Every 73 seconds an American is sexually assaulted, and every nine minutes that individual is a child, according the to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN). April is dedicated as Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), so as to raise prevention and education about sexual assault for the public.
The social activism fighting for sexual violence, abuse, and harassment prevention and awareness began in the civil rights era during the 1940-50s, continuing into the ’70s, as the first rape crisis center was founded in 1971 in San Francisco—according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). While SAAM was not officially recognized until 2001, in years prior individuals had observed a “Sexual Assault Awareness Week” with marches and events, with later the teal ribbon becoming a symbol for the now officially recognized Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
“In the early 2000s, the primary goal of SAAM was awareness—both raising visibility of the teal ribbon and the meaning behind it,” wrote NSVRC. “By the mid-2000s, SAAM incorporated prevention more heavily, focusing on areas such as communities, workplaces, and college campuses. These campaigns discussed ways that individuals and communities can stop sexual assault before it happens by changing behaviors and promoting respect.”
Stephanie Spitz, Pittsburg State University campus victim advocate, explained that in participating in Sexual Assault Awareness Month, “to be aware and become an activist it starts with you.” Within this month there are myths to debunk and survivors to support, and Spitz broke down what individuals can do for this month of awareness. She began by emphasizing that sexual assault can happen anywhere.
“The fact that it’s real, it does happen, we’re not immune to it,” Spitz said. “Just because we’re in southeast Kansas, we’re in the Midwest, you know sexual violence happens anywhere. And usually, it’s by people that that person knows, and trusts, and respects, and loves, and things of that nature. So, I really want people to break out of the idea that it’s stranger danger, and it doesn’t happen here, and you’re safe if you’re in a small town, and all of these things. That’s simply just not the case. We need to be realistic about this issue if we’re going to have any sort of momentum in correcting it and making our culture one that is full of respect, and supporting survivors, and holding perpetrators accountable for the actions that they commit.”
According to Spitz, some areas of prevention that is underdeveloped—especially in Kansas—is sex education, consent education, and education of what healthy and unhealthy relationships looks like. With education in these areas, individuals can learn to debunk myths surrounding sexual assault.
“In my opinion, sexual assault is still not as talked about as it should be in terms of not only awareness but prevention in general,” she said. “… And then we do live in a society where rape culture is condoned, and so that’s, you know, normalizing violence and sexualizing people and dehumanizing them and stuff to where if they are hurt by something that, again, it’s kind of overlooked. And that’s like the top tier of rape culture. …”
Included in the rape culture and sexual violence Spitz discussed is unwanted touching, “locker room talk,” bad jokes, incest, and “sexual violence in general.” Additional forms that Spitz has directly handled recently is revenge pornography—the sharing of illicit photos or videos without consent in order to establish power and humiliation—and sexual violence facilitated by drugs or alcohol.
“… And really if I look at it from my campus, something that we’ve been seeing for the past few years is more of revenge pornography,” she said. “… This is a sexual violent crime because it is sexual in nature, and they want that power or humiliation of that person they were with. So, that is something that’s been concerning for me, and almost all of the cases I’ve worked these past few years—even more alarming outside of that—is how high the alcohol-facilitated sexual assault is. About like 90-95 percent of the cases I work when it comes to sexual violence, either if it just happened to them or it happened when they were a teenager, when someone discloses to me, it was facilitated by alcohol. …”
Spitz explained that while an individual may consent to a drink, they are not consenting to being drugged, or sexually violated “in any manner.” According to RAINN, one out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, while about three percent of American men—or one in 33—have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. More specifically, nine out of every 10 victims of rape are female.
“… And it doesn’t matter what identities we’re looking at, violence doesn’t discriminate—especially sexual violence—it’s still about power and control,” Spitz said. “So, I’ve had clients who are male, female, transgender, gender-nonconforming, nonbinary, all of those identities and races and things of that nature. Although I will say I’ve seen a bigger portion of the LGBTQ+ populous experiencing sexual violence compared to their heterosexual peers.”
As sexual assault can affect any age, gender, or population, this includes children. RAINN reported that a majority of child victims are between the ages 12 and 17. Additionally, the majority of sexual assaults happen at or near the victim’s home.
“… For you to realize it does happen, there are survivors in our midst—so what can we do about it?” Spitz said. “So, I would recommend getting educated … and lastly I would recommend volunteering, giving back. … And if it’s hard to be more public about it, perhaps it’d be easier for you to start having these kinds of conversations and breaking down these myths and fighting back against it with conversations with friends and family members, romantic partners …”
Resources Spitz recommends includes RAINN or enrolling in a class, such as the course she teaches at Pittsburg State. Locations individuals can volunteer include the Safe House Crisis Center in Pittsburg and others in Joplin or surrounding locations.
Knowing how sexual assault can affect victims afterward is another way individuals can understand how to best support victims and raise awareness. Spitz said most victims can experience “short term issues,”—from six weeks to six months—such as memory loss, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Other after-affects she mentioned includes mental health concerns and withdrawing from relationships and situations. Additionally, victims are more likely to develop an addiction, either drugs or alcohol, as a means to cope.
For those who want to show their support directly toward sexual assault victims, Spitz encourages following the SEEK Model of Support. This model breaks down to focusing on Safety, Empathy, Empowerment, and Knowledge for teaching others how to best help victims.
“… Make sure whomever is sharing this with you that you thank them for sharing this with you,” Spitz said. “This is the worst moment or moments of their entire lives—it’s full of trauma, and pain, and complex emotions—and they deserve to be validated for their experience in sharing, to be believed, to be supported. And you might be the only person that this individual shares this with you, so your response needs to be positive, and encouraging, and supportive, otherwise they might never share this with anyone else, they could bury it, and then they’ll never have a truly healing journey for them. It will always be there. And they should never be defined by their experience. They are still them. So, being mindful of those elements. Start by believing and kind of just go from there.”
If you are in a sexually violent situation, know someone who is, or have been a victim of sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE.
TAKE BACK THE NIGHT – 4/29
As part of National Sexual Assault Awareness Month Pittsburg State’s student organization Students for Violence Prevention (SVP) will hold a community event called “Take Back the Night.” The event will take place Thursday, April 29 from 7 to 9 p.m. in Pitt State’s Gorilla Village. “Take Back the Night” will include a candlelight vigil honoring survivors of sexual violence and a cookout.
SVP asks that those who attend bring a donation for the Safe House Crisis Center, including items like toilet paper, paper towels, deodorant, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, and conditioner. These items go to the individuals who Safe House helps in the area. Kristen Horyna, SVP student coordinator, said this night is about “showing your allyship with survivors of violence,” and it has been held since the ‘70s.
“… Kind of what we need to do is show that (sexual assault) is something that doesn’t discriminate, it doesn’t matter gender, race, or anything like that,” Horyna said. “It can affect anybody—old, young, in between. So, I think it’s just good to spread awareness of it, regardless of time—it always needs to be talked about, but I think focusing one month to kind of really hit it hard is pretty important as well. …”
As part of the vigil, they will have speakers from the police department, stories from survivors, the history club will speak on the history of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and the poetry organization SLAM will share some pieces.
“It’s good to see some sort of alliance with our community and campus, especially about something like this,” Horyna said.”