line’s history.

While it is important to understand that the gender demographics at actions like ASAP’s are not representative of the genders of survivors as a whole, the participants on Tuesday were heavily comprised of women. Additionally, there to support and assist were the members of ASAP Tufts Men (ASAPtm)—a new group on campus that works to examine male identities and engage with the concept of masculinity. Sophomore Benjamin Cole formed ASAPtm in the Fall of 2018 after a semester of working closely with ASAP. He recounted his motivations for forming the group, citing an increase in his awareness of issues pertaining to sexual violence, harassment, and other gendered oppression in the past year as having “shaken [him] into doing something.”

Cole said that “learning how to talk about issues of masculinity” is one of the group’s main goals. ASAPtm examines “what it means to be masculine, what it means to be male on campus, and [emphasizes] that no matter how ‘good’ individuals are, every ‘male’ group can analyze their own culture and seek to improve it.”  Donovan echoed this sentiment, saying, “We can’t just think of this issue as if you either fall into a survivor or a perpetrator camp.  Both have vested interests in making changes that completely go against each other… [but] there are more of us outside of those categories who need to be making those changes, to be saying I’m not okay with how things are.”  Both Cole and Donovan emphasized the need for a sense of collective responsibility in order to create change.  These are cultural problems deserving of everyone’s attention, and one’s stake in them should not depend on a direct relationship to them.

ASAP, and its subdivision ASAPtm, support these changes through curricula designed specifically for “male” spaces, such as sports teams and social clubs, in which participants are called on to engage critically with their own notions of masculinity. For example, ASAPtm hosted an event prior to Tufts’ Homecoming entitled “Re-Examining Jumbo Pride,” in which the majority-male participants were asked to think about how they perform masculinity in advance of a weekend in which many of the main events feature sports and alcohol—factors that open the door to exhibitions of toxic masculinity.

“When we stratify into toxic and non-toxic masculinity you allow for individuals that don’t exhibit the most toxic of behavior to say… ‘I’m not guilty of anything.’” Cole stated. In a time when deplorable actions are widely publicized, it can foster the misconception that simply not engaging in sexual violence is commendable. At the ASAPtm meeting, students not only discussed that misconception, but also provided participants with tools to actively prevent violence in their communities. Both Spaulding and Cole highlighted the trend of complacency and apathy when dealing with issues of sexual violence, as well as its connection to social media.

“You see a lot of people posting who have actively not supported you in the past, or who aren’t doing anything for survivors outside of this… and that’s incredibly frustrating,” Spaulding said. “Posting ‘#believesurvivors’, but that’s the bare minimum.  The absolute least you could do for a survivor is believe them.”  Actively supporting survivors can look a number of ways.  It can come in the form of organizing or attending an ASAP, Green Dot, or It Happens Here event. It can be reaching out to CARE or ASAPtm to hold a training for your on-campus community.  It can be actively reaching out to and supporting a survivor who has had the courage to disclose their experience to you in the past, reminding them that they have you to speak with about their experience. Speaking about sexual assault is stigmatized and the longer it remains so, the longer it will continue to be pervasive. If something cannot be discussed openly, the only ones aware of its occurrence are those directly impacted by it—those who have already borne the trauma of sexual violence or harassment and now feel silenced by the institutional failings and cultural stigmas associated with speaking out.

Julie Jampel, Staff Psychologist and Director of Training from Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS), said that for an ally, “Supportive listening is number one.”  She called on allies to remain aware of what’s happening politically and nationally, because “a survivor may well have feelings about that and it may be playing a role into how free they may be feeling to speak”. Making these issues “speakable” is a crucial step in changing the culture.

To the survivors who volunteered their words, experiences, time, and emotional energy: thank you. You are what will change this culture. To the allies present, remain steadfast in your allyship. To those reading this and wondering what you can do, read it again and then act. We are all responsible for changing this culture.

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