Good Life

Healthy Relationships: Change to reactions to sexual abuse starts by believing

Where do I start? Several weeks ago, I was thinking about what to write in this column for Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Awareness months (both occur in April). I was wondering how to talk about healthy relationships and what approach to take. Sadly, as often happens, two things made it clear that there are many in our society who still do not comprehend the devastating reality of sexual violence.

It made news recently when someone notified police of a fraternity’s Facebook page featuring nude pictures of women asleep or passed out. Then, a former member of the fraternity defended their actions by claiming that “everybody does it?” And recently, attorney Thomas Mesereau, who defended Michael Jackson against charges of child abuse, wrote an opinion piece in this paper stating that the victims of Jerry Sandusky were in it for the money. Really? How is it possible to be so tone-deaf, so oblivious to the affect of sexual violence in our society? The only explanation is that one chooses not to know, not to see, not to act.

Thankfully, the number of those who choose not to know is decreasing. Members of the Centre County and Penn State communities have taken it upon themselves to become educated about sexual violence and its effects.

More than 5,500 people have participated in the “Stewards of Children” training offered by the YMCA, the Centre County Youth Service Bureau, the Centre County Women’s Resource Center and the United Way.

Almost 5 percent of the Centre County population has been trained to understand, recognize and respond appropriately to child sexual abuse.

Two weeks ago, almost 100 people stood in the snow in front of Old Main to express their disgust at the actions of the Kappa Delta Rho fraternity, to demand justice for the victims and that the perpetrators be held accountable, and the public protests continue.

Students all across Penn State have organized and will participate in Sexual Violence Awareness Week activities.) And this community established a Children’s Advocacy Center to respond to the needs of abused children in a more holistic way.

While activism and active participation in education are critically important for community change, individual commitment and individual change are equally important — and everyone can do something. Everyone can start by believing.

As described on the Start by Beliving site, Because a friend or family member is typically the first person a victim confides in after an assault, each individual’s personal reaction is the first step in a long path toward justice and healing. Knowing how to respond is critical — a negative response can worsen the trauma and foster an environment where perpetrators face zero consequences for their crimes.”

So think about this: When someone comes to you and confides that she or he has been sexually assaulted, has been the victim of some type of sexual violence, what will your reaction be?

You can choose not to hear, not to see, not to believe that it is real or serious. Or you can start by believing and listen to the experience that is so hard for the survivor to share.

You can be a positive and pro-active friend and member of a community. You can decide that your relationship with a sexual violence survivor will be a healthy one based on compassion, trust and respect. Your decision, your choice, will make a difference in your life and the life of those you care about.

Start by believing.

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