To transform stigma, we have to understand that stigma starts with shame. Shame leads to silence. Silence leads to self-destructive behaviour, self-sabotage and suicide. The process repeats and it becomes an endless, downward spiral.
Change strategies for public stigma have been grouped into three approaches: protest, education, and contact. When advocates protest inaccurate and hostile representations of sexual violence as a way to challenge the stigmas they represent, these efforts send two messages:
- To the media: STOP reporting inaccurate representations of sexual violence.
- To the public: STOP believing negative views about sexual violence.
While protest attempts to diminish negative attitudes about sexual violence, it is largely a reactive strategy, because it fails to promote more positive attitudes that are supported by facts. Education on the other hand, provides information so that the public can make more informed decisions about sexual violence. This approach to changing stigma has better results than protests because people who demonstrate a better understanding of sexual violence are less likely to endorse stigma and discrimination. Therefore, the strategic provision of information about sexual violence seems to lessen negative stereotypes. Several studies have shown that participation in education programs on sexual violence led to improved attitudes toward survivors. Education programs are effective for a wide variety of participants, including college undergraduates, graduate students, adolescents, community residents, and survivors themselves.
Stigma is further diminished when members of the general public encounter survivors who are leading productive lives in the society. Opportunities for the public to meet with survivors may discount stigma. Interpersonal contact is further enhanced when the public is able to regularly interact with survivors as peers.
What You Can Do To Challenge Stigma?
Every one of us has the ability to help reduce stigma and encourage compassion and tolerance. We can support survivors through recovery and healing by reducing judgement and victim-blaming. Simple ways to help include:
- Creating community of support for sexual assault survivors, which fosters empathy, encourages advocacy, and is conscious of individual potential to positively impact the community.
- Interpreting cultural messages and systems that condone and perpetuate sexual violence.
- Learning and sharing facts about sexual violence and the affecting trauma.
- Getting to know people with personal experiences of sexual trauma.
- Speaking up in protest when friends, family, colleagues, or the media display false beliefs and negative stereotypes.
- Offering the same support to other people, regardless of whether they’re survivors or non-survivors, with a physical illness or a mental illness.
- Not labeling or judging people with depression and other effects of sexual trauma, and treating them with respect and dignity, as you would anyone else.
- Talking openly of your own experience of sexual violence. The more hidden sexual violence remains, the more people continue to believe that it is shameful and needs to be concealed.
- Recognizing and intervening in different forms of sexual assault.
For the Survivor
- You transform shame through embracing the confusion while taking care of yourself.
- You transform silence through keeping the subject of sexual violence in everyday conversation (and in your community)
- You transform self-destructive behaviour, self-sabotage, especially suicidal behaviour through consistently looking for teachable moments to help others.