A note from Katie: Today's guest post is written by Warren Light, a friend of mine from Oregon who is an activist and councilor for many great causes, but particularly in supporting survivors of sexual assault and advocating for better policies to prevent and respond to sexual violence. I've wanted to write a post on this subject, but didn't feel I had the expertise. Thankfully Warren, who has worked with academic, government, and faith-based groups on this issue, offers great wisdom and experience in addressing flaws in our current handling of sexual violence, and mapping better strategies for the future.
A Campus Without Sexual Assault and
My Wish for You
School is starting soon. The excitement of new challenges. The creative possibilities in new relationships. Each year brings new hopes. I sincerely hope it is the best year of your life - so far, at least.
As an attorney and activist who has advocated for survivors* of sexual assault for over 20 years, I am well aware that this is also a time of many articles that purport to be about sexual violence prevention on campuses. Some are quite helpful, but many are problematic.
The problem is often that the author begins in the wrong place.
The Unhelpful, and Often Hurtful, Advice: "Don't Be A Victim"
Too many times I have read advice to women about how to avoid being assaulted or raped or, as I have heard it called: DBAV [“Don’t Be A Victim”]. I’m sure you’ve seen it as well: Be sure to lock your door, carry your keys, and always have a way out. Watch what you wear. Always have a trusted friend nearby. Don’t flirt. Don’t drink or stay out late. Sleep with both eyes open and a rocket launcher in each hand and shoot anything that moves. Okay, I made up that last one. (It may still beat the typical advice out there).
While I am not saying that choices don’t count, there are serious problems with DBAV advice, including but not limited to:
- The focus of DBAV advice is misguided - it is the perpetrator of rape who causes it, not the victim/survivor. Have you ever heard a police department blame one of it’s own officers for being shot? Or the FBI blame a bank for being in a bad neighborhood, having long hours, or a “loose” dress code? It ludicrous to blame survivors for being victims of sexual violence. It is always the choice of the perpetrator to commit violence, not the survivor’s choice. Period.
- Evidence indicates DBAV advice has never stopped one single incident of sexual violence. If you were to ask an elderly woman what she was told about sexual violence on campus, chances are she received this same advice. It didn’t work then, and doesn’t now. There is not even anecdotal evidence to support this approach. Have you ever heard someone say, “I would have been assaulted that night, but since my hemline was 3 inches longer, I wasn’t harmed. Thank goodness for that article!”
- DBAV advice gives a false impression of security, and misleads persons about the realities of sexual violence. Most sexual violence is committed by persons known - generally well known - to the victim. (For more information, check out the RAINN website and the National Justice Institute.) Education about forming healthy relationships that are demonstrative of equality and respect is far more important than most people realize. Healthy understandings of sex and sexuality that are guilt-free are foundational to non-abusive relationships.
- Effective prevention strategy involves social change. Sexual Violence can be prevented. It involves everyone dismantling rape culture on campus - yes, everyone has a part in the work, including you! (see below).
- DBAV advice does not equip bystanders who might help prevent rape. There are many programs these days concerning bystanders’ ability to help to prevent violence from occurring. You don’t have to be a superhero. One of the most well-known programs, Green Dot, trains potential bystanders to take three kinds of informed action:
- Direct [intervention]
- Delegate, or
Direct = Talk to one of the parties involved; Delegate = Get Help [including, but not limited to 911]; Distract = Be around and cause a commotion that keeps a person safer. The idea is that if we all do our part, we form a safe community. For more information see: https://www.livethegreendot.com
- DBAV advice exacerbates rather than mitigates the gender inequities that occur on college campuses. By blaming the victim, by giving a pass to rape culture, by making women alone responsible for preventing sexual violence, gender inequities are reinforced - the same gender inequities that lead to sexual violence.
- Survivors need to know where to turn, but DBAV advice is unhelpful at best, and at worst, blaming. A survivor may not want to report an assault. If they choose not to report, that is their right. However, they may want to talk about it with a friend. How helpful do you think it would be for that friend to question their choice of dress, alcohol consumption, or companion?
For survivors it is far more important to know: Who offers support that is truly confidential? Some universities now require all employees, including students, to share any credible evidence of an assault with the Dean’s office. Survivors need to know who will protect their privacy. Whether and when to make a report is a decision for the survivor. Check with the local crisis center and the counseling center as to who offers confidential support - if only so that you can help a friend.
What is Helpful?
As co-chair of the Prevention and Education Committee on the Oregon Sexual Assault Task Force, I am privileged to work with a great many, gifted persons who work in prevention. One of the most impressive is Megan Kovacs, the other co-chair, and the Education Coordinator at Raphael House in Portland, OR.
Megan’s article, Sexual Violence Prevention: Starting at the Right Place, makes several important points. First and foremost:
Sexual violence is preventable.
She writes, “To prevent rape, we need the right approach. We need to start telling the story from the right place. . . .There is a person responsible: the person that felt entitled to rape; that felt so entitled to sex, they didn’t care . . . . We fail when we tell people to dress differently, or drink differently, or be better at not getting raped. We’re ignoring the person actually responsible. We’re not starting at the beginning; we’re starting halfway through the story.”
Megan sets forth five principles of prevention that are effective in changing a culture that enables sexism, assault and rape to a culture that is free of sexual violence. The words below are hers:
1. Promote healthy sexuality. Healthy sexuality is not only the absence of sexual violence or coercion, but the active presence of self-determination and the ability to choose when, how, whether, and with whom to make sexual and reproductive choices.
2. Promote a culture which values consent. Consent is not just “no means no.” (Although that’s certainly a pretty basic place to start.) Consent means asking for a yes, ensuring that the person you are choosing to engage in sex with is willing, able, and wants to say yes.
3. Interrupt comments and behaviors that marginalize other people. If someone says something that’s sexist, it is our responsibility to speak up. Silence and complacency allow for continuing attitudes and beliefs that contribute to sexual violence.
4. Talk to [other] young men and women. Have frank, honest discussions about what respect and communication in any interaction and any relationship ought to look like.
5. Refute people who blame the survivor for their own assault. Be vigilant in placing responsibility on the person choosing to assault. Always.
In addition to this excellent analysis from Megan, I want to add three more thoughts:
6. Question inequities and priorities that marginalize or disempower persons based upon gender, race or any category. For example: men [and women], be careful that you do not endorse inequity. The status quo offers power rewards for both men and women who accept sexism. For a man, it may mean you’re a real “bro.” For a woman, you’re ok - one of the guys. Question priorities that invest great sums of money in men’s athletics and leave women out. I’m not saying you can’t enjoy sports, but recognize and challenge the inequities in the sports culture.
7. Be open to your own sexual identity and preferences. It is yours to decide. Beware of others who try to decide for you. You are loved. Your sexual identity is a gift when combined with healthy [ie. nonviolent] equitable interactions.
8. Survivors and allies: know your rights. Know where you have support. If you are a survivor who has decided to report, press charges, or make a claim against the institution or perpetrator, please seek competent legal counsel. At this time, there are over 80 colleges and universities involved in lawsuits initiated by survivors. Survivors have a right to their own narrative and the path to healing. Helpful healing resources include Susan Pease Banitt’s, The Trauma Toolkit. http://www.suepeasebanitt.com/
The starting point is to remind ourselves that Sexual Violence can be prevented. It is made possible by inequities and unhealthy power dynamics in our culture. Those who perpetrate it are responsible for their actions, but we are all responsible to creating a world without sexual violence.
We are all meant for healthy relationships, for wholeness in body and spirit.
Begin this year by supporting one another. Being an active bystander - helping where needed. Speaking out when you see someone being marginalized or isolated or victimized. Listening without judgment to a friend who needs to talk. Talking with a potential partner prior to sex. Asking for consent in a way that is open to yes or no. Enjoying and owning your sexual identity. Being in the moment whether by yourself or with others.
This is my wish for you!
Rev. Warren Light, Esq.
Warren, Campus Minister at the University of Oregon and Pastor of Halsey UMC, is an attorney who has represented survivors in legal cases. No longer practicing law, he helps churches write policies preventing sexual violence. He currently serves as Safe Sanctuaries Coordinator for the Oregon/Idaho Annual Conference. He served on Bishop Hoshibata’s Safe Sanctuaries Committee in administering the first Risk Reduction policy. He also serves as:
- Co-Chair, Prevention and Education Committee, Oregon Sexual Assault Task Force [under the Attorney General’s office];
- Faith Community Representative of The Alliance For Sexual Assault Prevention, University of Oregon;
- Member, the Oregon Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team under the Dept. of Justice;
- Former Board Member, Sexual Assault Support Services of Lane County;
- Member of the California Bar Association, and Former Advisor, Survivors’ Empowerment Action.
Warren can be reached at 541.346.4694 or at firstname.lastname@example.org