By Juliette Grimmett, See the Triumph Guest Blogger
Founder, Chrysalis Network
I cannot recall a Thanksgiving dinner that did not include me starting up a discussion about sexism and gender-based violence (GBV). There have been times where I facilitated activities on my parents kitchen chalkboard about how the use of problematic words like “bitch” and the pervasive, all-encompassing term “guys,” are dismissive of women and contributes to rape culture. I’ve explained that my partner and I encouraging our two young boys to wear whatever makes them happy, even if it is glittery shoes or pink-heart leggings, is a form of sexual violence prevention. And I’ve talked about how we must change our narrative surrounding GBV to focus on the perpetrator and not the survivor, such as shifting the question from “Why did s/he stay?” to “Why did s/he abuse her/him?” My beautiful and open-minded family listens, interacts respectfully, and often expresses gratitude for these talks.
We all have different roles within our family and circle of friends. One of mine is to start conversations about challenging and uncomfortable issues, particularly with the people I know who do not do this work. I am mostly happy to have this role, though at times the pressure to start the conversations can be overwhelming. I wish that my daily conversations and thoughts about women’s safety and gender equality were also their norm.
Over the past two years, as a result of pervasive media attention focused on sexual and dating violence, particularly on college campuses, I have felt a remarkable shift among my loved ones. They have tweeted and posted relevant articles on Facebook, referenced actual cases in our discussions, and my 75 year-old uncle called to tell me about the front-page article of the NY Times on campus sexual assault. People in my life are now creating space for these conversations, along with public figures like Diane Rehm from National Public Radio, John Stewart from the Daily Show, Brian Williams from NBC Nightly News, and perhaps most importantly, Vice-President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama.
Of course GBV on college campuses is nothing new. My story of rape from almost 20 years ago is no different than the ones we hear about today. Further, countless women, people of color and members of LGBTQI communities have been talking about this violence for decades, demanding action and accountability. While those of us doing this work are frustrated with how long it has taken to get to this meaningful national dialogue, we are equally inspired that this shift has occurred within our lifetime. I think of how different the aftermath of my assault would have been if it happened today. Survivors voices are beginning to be respected and perpetrator accountability means suspension or expulsion, not social probation as it was in my case.
Almost all of us have heard at least one story from the courageous survivors throughout the country who are holding their institutions of higher education accountable for mishandling their sexual assault, specifically as violations of Title IX. The White House (the White House!!) has launched a national campaign Not Alone that provides resource information on how to respond to and prevent sexual assault on college and university campuses and in our schools. We are also learning about the long-awaited Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (Campus SaVE) signed into law in March 2013 as part of the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization. Campus SaVE, designed as a companion to Title IX, was developed to increase transparency about the scope of sexual violence, guarantee survivors enhanced rights, provide standards for institutional conduct proceedings, and provide campus community wide prevention educational programming. Dating and domestic violence and stalking are clearly identified as components of sexual violence in Campus SaVE, which had been unclear in Title IX. Additionally, Campus SaVE currently defines primary prevention programs as: “programming, initiatives, and strategies informed by research that are intended to stop dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking before they occur through the promotion of positive and healthy behaviors and beliefs that foster healthy, mutually respectful relationships and sexuality, encourage safe bystander intervention, and seek to change behavior and social norms in healthy and safe directions.”
Primary prevention of sexual violence requires us to fundamentally change the responsibility narrative from survivor behavior to perpetrator and community accountability. Consider the different message that is conveyed in headlines that read “18 year-old college student was raped” compared to “18 year-old college student committed rape.” When the norm changes to make violent behavior and perpetrator accountability the subjects of the discussion, we move forward in ending rape culture. I hope that primary prevention messages will shift our conversations away from casual victim-blaming interrogations of “What was she thinking wearing that?” “Why didn’t she use her pepper spray?” “Why didn’t she watch her drink?” and the soon to be, “She should have used that rape-drug detecting nail polish.” The new survivor supportive and community engaged norm would ask questions that advance positive cultural change such as “Why did that person choose to rape?” “Why do men feel entitled to degrade and abuse women’s bodies?” “How can we redefine masculinity to include love, respect and empathy?” “How can we stop perpetrators from perpetrating?”
The present national dialogue and related possibilities are unprecedented. It helps to change how our culture understands GBV. I believe it would be hard to find a first-year college student who has not heard something about campus sexual assault before coming to college this year. In addition, Campus SaVE requires that campuses educate incoming students on sexual violence prevention strategies, resources, policies (including a definition of consent), and laws. If done correctly, a campus culture is fostered in which survivors are supported, resources for help are clear, and the message of accountability is strong. With institutional structures in place, campus spaces are created in which survivors feel they will be believed and supported and may be more likely to report the abuse they experience. Presently, there is an active national community of campus survivors committed to holding campuses accountable. One tool developed by these activists is the website Know Your IX, a campaign that aims to educate all college students in the U.S. about their rights under Title IX. As survivor Annie Clark shared at a May 2013 press conference, “victims of sexual violence have reached a critical mass where we can no longer be ignored.”
While I am excited about the current climate, I remain guarded. We can require campuses to do all sorts of things, however the real test of success will be when value statements and institutional policies are aligned. Certain questions of commitment, adaptability, and sustainability remain. Will resources for survivors be safe for our LGBTQI community members, male survivors, and people of color? Will encouragement to report incidents be matched with a sensitive and understanding responder? Will the campus do the bare minimum or will they invest significant resources into effective, accessible and comprehensive prevention and response programs? Still, I remain encouraged as I know change has come because my uncle called me. I know change has come because of all the “likes” on my Facebook posts about these issues. I know change has come because this year, on my birthday, I heard this: “Perhaps most important, we need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted; you are not alone. We have your back. I’ve got your back.” - Barack Obama, January 22, 2014
You are not alone. You are believed. It is not your fault. Tell someone.
Juliette has over nineteen years of professional experience working with communities, schools, and college and university campuses. During this time she has provided education and training to students, faculty, and staff on issues concerning sexual and dating violence prevention, advocacy, policy, and activism. Her past 10 years have focused on creating and implementing violence prevention and response programs on various college campuses including the University of South Carolina, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and most recently, NC State University where she was the Assistant Director of the Women’s Center. She served two terms on the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s Board of Directors as the Campus Representative, and chaired the Legislative and Development Committees. She currently serves as an appointed member of the NC Sexual Violence Prevention Team as well as the Domestic Violence Prevention Enhancements and Leadership through Alliances (DELTA) team. Juliette grew up in Newton, Massachusetts and France, loves the Boston Red Sox, feminism, and being an activist. Most of all, she adores spending time with her two young sons Harper and Sky and her partner, Marc who teaches her to always lead with love.