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Archive for May, 2014

A Leap Forward in Understanding Confidentiality and Reporting

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Sexual assault is unlike any other crime. Survivors need—and deserve—help from those who have studied the issue and received training in how to help victims most effectively. One of the most integral components to a survivor’s well-being is confidentiality. The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault agrees, and their report offers an excellent explanation as to why this is the case: “if victims don’t have a confidential place to go, or think a school will launch a full-scale investigation against their wishes, many will stay silent.” In addition, “insensitive or judgmental questions can compound a victim’s distress.” Some victims require “time and privacy to sort through their next steps.” As such, campuses should “give survivors the help they need to reclaim their educations” such as “a confidential place to turn for advice and support.” We agree.

Many campus advocates have struggled to maintain and protect their ability to offer confidentiality. It should be a relief to everyone on all sides of that struggle to read the Department of Education’s clarification that yes, advocates are confidential resources. Confidentiality has been an issue partly due to the confusing collection of laws governing sexual assault and sexual harassment on campuses. It is also due to the widespread lack of understanding of the unique nature of this crime.

For centuries, the word rape was only whispered. Sexual violence was never openly discussed, rarely acknowledged as a problem, and then only as a sad and inevitable happening to a certain kind of woman. What most people knew was whatever they garnered from these whispers and furtive looks. Unfortunately, what most people know today is not at all accurate either, particularly those beliefs about survivors based on assumptions about how one would react if sexually assaulted.

In recent decades, activists and educators have worked to bring the subject of sexual violence out of the shadows and have public discussion of the realities of assault, increase public knowledge of the widespread problem, and support for survivors. The current national attention to the problem in the military and on college campuses is the result of that work.

Along with the advance in understanding of confidentiality comes encouraging progress in understanding the complexities of reporting. Ignorance about the unique nature of this crime was again a factor in the laws and policies—and interpretations of those laws and policies—used on campuses and in the military regarding reporting. And again the assumptions about how survivors feel, or should feel, contributed.

Many people believe that if they were assaulted, if a righteous crime has been committed, of course they would report it. The reality is quite different. When it actually happens, most people don’t report it. Survivors raped or assaulted by an acquaintance often don’t know what to call it due to the stereotypes and lack of education surrounding sexual assault. It can take some time for them to come to terms with what happened. Those that do tell someone, or report to authorities, are many times not believed and not supported.

A common assumption is that the only way to stop these crimes is to catch and punish the perpetrators, and victims of the crime have a duty to report to make that happen. But it’s not that simple.These cases rarely go forward to a conviction, not least because juries are comprised of people who have no understanding of the problem or knowledge with which to evaluate a case. Sexual assault is a societal problem, and we should not expect the survivor to solve it. We must all work to solve it and improving the criminal justice response is only a part of the solution.

The language in the Task Force report shifts the concept of reporting from the legal sense of the term to the sense of telling someone who can help with the survivor’s healing process, and now that someone can be confidential. It is widely understood by advocates and law enforcement that victims who are given time and informed support are much more likely to ultimately go forward with an official report and the criminal justice process. A campus must still take official action, but it is clear that the campus’ action can be apart from the individual case. We believe that prevention education is still the best action of all for learning communities to take in creating supportive, healthy places for their staff and students.

The language and explanations of the report are a huge leap forward for activists, educators and institutions. They offer hope that someday soon the need for confidentiality will not be as great because everyone will better know how to support survivors. And someday soon after that, sexual assault will be a rare occurrence.

 


Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence

Bystander Training Good, but Not the Answer

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

Bystander training is one way, but not the only way, to prevent sexual assaults on college campuses. This was among the comments made by Annie E. Clark, founder of End Rape on Campus, when she was a guest last Wednesday morning (April 30th, 2014) on the On Point radio show with Tom Ashbrook. The topic of discussion was the report released Tuesday (April 29th, 2014) by the White House Task Force to protect students from sexual assault.

Clark expressed a note of caution when another guest, Inge-Lise Ameer, senior associate dean of Dartmouth College, touted bystander intervention as the most promising practice in prevention. In Hall’s opinion, it is more important to focus on primary prevention, stopping sexual violence long before it starts, rather than intervention in a public moment of violence that has witnesses.

The comments on the On Point website during and after the segment illustrate why simple bystander intervention is limited. The lack of basic understanding about sexual assault is obvious among the commentators, as it is among the general population of college students. This is a fundamental problem when asking people to step up and step in to a potentially violent situation. Without a basic understanding of what sexual assault entails and the ability to think critically about prevention, actions can be ineffective, or worse, they can be dangerous for the bystander and others.

Hall’s opinion that prevention is more important than intervention is shared by many, including We End Violence, and all other sound and thoughtful bystander training programs. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has published a booklet on Engaging Bystanders that urges us “to create more engaging words and images” than bystander. They write, “The reality is that everyone is a bystander, every day, in one way or another to a wide range of events that contribute to sexual violence.”

We are all bystanders and we can practice prevention far beyond being a hero in a single event.

We End Violence incorporates bystander training within education that stresses critical thinking, basic knowledge about sexual violence and survivor support skills. WEV has accepted the challenge to “create more engaging words and images” by developing Agent of Change, a prevention program that moves beyond a limited bystander concept and teaches how to be proactive as well as reactive to the everyday language and attitudes that support sexual violence.

 


Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence

The Importance of Bystander Intervention and the White House Task Report

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

First and foremost we are thrilled that the President has made sexual assault education and prevention a priority. It means something to have the highest office in the land be advocating for a higher quality of prevention and response to sexual assault. To put the spotlight on a topic that has been taboo for so long shows that our collective, ongoing work has had an impact on how our society is changing its views and responses to sexual violence.

We agree that campus climate surveys are necessary and LONG overdue. We commend the Task Force’s decision to support such data collection as it will help us to better identify the scope of the problem. It will also help universities to encourage survivors to report incidents as campuses will no longer have to fear that people will equate increased reports with increases in violence. This is an important step in removing the stigma from honest self-reporting and will aid us in creating more effective programs for campus communities.

The new focus on survivor support and perpetrator accountability is also welcome. The suggestions the report makes on providing a wide variety of resources to survivors and educating them about the availability of said resources, including confidential non-mandated reporters, is critical to helping survivors and creating a culture of holding rapists responsible for their crimes.

We are also thrilled to see the introduction of trauma-informed training for campus officials. This will fundamentally alter officials’ understanding of victim dynamics in a way that is bound to be far more survivor supportive. We End Violence is currently creating a program to train university officials and employees on this very topic. We believe it is extremely important that all individuals who work with students are better able to create a safe, supportive climate for survivors.

The suggestions for building collaborative relationships are a good shift towards creating a systematic support system for survivors and activists. Our country’s rape crisis centers provide some of the most important and impactful services in the country. We do hope that as these memorandums of understanding and partnerships are entered into, that recommendations are made to ensure that the burden of work and funding does not fall on community advocacy programs. We have seen universities with large budgets and resource pools request and obtain assistance from advocacy programs only to not reciprocate with support for their new community partners who often are already spread thin. We hope to see this be a collaborative effort both in terms of labor, funding, and support.

The importance of prevention efforts being included in the recommendations, especially bystander intervention efforts and engaging men in the prevention process, cannot be overestimated. We were gratified to hear that the White House Task Force agrees that primary prevention is an essential part in the cultural challenge against sexual violence. In particular, we were happy to hear the emphasis on continuous and comprehensive education efforts, as well as our program’s, Agent of Change, inclusion in the list of the White House’s Not Alone website’s recommended resources. This is exactly what WEV advocates and provides to colleges, military, and communities.

However, WEV believes that prevention efforts need an even stronger prioritization in the report and in our activism. Many survivors will tell no one about their assault, and when they do, often university staff and students have no training on how to respond. We can change this by better educating these communities on the importance of supporting survivors and creating safe spaces. For example, the language used on college campuses to describe sexually active women facilitates perpetrators’ belief in the acceptability of their actions and, at the same time, silences survivors. We would like to see prevention efforts expanded to identify the roots of this culturally facilitated problem.

Bystander intervention must mean more than identifying “abusive behavior” when it is happening. True prevention efforts need to focus more heavily on bystanders stepping up to be agents of change long before someone chooses to violate another person. This is one of the primary foci of WEV’s work and our online program, Agent of Change. By introducing sexual assault prevention education earlier and having it more often, students will have a better understanding of what sexual violence is and a stronger commitment to making a change for the better.

While the focus of the committee and report are on sexual assault, we believe that other forms of power-based violation must also be discussed. Relationship abuse and stalking are driven by many of the same cultural norms, including strict gender roles, confused ideas about relationships/sex, and victim blaming. Our hope is that as this Task Force moves forward it will extend prevention efforts, in particular, to cover more power-based violations.

We think that the Task Force report is an excellent first step for the government in the ongoing global movement to prevent sexual violence. We wish to continue to see strides made towards removing the stigma for survivors and a cultural shift against the casual acceptance of sexual violence. We look forward to the day when we can look back on this report and see how far we’ve come.

 


Jeff Bucholtz, Director
We End Violence


 

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