Credit: University of Missouri-Kansas City

On Awareness

Today, April 30th, is the last day of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It is also the last day of National Poetry Month, Autism Awareness Month, Child Abuse Prevention Month, and Mathematics Awareness Month, to name others. I care about all of these things, and why not? They are all topics we can get behind and support.

But I care most about Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). It is forgotten in favor of some of its more easy-to-talk about companions or more heavily funded lobbies, but never in our time have we needed not the fanfare, but a profound and quiet awareness of the realities of sexual assault and our feelings about and reactions to the issues. Awareness is a refreshing tonic and antidote to the stunningly angry vortex of opinions, media, cases, political missteps, videos, tweets and tragedy that has ensued this past month and year.

As a gang-rape survivor and an activist, I speak around the country, educating university communities and law firms about how to deal with sexual assault survivors and policies. I see the problem, I try to solve it, and I go home drained by the hundreds of stories I hear. During April, I bear witness to many “Take Back The Night” vigils and speakouts on campuses and in town squares. We wear teal (the official color of SAAM), we light candles, we march, we cry. After years of this, I have come to the realization that those brave souls who take part in these activities are the folks who need the least awareness. They already have it. How to make the rest of the world aware?

As I reflect upon my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I know that I can unleash screeds about the injustice of sexual assault and the insensitive natures of those who threaten rape survivors. I can tweet support for rapists or vote against bills that would help victims of violent crime. In turn, everyone “likes” and retweets the way all good social media citizens do. Do we?

Maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe it’s time to stop howling at the moon.

After a certain high-profile case this month rocked my confidence and triggered flashbacks and panic, I needed to square my reaction to MSM so I could proceed with my professional obligations. The solution came easily. While I am no stranger to meditation or yoga, my brain refuses to quiet itself for me to qualify as anything more than a half-assed participant, in those practices and generally. But the Steubenville case and SAAM showed me a new way to awareness. I simply shut myself in a quiet room and asked myself kind questions.

“What do you hope to accomplish?”

“What do you hope people begin to understand about sexual assault?”

“What do you want lawmakers, judges and prosecutors to have in their collective arsenals?

“What do you wish that young people would understand about your journey?”

Stunned, I realized that the answer to each of my questions was one word: awareness.

I’d never asked myself those fundamental questions. Years of talking, talking, talking, and I realized I was no expert.

Through the long and stubborn journey of my own self-awareness, I have learned to let go. I am living a life of huge promise, regardless of that night in 1988 when I was drugged and gang raped at the University of Virginia. I want you all to know that a beautiful life is possible for all survivors of violence. I know what love is – and it is all around. Simply be aware of it and you will soar.

As you think about Sexual Assault Awareness Month, perhaps for the first time on the last day of April, I would like to challenge your awareness. If someone tells you she has been raped, believe her, help her, and get her to the proper place. Do not blame her. Love her. Be there for her. Realize that it could be anyone in your inner circle. Talk about it. Don’t compare real survivors to false accusers who are a tiny, tiny fraction of the reports. Educate yourself. Open your heart to the possibility that someone you love is dying inside because she doesn’t know how to speak up. Understand that sexual assault is not a life sentence, but in many ways, a beginning of a new life, built step by courageous step. Be aware. And in that awareness, you will find quiet strength and peace in the knowledge that you are helping to give someone a life of greater promise.