In recent years, student activists and organizers have made sexual assault on college campuses a high-profile, national issue. A recent White House report found that 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted while at college, more than 70 schools are under formal investigation for violating Title IX, and a federal report released by the office of Sen. McCaskill (D-Mo.) documents a serious, pervasive failure by colleges and universities to support survivors and keep their campuses safe. Sexual assault is a nationwide epidemic — and odds are that your school’s not doing enough to fight it.
Students all over the country are pushing their schools to improve their resources, policies, and procedures for responding to sexual assault. Most of those students are survivors of sexual violence themselves, who are speaking up about their experiences and fighting back against systems that failed them. If you’re on your school’s Student Government, you probably have a lot of access and institutional authority. How can you use your access and platform to be an effective, supportive ally to campus organizers? What can you do to stand with survivors and fight sexual violence at your school?
DO listen to survivors.
The first thing you should do is listen to the concerns, goals, and experiences of survivors. Remember that this movement is happening because student survivors have been ignored, dismissed, or retraumatized when they tried to access resources or report a sexual assault. Even if your school’s sexual assault policy looks good on paper, what matters is the real-life experiences of the students it’s supposed to help. People who’ve gone through an investigation process or dealt with inadequate campus resources (that is, people with direct experiences with the policy) will know best what works and what doesn’t, so make sure to listen to what they say needs to change. And often the right answers are counterintuitive and surprising to those without direct experiences with campus violence. Listening is the first part of making sure survivors voices are at the center of campus movements.
DO support survivor activism.
Survivors have probably been organizing to fight violence at your school for years — reach out to activists and ask what they need! Anti-sexual violence groups have been doing this work for years, on campuses across the country, and they’ll know what changes are most needed. Since the goal of this work is to support survivors, you should be reaching out to those communities to ask what sort of support they want from you. If you coordinate, you can help lead a survivor-centric, strong, unified movement. But if you try to do your own thing, you may end up with mixed messages and fractured support. You might end up distracting from the work that the survivors themselves are trying to do or even pushing for changes survivors don’t actually want to see (see Point #1). Instead of calling your own meetings, show up to theirs and engage — that way, you’re approaching this work in a way that supports their priorities, goals, and plans. Show up to meetings, actions, and teach-ins: you’ll get educated about the issue, build trust, and show that you’re invested in the long-term changes that survivors want to see. That said, be mindful and respect survivor-only spaces like support circles.
Even if you’re not aware of any anti-violence activist groups fighting for policy changes on campus, make sure to reach out to Take Back the Night, Peer Counselors, or anyone else who’s involved in anti-sexual violence work. You may be surprised to find that organizations like these have been fighting for changes for a long time.
DON’T try to take center stage.
One of the biggest obstacles anti-sexual violence organizers have faced is a society that constantly tries to silence the voices of survivors. Survivors who talk about being sexually assaulted often face backlash and victim-blaming from other students, and schools sometimes try to intimidate survivors and activists who speak out. All of this means that there’s a culture of silence around sexual assault and survivors’ voices are rarely at the center of the conversation. As a student leader, your job is to amplify those voices, not to drown them out. If a reporter calls you to ask about sexual assault or your policy, put them in touch with survivors and activists (but always check to make sure they’re okay with that first!). If administrators are holding an important meeting to discuss your sexual assault policy and procedures, make sure that student survivors and activists will be there. Ultimately, your goal should be to make sure that people who publicly identify as survivors are always centrally involved in the conversation.
This can be tricky, since many survivors don’t want to speak publicly about their experiences (and you might be a survivor of sexual assault yourself). When in doubt, make sure to check in with survivors about whether they’d want to participate in a given meeting or article. Don’t sensationalize anyone’s story and, if at all possible, always let survivors speak for themselves. It goes without saying that sexual violence is an incredibly personal issue, so make sure you’re not inadvertently co-opting someone’s trauma and always let survivors tell their stories on their own terms. Never pressure anyone to tell their story publicly if they’re uncomfortable with it. Definitely never tell anyone else’s story unless they’ve given you the go ahead!
Of course, you might be a survivor yourself. If you are, that can definitely give you a lot of valuable insight into ways your school’s climate, procedures, and resources may be failing survivors. But it’s still important to listen to other survivors who may have different experiences, ideas, and insights. Other survivors may have faced different challenges because they have a different relationship with the school, because they’re LGBTQ, because they’re differently abled, or for a whole host of other reasons. Remember that sexual assault affects many, many different kinds of people: there should never be just one face of the movement at your school.
DON’T invalidate anyone’s experiences.
You probably have worked with the same administrators who are responsible for overseeing investigations of sexual assault or reforming policies. You might have a positive relationship, good experiences, or even lots of trust with those administrators — but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been harmful to survivors. If survivors talk about administrators shutting them out of conversations, threatening them, or being dismissive during an investigation, don’t discount their experiences. Don’t say things like “Dean Jane is really nice, she’s on our side,” or “I can’t believe she’d do that!” You might not mean anything by that statement, but that might make a survivor feel like you don’t support them. Be mindful of your words!
DO help activists identify decision-makers.
Bureaucracy is a major barrier to effective student activism — students will be directed from office to office, given meaningless meetings, or spend lots of time sitting down with officials who never pass their conversations on to the people actually in charge. If you’re in Student Government, you probably have a lot of experience navigating byzantine University systems and can help direct activists to the people who will actually make decisions. You also probably know who’s receptive to student ideas, who’ll be up front with activists, and who won’t make any firm commitments. You have lots of specialized knowledge and can be a great resource!
DON’T use acronyms or assume knowledge.
University administrations are usually a slew of acronyms, abbreviations, and alphabet soup. If you’re in Student Government, you probably know what all those acronyms stand for, who’s in charge of which offices, and who reports to who — but survivors and activists might not, at least not right away! Make sure that you use full names, explain what administrators’ roles are instead of just referring to them by name, and don’t make inside jokes about campus politics that only other Student Government people would understand. For example, say “Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response” instead of “OSAPR” and say “Dean John Doe, in charge of Judicial Affairs for undergraduates.” If you share your specialized knowledge with survivor-activists, you will all be able to strategize together more effectively as true partners.
DO help activists get meetings with decision-makers.
Student Government members may have access to Deans, Trustees, or University Presidents, but it can be very hard for other students to meet with them or even get their emails read. Your job is not to speak for survivors but to help foster a meaningful dialogue between survivors and key decision-makers. Use your access to make sure administrators listen to all the concerns and goals laid out by survivors. Push decision-makers to hold public forums about sexual assault, to read policy proposals, and most importantly, to meet directly with activists and survivors. Set up open meetings with administrators about consent education, resources, or policy reform that anyone can come to, or put activists in touch with administrators and request that they meet.
Since you’re elected to represent students, you may be invited to meetings about reforming sexual misconduct policies, expanding resources, or improving accountability. Remember that no one can understand sexual assault if they haven’t experienced it, and that those people need to be at the table. Many schools will try to keep survivors or activists out of key conversations. That might just be an oversight, or they may be intentionally trying to shut survivors out of the conversation — either way, it’s not okay!
If you’re invited to a meeting about sexual assault on your campus, make sure to ask what other students will be there. See if any of those students publicly identify as survivors and check with student activist groups to see if any of their members have been invited. If survivors haven’t been invited to those meetings, insist that they be included. Help make survivors voices heard!
DO learn everything you can about resources, both on- and off- campus, for supporting survivors.
If you’re working with survivors to improve your college or University’s sexual assault policies, procedures, and resources, your friends and peers may come to you for support when/if they’re assaulted. Make sure you know how to help them — and take care of yourself, too. This work can be difficult and draining, especially if you have your own experiences with trauma. Make sure you’re paying attention to your own well-being.