Before individuals who have been affected by sexual violence will be given a solid chance to heal and before future trauma will be effectively prevented, the stigma that looms over the entire issue must first be conquered. What is needed is for people to support the cause, to speak out about it, and to be activists. Talking about any form of sexual violence is difficult. Perhaps, on some level, we believe if we do not talk about it, it does not exist. Or, perhaps the fact that many cases of these experiences often involve people who are close to the survivors creates an aversion to discussing it. Whatever the reason for our avoidance, in order to stop it, we need to talk about it. We need to allow our friends, coworkers, and relatives to openly discuss the trauma, rather than allowing them to carry the pain in silence. We also need to demand accountability from institutions we trust to protect our children, family and friends, not abuse them.
The secrecy that surrounds sexual violence contributes to the inability of victims to move on and to realize they were not at fault. To be able to move from victim to survivor, someone who has suffered such violence has to understand the trauma, process it, and turn it into a memory.
For victims, however, the trauma lives on as if it were happening in the here and now. This often entails flashbacks, sometimes the inability to have healthy sexual relations, and a deep sense of being damaged. Worse, the silence often meeting those victims who do come forward can break an already-wounded human. But they don’t only meet silence when they have the courage to come forward, do they? Oftentimes, they’re seen as tainted and damaged goods, they’re referred to as perpetually depressed and unable to positively function in the larger society, they’re seen as mentally ill and as timed-bombs which could go off at any minute. So sure, they’re brave and strong and all, but you don’t want them marrying your sons and daughters, teaching at school, in some cases a part of your religious gatherings, etc.
I want to urge all of us to become agents of change. As a society, we need to be more aware of the extent of sexual violence and demand that religious institutions, schools, corporate organisations, etc., are held accountable when it comes to protecting the victims and reporting any form of sexual violence. Protecting the victims doesn’t only end in keeping them safe from harm, it is also important to protect their dignity by protecting their privacy, speaking about a survivor’s experience with respect and seeking permission before using their stories as reference. We can all effect change in the various institutions by starting with critical self-reflection—drawing connections between individual acts of sexual violence and systemic forms of oppression. By analyzing how patriarchy and strict gender roles contribute in a systemic way to these incidents, we can begin conversations that envision egalitarian, non-exploitative relationships.
Removing the stigma of sexual violence is the beginning of the healing process. Another step is to shift our perception of the survivors. The trauma is not within the norm of experience that they’re prepared to easily cope with. So instead of looking at behaviors that might emerge as “pathological,” there needs to be an appreciation of the coping mechanisms that survivors have managed to scrape together. The shame that survivors feel is a barrier to getting help. It is not made any easier when behavioral consequences of the trauma are labelled as “abnormal.” There is no “normal” way to respond to such a violation.
It is up to all of us to end all forms sexual violence. Whether you encourage your friends to talk about it or you decide to go to therapy with them, join a support group, support legislation calling for more accountability, or speak up in your religious community, workplace and schools, always remember: Change starts at home.