All over the United States, there are people hard at work to end sexual assault and rape. We work full-time or part-time. Sometimes we volunteer. We go to hospitals to be with survivors at midnight after an assault. We are there beside victims as they talk to the police. We are the counselors and group leaders who support trauma survivors as they recall grueling memories. We are the educators who work with teens and the schools to stop rape and harassment on campus. We advocate to local, state, and federal government officials to make our society more just. We visit jails and prisons when someone is victimized while incarcerated. We hear heartbreak. We see tears, courage, and strength.
We listen. We believe. We are there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
All over the United States, there are people working to end sexual violence. And once a year the people who support sexual assault victims get the chance to come together in one place. We learn and exchange wisdom and ideas; we support each other. We challenge one another to reach further, create change sooner, and spread sexual assault awareness wider.
This year, it was hosted by the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA) in Los Angeles, California. I and a couple coworkers from Tri-Valley Haven’s Rape Crisis Center were fortunate enough to be able to attend the event. The theme was “Inspired by Progress, United by Purpose.”
We were definitely both.
I am sure that anyone who attended the conference would have many stories to tell about what they learned. I am only one person, so I will just talk about what I experienced. And what I experienced was… WOW!
I met the most amazing people at the conference…and amazing barely covers it. Participants included survivors who have become teachers and healers in the movement; people who have been fighting the anti-sexual violence fight for their entire professional lives, and people who have just begun; people who work with survivors individually and people who carry on the anti-rape movement to the White House itself. There were young people, lighting the sky on fire with their passion and their vision, and older people who have contributed to decades of change and know there are still mountains to overcome.
The most wonderful part, for me, of going to the conference was that it embodies the same affirmation that means so much to survivors of violence themselves: You are not alone. For those of us working in the Rape Crisis Movement across the country, our world can seem very small sometimes. We work in cities or suburbs or rural communities. We know everybody in the field near us and rely on them for connection and support. To step into a greater fellowship of human beings all working together to make the world a better, safer, and more just place is just plain moving; humbling.
We had a number of topics this year: building safer college and campus communities, fighting back against rape culture, educating our young men and women to bring change now that will echo for years to come.
Another spotlight was put on ending sexual violence in the military. A recent study shows that sexual violence in the military is far higher than previously reported (new data released by the U.S. Defense Department). Collaborations between rape crisis experts and the military to address sexual violence are so very important. Our soldiers in active service and our veterans both deserve better.
At the conference, I concentrated on the Prison Rape Elimination Act “PREA track”. This training dealt with stopping rape and sexual assault in detention – for example, jail or prison, juvenile detention or an immigration facility.
I have spent the past two years working as a Tri-Valley Haven Sexual Assault Advocate and Crisis Counselor, responding to our local county jail when an inmate calls and requests support after an assault. I am glad to say that the jail staff has been universally welcoming to me, good partners with the Haven, and committed to making their jail safer. Even so, responding to the jail carries with it an emotional weight. I felt that I had already heard some arduous stories. With that being said, the stories I heard from survivors at NSAC stayed with me at night.
Sometimes, society seems to think that anything that happens to a person who is behind the walls of a jail or prison is deserved – they broke the law; they’re getting what is coming to them. Here is a truth: Rape is never part of the sentence. Allowing rape to happen to the people we put in detention, turning a blind eye to it, condoning it in society through jokes…does not make our country safer, quite the opposite. It adds trauma on top of trauma, and ultimately makes us all lesser.
Roxane Gay summarizes what many people feel about victims of sexual assault in her piece, Bad Victims. “People who have been sexually assaulted know there are good victims and bad victims. Good victims, of course, do not exist but they are an elaborate ideal. They are assaulted in a dark alley by an unknown criminal who has a knife or a gun. They are modestly dressed. They report their assault immediately to law enforcement and submit, willingly, to a rape exam. They answer all questions about their assault lucidly and completely as many times as is necessary. They are adequately prepared for trial. They don’t pester the prosecutor as he or she prepares for trial. When they testify, they are modestly dressed. They are the girl next door. They deserve justice because they are so righteous in their victimhood.”
“Good victims” are never prostitutes. They are never men. They are never gay or transgender. They are never drug addicts. They are never mentally ill. Those are all “bad victims.” The worst victim of them all? Someone who is already in detention.
But when it comes right down to it, we are all human beings with flaws and mistakes and dark sides. None of us is perfect. None of us is a “perfect victim.” And nobody, NOBODY, deserves to be raped or sexually assaulted. Not even someone in prison.
It was good to meet other people who believe that.
It was inspiring to be at the conference with many people who are passionate about this intersection between the world of detention and the world of advocacy. It was also inspiring to see how many of us were at different levels of this journey, from the pioneers, to those who have gotten their toes wet for a few years but are still just beginning, to the people who wish to help and to learn how to do so… and whose journey is about to unfold.
The takeaway for me was that there is no such thing as a perfect survivor of rape. All human beings deserve to live in a world where there is zero tolerance for sexual assault – out on the street, or in a jail or a prison or in an I.C.E. (immigration holding facility). What we do as advocates is to connect with the strength and humanity of every survivor. We remind them of their own assets. We validate that they did not deserve what has been done to them. This is a fact, regardless if we spoke to a victim at our office, in our shelter, at a hospital… or from behind bars.
CALCASA’s National Sexual Assault Conference reminded me that there is a greater community of people working to end sexual assault; my work going into the jail to support survivors reminds me that there is an even greater community than that…the community of humanity itself.
Together, we build a world without violence.