April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. As part of SAAM, we want to engage in the conversation around sexual assault and encourage others to speak out. Today’s guest blog is from Steven Sorensen and his experience being an ally for sexual assault survivors with It’s On Us.
Trigger Warning: This post contains descriptions of sexual assault. If you are in immediate danger, please call 911. Please call 800-656-4673 if you would like to speak with the National Sexual Assault Hotline or connect with their online hotline here.
A couple of years ago, while I was in college, at about midnight, I got a call from a friend who I hadn’t spoken to in quite some time. Looking down at the screen of my phone, my eyes lit up with excitement about reconnecting, and, of course, I answered. “Hello?” On the other end of the line, I could barely make out a returned “Hello” from between sobs and heavy breathing. Immediately, I knew something was very wrong. My friend told me that she had just come to, made her way home, and believed she had been sexually assaulted.
Concerned for her well-being, I started questioning her, asking her if she knew who the attacker was or could recall anything from the incident. She responded that she couldn’t, and that she felt terrible and just wanted to take a shower and go to bed. I didn’t pause for a second before encouraging her to do just that.
I grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado, where we have a very robust center called the Sexual Assault Victim Advocacy Center (SAVA) that offers counseling for victims of sexual assault, performs outreach to the community to promote awareness of this type of violence and educates citizens on how to prevent sexual violence and how to respond when someone confides in you that they have been assaulted. In both middle and high school, I received peer-to-peer training on these issues so that, as a student, I could be better prepared to confront this type of violence should I ever encounter it.
One of the first lessons they teach is that when someone is victimized by sexual violence, the last thing you should encourage them to do is take a shower.
On that night a few years ago, on the phone with my friend, why didn’t I remember that cardinal rule?
Why did I give bad advice that potentially destroyed evidence that could have led to the perpetrator’s arrest and conviction?
While there isn’t a single answer to these questions, I believe that, at least in part, it was because I wasn’t engaged in any kind of community that actively reminded me of what to do in a situation like this. It had been years since my high school sexual assault training, and I forgot what to do.
Now, I don’t bring this up to make excuses, but rather to illustrate the importance of being involved – of finding that community that reminds the people who make it up of the proper course of action so that we’re always ready to respond, and respond correctly.
The It’s On Us Campaign was launched in 2014 with the rallying cry that It’s On each of Us to look out for those who can’t consent, to prevent sexual assault, and to know how to respond when you are made aware of sexual violence.
Originally geared toward college students, It’s On Us reminds individuals to take care of the community around them, to be vigilant, and to hold yourself and those around you accountable in daily life, and, most importantly, to create an environment where sexual assault is never acceptable.
Since 2014, the scope of the campaign has grown tremendously, and according to the It’s On Us Website, over 483 schools in 48 states have hosted 1,100 It’s On Us events, designed to promote this message.
When I became aware of this campaign, about a year after the midnight phone call from my friend, I knew it was the community I was looking for. I knew that I would hope that anyone who faced a situation like I did, during that call, as an ally, and even as a victim, would be a part of the It’s On Us Community. And I found that when I tried to get involved, the community welcomed me with open arms and encouraged me to do whatever I could to be an ally.
Over the last two years, Fort Collins, Colorado, has been one of the national leaders in embracing and expanding the It’s On Us Message. In coordination with the national campaign, our city has broadened the focus of It’s On Us from schools to the population at large, creating a tremendous interconnected web of support and accountability. When I reflect on this, I can’t help but think about the importance of ensuring that people of all ages are always aware of the unacceptable nature of sexual assault, of knowing that no means no, and only a verbal yes means consent. I think about how just the knowledge that the It’s On Us Campaign exists allows individuals to know that there is a place to turn if they need help, guidance, or a community of support. And I get chills thinking that all of this change came about in just a few short years.
At the beginning of this month, Fort Collins was the host of the first ever It’s On Us Colorado Summit – a daylong conference that brought together community members and stakeholders from around our state to discuss sexual violence, and how to eradicate it and promote behavior and environments that have zero tolerance for assaults or violence of any kind. I would wager that anyone who attended that summit left with a better understanding of prevention methods, a better education on how to be an ally, and a renewed commitment to get and stay involved, in any way.
You, the reader, can get involved too. In fact, I challenge you to learn more about It’s On Us and to take the It’s On Us Pledge.
Only 13% of rape victims report assault.
If we can bind together as a community and commit to being more knowledgeable about sexual assault prevention and victim advocacy, I believe we can put a stop to these heinous crimes. Look at how much the culture has already changed since 2014. You can make a difference. I invite each of you to get involved with your city and use Fort Collins as an example to radically grow the movement and change the culture around sexual violence.
I’ll simply end with the It’s On Us Pledge, which I hope you will read and commit to, and I encourage you to dive in and learn more at www.itsonus.org.
To RECOGNIZE that non-consensual sex is sexual assault.
To IDENTIFY situations in which sexual assault may occur.
To INTERVENE in situations where consent has not or cannot be given.
To CREATE an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported.