The Importance of Sexual Assault Education (or: A Love Letter to the Bystander Initiative)

*Trigger warning this post discusses the author’s sexual assault. Please practice self-care and visit our Resources page as needed.

In the last 12 months I’ve had more conversations about sexual assault than I’ve ever had in my entire life. Educational conversations during Bystander Initiative sessions, emotional conversations with friends in kitchens, intellectual conversations with fellow students at bars, you name it. And even though these conversations have been difficult and awkward, for the first time in my life they are possible.

I’m also a survivor of sexual violence. My rape was a textbook case. I knew the guy well; he was my boyfriend’s roommate. I was between the ages of 18 and 22. We were under the influence of alcohol and other drugs.

After it happened, I was too ashamed to tell my boyfriend. I just stopped talking to him. When I did tell some of my “friends,” they accused me of cheating on my boyfriend and lying about the rape to cover it up. This response made me not want to tell my real friends. It would be too much if they also didn’t believe me. I stayed silent.

I blamed myself: I shouldn’t have been so drunk. Did it even happen? I drank more often. I did even more drugs. I was promiscuous, just to feel in control over the sex I had. My grades suffered. I lied about my grades. I lied about being ok. I didn’t tell anyone else. As time passed, I began to feel better. I felt fine, even. My grades improved. I graduated. I got a job, a steady relationship; everything was ok. But I still didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t have the words.

More than not telling anyone about my own rape, I couldn’t talk about sexual assault in general. I had trouble sitting through lectures about sexual assault prevention, the prevalence of sexual assault, or the problem with the way defence attorneys treated complainants. I was angry about what happened to me and that it was happening to other people. I was angry with myself for not coming forward. I was jealous of those that were able to disclose their own experiences. Most importantly, I didn’t have an understanding of sexual assault as a systemic issue, and I didn’t have the vocabulary to discuss it without having a complete breakdown.

I wanted to be part of the extended Bystander Initiative training so that I could get used to talking about sexual assault without cringing. As a wannabe facilitator, I went through training with the program director, Dr. Dusty Johnstone. In the trainings, she spoke about sexual assault with a knowledge and kindness that I’d never experienced before.

Instead of being silent and frustrated about sexual assault, I learned to let go of my anger, and I learned to talk about it in an informed and productive way. I learned about social science theories that explained the prevalence of sexual assault in our communities. I learned that we believe rape myths and play into hyper-masculinity, not because we are bad people, but because that is what we are taught implicitly and explicitly for pretty much our whole lives. I learned that our realities are constructed by bogus theories held by whoever or whatever educates us (parents, teachers, books, magazines, etc.) and that, thankfully there are people who do the work of uncovering the reality of our experiences with rape culture. Most importantly, I learned to approach conversations about rape from a place of compassion, instead of a place of anger.

There is no denying that sexual assault is a community problem, especially on university campuses. The systemic change that is required to end rape culture will not be achieved through a single information session during Orientation Week, but through open and honest conversations. These conversations will be in private, in public, with politicians, with university administration, with our friends, with our families, with our communities.

I am forever grateful for the opportunity to participate in the Bystander initiative, and to learn from Dr. Johnstone. Robust, multifaceted, educational programs like the Bystander Initiative teach us that casual conversations about sexual assault are necessary, and give us the tools to have these conversations in a productive, respectful, compassionate way.





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