April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Full of educational opportunities, lectures, activities, fundraising events and commemorations both on campus and in the community, I’ve become used to the whirlwind of commitments over the years. But this year the kick-off to SAAM reminded me in a profound way how pervasive, how heartbreaking and how horrifyingly inclusive sexual violence is in our world.
The keynote speaker at the commemoration event was a middle-aged man, a survivor of child sexual abuse at the hands of a church member. Larry didn’t share much about his personal story, choosing to focus on what had been helpful in his own survival — having people say “I believe you” and “this wasn’t your fault.” While we heard the statistics of the scope of sexual violence, Larry’s very presence challenged the assumptions of what a “typical” victim looks like. And we were encouraged to make the statistics of one in four women and one in six men sexually assaulted in their lifetime real to us by picturing the 100,000 people in Beaver Stadium and doing the math. Saturday afternoon looks a lot different when you picture 10,000 to 20,000 survivors of sexual violence in those stands among the 100,000.
But if huge numbers were difficult to contemplate, after the commemorative event, I sat in the Courthouse and listened to the impact of sexual violence on a smaller scale. It was the sentencing of a man convicted of sexual assault. Several colleagues and I had been asked to attend, along with local law enforcement, to provide support to the victim. As we sat there, we listened to impact statements read into the record that had been written by the victim’s sisters and friends, some of whom read them aloud to the courtroom. And then the victim herself stood and described in excruciating detail the impact this assault had on her life in the nearly three years since it occurred (that it took over two and a half years for this case to come to conclusion is an outrage — and likely the topic for another column). The description of the impact of her assault on her family and friends was heart wrenching.
Her description of the flashbacks, the sleepless nights, the panic attacks and ultimately, her determination to continue with her life’s work of helping children, moving from victim to survivor, was moving and heroic.
And then it was the perpetrator’s turn. His words (and his attorney’s words) were predictable, but then his parents asked to speak to the court on his behalf. Their anguish as their son faced years in prison was terrible to see. As I watched this case come to its conclusion, I thought about how one act of violence rippled out to touch and damage the lives of so many people. One act, one night, multiple lives damaged and broken.
Sexual violence doesn’t only impact the victim, although that impact is profound and terrible. Sexual violence impacts families and friends and communities. Sexual violence can only be stopped by all of us embracing our voices to say “no more.” As Larry reminded those at the commemoration, communities don’t become safe by accident, we must make them safe. All of us must do whatever we can to make our communities safe from sexual violence and those who would perpetrate it. Embrace your voice, spread the word, learn what is needed to make a community, a family, a person safe. This is how we will end sexual violence — together.