Three Ways You Can Help End Sexual Assault

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This op-ed by Gina Scaramella, executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, was originally published by WGBH News.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Every year around this time, people like me issue earnest public statements about the need to do more to prevent sexual assault from happening and to give more support to survivors.

This year, “earnest” doesn’t feel like the right approach as political, religious, corporate, and educational institutions have shown — again — that we have a long way to go in taking sexual violence seriously: a man who brags about sexually assaulting women is elected president. Jewelry stores that root their marketing efforts by celebrating loving relationships have a climate of sexual harassment of employees. The clergy abuse crisis won’t quit. Campuses are still grappling with an epidemic of sexual assault.

It’s difficult to see all of these events as anything other than a complete nightmare. Issuing earnest pleas for greater public awareness about sexual assault and the needs of survivors feels grossly inadequate. And yet we do need greater public awareness about sexual assault, and survivors do need more from all of us as they heal and seek justice.

So how should we mark Sexual Assault Awareness Month? Well, appropriately enough, the theme this year is to engage new voices in the work to prevent sexual violence.
That means you.

There are three simple things anyone can do to help prevent sexual violence from occurring in the first place. The first is to promote social norms that discourage sexual violence: Don’t make jokes about sexual assault or laugh at them when someone else does. Discourage speculation about whether an assault could have been avoided if the victim had not been impaired by alcohol or had been wearing different clothes. Redirect such conversations by placing the burden of responsibility for sexual assault on offenders. We really can build a safer culture by taking steps such as these to make it socially unacceptable to joke about sexual assault, much less engage in it.

Next, be an active bystander. Many people who witness sexual harassment or assault don’t know how to intervene safely. But there are things you can do: call 911, record a video, or take a photo. You can make eye contact with the person who is being targeted and ask them if they need help. You can sign up for a free Bystander Intervention Training periodically offered by the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center to learn how to safely and effectively challenge inappropriate sexual and violent behaviors. By paying attention and speaking up when you see something taking place that doesn’t feel quite right, you’ll also influence those around you to think differently about sexual assault and violence and their role in preventing it.

Finally, support survivors. Women survivors are routinely blamed and shamed in the media and on the internet. Men fear they won’t be taken seriously. And people who are transgender face the highest rates of sexual assault than any other demographic group, though the issue is rarely covered in the media. These attitudes and behaviors are known as “secondary victimization,” as they frequently serve to reinforce — and worsen — a victim’s trauma from the actual assault. So believe a survivor when they confide in you, and don’t second-guess their response to a sexual assault.

Despite how often it may seem otherwise, our culture is improving in how it deals with sexual harassment and assault. Last year, Congress passed, and then-President Barack Obama signed into law,a survivor’s bill of rights that standardizes the practice of evidence collection in sexual assault investigations. The measure also prohibits the practice of charging victims for costs of collecting evidence during a physical exam after a sexual assault. More and more high school and college administrators are punishing athletes who engage in sexually aggressive behavior — such as engaging in sexually vulgar talk about female athletes in group texts and on social media — that would have been dismissed as boys-will-be-boys shenanigans not so long ago.

But we can still do better. This April, in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness month, commit to being part of the solution. Support survivors and work to build a culture that’s safe and welcoming for everyone.

Gina Scaramella is the executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. On April 23, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center will hold its annual Walk for Change at DCR’s Artesani Park to publicly support survivors of sexual assault and raise money to fund BARCC’s programs to end sexual violence.

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