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Working Towards a Culture of Care and Support Within Your Community
As we embark on a new year bright-eyed and eager to get rolling on our resolutions, we may not even know where to begin. Although our minds may be spinning with goals of self-improvement, we can alternatively channel this energy into our own community and spark change at an even greater level.
As university students, we are confronted with various situations which can expose us to and put us at risk of sexual violence, an issue seen in many colleges and universities- including our own. Sexual violence is perpetuated through societal and cultural norms, thus demanding a need for community-based solutions. While it may seem unclear or daunting to involve oneself in preventing or responding to sexual violence, there are numerous ways in which we can venture to create what’s called a culture of care or a ‘community of responsibility’.
By choosing to become a part of a community of responsibility, we agree to look out for one another and provide support, in whatever form that may take. As this expands and takes form, like-minded individuals can band together and share in creating a safer environment. We can all play an active role in eliminating potentially unsafe situations by educating ourselves and others as well as providing support to those who have been impacted.
On this note, you may be wondering what action would look like when responding to a disclosure of sexual violence. While no one route or approach exists due to the diverse nature of sexual violence and how it impacts people differently, the following tips and approaches can help assist and empower the person who has chosen to tell you their story.
At the SVSPO we use the term survivor to name someone who has experienced sexual violence, but it is important to note that people may choose to use the term victim, or no term at all. And that is the choice of the person who has experienced sexual violence. Oftentimes, survivors may feel isolated and disconnected from others, thus requiring the need to bring ourselves to see the situation from their own eyes to relate on a deeper level. An exercise which you may or may not be familiar with is active listening, wherein we are fully present and engaged in trying to understand what is being communicated to us, rather than simply hearing what is being said. Active listening looks something like this:
Take a seat back for a while and give the person as much time as they need to share. By listening intently and conveying to the person that they have your attention you can establish a sense of trust. This is incredibly valuable when interacting with a survivor of sexual violence as their ability to trust others may have been diminished as a result of their experience. Try to listen from their perspective and do not press for further details beyond their comfort level.
Check Your Biases
The subject of sexual violence is often misunderstood and misconstrued due to the ways in which our society continues to perpetuate rape culture. We are constantly exposed to ideas and attitudes which normalize or trivialize sexual violence, thus contributing to biases we may develop unknowingly. A common error that can lead to broken communication is allowing our own biases and opinions to skew our interpretation of what we are being told. Conscious self-reflection is required in order to communicate openly and without judgment. This is of utmost importance when faced with a disclosure of sexual violence as it is a highly sensitive matter which requires a compassionate response.
Reflect with Empathy
After having heard their story the best response is that which most reflects what they conveyed to you in your own words. A particularly effective response ties in a descriptor which adequately matches the tone and emotion the person is communicating to you with. For instance, a reflective statement may look something like this: “I can hear how devastating this may have been for you, especially after having trusted them so much”. Simple empathic responses can also hold a great deal of power, examples of this could be: “Thank you so much for sharing this with me” or “I can’t even imagine what that was like for you but I am so glad you tole me.” If a survivor chooses to share their experience with you, express your appreciation for their confidence in you as a support and acknowledge their strength for having come forward.
Use Open-Ended Questions
It is important not to press survivors for details. You do not need to know more they want to share. If you do ask questions to access what they might need and how you can support them, ask open-ended questions. This could include “can you help me understand better how I can help you” to iron out details which may need clarifying.
It is often incredibly difficult for a survivor to confide in someone. This is why it is so important to let them know that they have worth, that they deserve to be heard and that whatever they feel is entirely valid as a result of their experience. Validate however they are feeling and also whatever they are doing to cope with what they have experienced- it is not your place to judge them.
Provide Further Resources
After an individual has confided in you the most empowering approach is to ask the survivor what they feel most comfortable with in regard to seeking help. Depending on their response, you can choose to provide further support in the form of accompaniment or to connect them with campus resources. The Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office is a great place to start where you can receive free and confidential support, advice, and safety planning. Remember that it is a survivor’s personal decision as to whether or not they wish to take further action and that the most supportive thing you can do is empower them by equipping them with appropriate resources, either on or off campus.
By choosing to engage as an active listener and provide support you have already taken on a significant role in working towards creating a culture of care which can be stressful and overwhelming in its own way. Ensure that you have someone to de-compress with whether it be in the form of peers, family, professional or community support. The SVSPO is also a resource which is there for you to de-brief with and consult after having received a disclosure confidentially. Letting someone know that you have been helping a survivor of sexual violence can be relieving and allow for you to acknowledge some of your own discomforts, triggers and barriers to communication which may have come up through this experience. We all tend to ourselves in very different ways and restoring ourselves back to a healthy balance is important as wel
Taking on an active role in working towards developing a shared ethos of community responsibility, care and support is a rewarding experience which just may be one of the ways you can start the year off in a meaningful way.
About the author: Sarah Negrin is an undergraduate student in the Department of Criminology and is a member of the Active Bystander Network through the Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office (SVSPO). Her work as a crisis-line call-taker has equipped her with first-hand knowledge and experience of existing issues and societal inequities across the Lower Mainland.