In order to move forward, we need multidimensional spaces where we can have these discussions openly, safely, and communally.
As disturbing as the past year has been, it’s been inspiring to see so many survivors of assault come forward, and to watch the #MeToo movement make international headlines. But what struck me in post after post was that the stories were largely retrospective. Few who came forward felt they could do so at the time of the incident.
It doesn’t have to be that way. If we can demystify the process — from reporting, to rights, to recovery — we can help survivors come forward earlier, and make #MeToo a movement in real time.
The statistics are not new, but bear repeating: Fewer than a third of rape and sexual assault cases are reported to the police, and those numbers plummet when the assailant is a friend or acquaintance. Fewer than 10% of all assaults see any prosecution at all.
Our legal system, campus security, human resource departments, and news media have filled assault reporting with landmines for the few who do come forward. A survivor is faced with reliving the trauma, questions about their character and motivation, and institutional sympathy for the assaulter. We don’t talk about the process openly, which only generates more fear and uncertainty, and dissuades even more of us from reporting.
Last November, I launched O.school, a trauma-informed sex and pleasure education platform, featuring free, live-streamed conversations with “pleasure professionals” — or PPs — who deal with issues of sex and sexuality. Our streams range from “How to Purchase a Sex Toy” to “Recognizing Emotional Abuse” to “Understanding Consent.” The streams are interactive, meaning viewers can chat anonymously with the PP or other participants, and each stream has active moderators to prevent harassment and trolling.
While we have always focused on pleasure education, the format has turned out to be particularly conducive to dealing with issues, like assault, that are shrouded in shame and secrecy. In stream after stream, I’ve watched as participants — sometimes for the first time — spoke freely about their own consent violations, abuse, and harassment. As importantly, I’ve watched as they’ve shared critical information about reporting and recovery.
Cavanaugh Quick, a victim advocate at the Crime Victim and Sexual Violence Center in Albany, New York, regularly accompanies survivors during the reporting process. At O.school, Cav leads a stream on forensic rape examination kits. In their stream, Cav unboxes the kit, and walks viewers through the process of reporting assault — from the contents of the kit and the location of the exam to the types of questions asked to the length of time it takes and the rights you retain.
We’ve been taught to fear the process, but watching Cav cheerfully walk through it, that process loses some of its power to intimidate. Watching Cav’s first streams, and their interactions with those in the chat, were revolutionary for me, and I saw how demystifying the process could quickly lead to increased reporting.
Of course, the hurdles to reporting aren’t limited to the process. Survivors face guilt and shame from the assault, and a fear of stigmatization from coming forward. That’s why sharing information about our complex emotional and physiological reactions to assault, or providing someone who can answer questions about their own experience with sex after trauma, can be life-changing.
We’ve been culturally trained to be silent in the face of these experiences, to only accept prescribed narratives about what does or doesn’t constitute trauma or assault. But just as everyone’s experience is different, everyone’s reaction to is also different. In order to move forward — whether that means reporting, recovering, or both — we need multidimensional spaces where we can have these discussions openly, safely, and communally. At O.school, we’ve devoted an entire channel to “Sex After,” where survivors can engage with issues surrounding assault and trauma.
While I’m heartened to see greater awareness of sexual assault finally capturing the attention of the media, many of us are already far too aware. Let’s focus on raising awareness of assault, certainly, but also on the tools there are to report it, the resources for those processing it, and the communities that can help us recover from it.