Listen. Believe. Support. How to talk about sexual violence

NAIT encourages conversations about an unfortunately timely topic

Talking about sexual violence is difficult. It’s a sensitive topic – not everyone knows what to say, do or how to act.

The pandemic, however, has added even greater importance to that openeness and understanding. During the early stages of the onset of COVID-19 in Canada, demands placed on resources offering assistance to women experiencing domestic violence spiked. Indeed, Statistics Canada found that one in 10 women had concerns about their safety at home.

NAIT is encouraging conversations and urging people to take a stand against sexual violence during, and beyond, the White Ribbon campaign, which challenges outdated concepts of masculinity and gender inequality. The campaign ends with the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women on Dec. 6.

“This is an opportunity for members of the NAIT community to take a stand and demonstrate how they are going to end sexual violence,” says Tim Ira, diversity and inclusion coordinator at the polytechnic.

Understanding sexual violence

If someone were to open up about sexual violence to you, would you know what to say? Talking about it requires a basic understanding of what the term means, which Ira says many people lack. It refers to any physical or psychological act done through sexual means or that targets someone’s sexual identity.

“It's all about impact versus intent.”

“It ranges from rape and assault to forms of harassment such as catcalling or unwanted touch, to comments and jokes made about someone's appearance,” he says. “It's all about impact versus intent.”

The impact of sexual violence can be as wide-ranging as the meaning of the term itself.

“Some people use this spectrum almost like a hierarchy of how bad a person has it,” says Alycia Chung, a NAIT counsellor with a specialty in trauma and sexual violence.

“People will say, ‘This happened to me, but it wasn't rape.’ The exact same thing can happen to different people and have drastically different effects. Some people may not be fazed by it, and other people are extremely damaged.”

Talking about it

“It’s a big deal to disclose sexual violence,” says Chung, who has worked with all ages and genders of victims in her work at the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, as well as at the University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre and now at NAIT.

“A lot of people don't come forward … because they’re fearful they will be disbelieved or judged.”

“A lot of people don't come forward in the first place because they’re fearful they will be disbelieved or judged based on what they're saying.”

In 2014, there were 22 self-reported incidents of sexual assault for every 1,000 Canadians aged 15 and older. While sexual violence can happen to anyone, women, single, Indigenous, young, and homosexual or bisexual people are at greater risk of sexual assault, as are those with mental health issues.

Movements like #MeToo and the White Ribbon campaign, have brought more awareness and conversation around sexual violence, says Chung. Following #MeToo, there were more police-reported sexual assaults in 2017 than in any other year since 1998.

“The more that we bring it to the forefront, it takes the shame away from the survivor or victim and puts it on the overall culture or the perpetrator,” Chung says.

Listen and believe

“If someone feels they’ve experienced sexual violence, then they have,” Ira says.

“Reinforce that it’s not their fault. They in no way invited assault to happen.”

The first step is to believe them, says Ira, and listen non-judgmentally. “Reinforce that it’s not their fault. They in no way invited assault to happen.”

Chung says that you could add “something like, ‘I'm really sorry this happened to you,’ and, ‘This is something that they could have never asked for and they don't deserve.’”

It’s important to let the person know they’ve been heard, Chung says. It can help them feel safe and pave the way for more sharing, which is healthy.

Offer help and support

Ask how you can help and explore ways to seek help from others, such as a parent, partner or through resources at NAIT (see sidebar below) or in the community, including the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton. You’re there to offer support, but ultimately all decisions about what comes next are up to the survivor.

“Sexual violence is a process of one’s power and control being taken away,” says Chung. “We don’t want to run someone’s life because that’s only further upsetting the power dynamic.” Keep reinforcing that you believe them, that the violence wasn’t their fault, and that there are options for help.

While it’s positive that people are becoming more comfortable talking about sexual violence, Chung says the frequent media exposure on the subject can be a trigger for those who have experienced it.

“They may be at a different stage in their healing journey or maybe not wanting to deal with it at this point in time and it's activating a lot of stuff,” she says. Be aware that not everyone will have the same comfort level when discussing sexual violence and campaigns like #MeToo.

Creating change

NAIT consent pledge bannerWhile recent social movements have led to an increase in victims coming forward, Ira says an even larger cultural shift needs to occur to stop sexual violence from happening. Post-secondaries are leading the way by approving sexual violence prevention policies. NAIT implemented its policy and procedures in 2017 to foster a positive environment in which people feel safe and comfortable disclosing their experience.

But change on a broader scale still needs to happen.

“A no can take the form of someone saying they're tired or someone saying, ‘Ugh, you're weird.’ It's seldomly a clear no.”

“We need to build a culture of consent and parity,” Ira  says. “To build a culture where no one feels entitled to sex.” It’s imperative to communicate clearly. “No means no,” he says, but “no” can come in many different forms.

“A no can take the form of someone saying they're tired or someone saying, ‘Ugh, you're weird,’” says Ira. “It's seldomly a clear no. We want both people or multiple parties to be enthusiastic about the activity.”

The more people who know what sexual violence is and how they can stop it and support victims, the better, says Chung.

“That can be really empowering,” she says. “I've seen the damage that can be caused by [sexual violence] and holding onto a secret. There’s so much freedom to move forward.”

Ira says change is possible, and initiatives like the White Ribbon campaign and NAIT’s healthy relationships week in February can help move in that positive direction.

“These are important conversations to have because we need to normalize this,” he says. “We need to end the stigma around sexual violence and the disclosure of sexual violence.”

Finding support at NAIT

If a survivor wants to disclose an incident of sexual violence, there are several resources and  people they can turn to at NAIT, regardless of where the incident occurred, such as:

“We have a team within student services and an academic leadership team who has been informed and trained on how to receive disclosures of sexual violence,” says Ira.
At NAIT, everything is survivor driven, he says. The institution won’t notify police, instructors, protective services or anyone else unless that’s what the survivor wants.

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