Are you an advocate too? How to support victims and survivors

Like many others, I came to my work in student affairs with a deep commitment to social justice and an even deeper desire to see the students that I advise meet their full potential. I was absolutely prepared to help students navigate the issues of intersecting identities and structural inequalities that threatened their success. Yet, even despite my personal connections with violence and understanding its affects upon individuals, families and communities, the impact of those issues on the people that I worked with everyday had somehow escaped me. I didn’t fully appreciate the overwhelming silence that society nurtures around these issues.

I took in stories of violence as told in offhand remarks, irreverent jokes, random testimonials and, with growing frequency, tearful personal accounts from students and colleagues of how violence had impacted their lives. Academic struggles, leaves of absence, over-involvement, social isolation, depression, eating disorders, suicide attempts – more often than not, experiences with interpersonal violence were intertwined in the root of these troubles. How could I not take up violence prevention as a part of my work in higher education?

The reality is that sexual violence is too pervasive in our world. We can talk statistics. “1 in 4 women will be victims of rape or attempted rape in college.  1 in 6 boys will be victims of sexual abuse before the age of 18.  80% of victims never report to the police. 30% of survivors contemplate suicide.” But these are not just numbers. These are people. People whose lives have been forever changed by violence. This is the impetus for our movement. People.

I feel incredibly fortunate to be at Swarthmore at this time. We have been given an amazing opportunity to step up as a collective and take this epidemic head-on. It is an opportunity for us to live out the college’s mission “to make its students more valuable human beings and more useful members of society. [And help them] realize their full intellectual and personal potential combined with a deep sense of ethical and social concern.” I ask you to think about where you stand in this movement. Policies do not change culture. People do. What are you doing to be a part of that culture change? What do you do in the moment that you come face to face with the reality of the pain and damage caused by sexual and domestic violence? Surely your response won’t be to recite Title IX or talk about interim policies and recommendations. As an advocate, I offer three tips on what you can do as well.

Speak up, step up.  Bystander intervention is the new buzz term.  Everyone is poised to do their part to disrupt violence. The concept is not new or foreign. People do intervene. However, they do not intervene when they are unclear about the issues, uneducated and lack confidence about how to respond or simply don’t see the problem. This starts with educating ourselves.  Seek to understand the dynamics of an issue, challenge our own deep seated misperceptions about what sexual and domestic violence looks like, how victims should respond and who perpetrates these violations. By showing a thoughtful commitment to ending violence, you create safe space for people to seek support. You model for others ways to be proactive. You are taking a step towards shattering the silence that leaves so many suffering alone or without support.

Validate. Don’t minimize, don’t rationalize, don’t excuse. “I can’t believe…” “It could have been worse…” “I don’t think they meant to….” Victims of violence often suffer in silence as they try to make sense of their experience. Often times they have to deconstruct their own victim-blaming narratives to feel safe enough to disclose their experience. Unless you are an investigator, your role is not to do fact finding or make a determination as to the nature and validity of the disclosure. Your role is to support someone who has experienced some pain or distress.

Avoid asking “why questions,” which can come off as victim-blaming and feel like an interrogation.  “I’m so sorry that you experienced that.” “Thank you for feeling safe/brave/strong enough to share that with me.” “How are you feeling?” “What can I do to support you?” These are statements that can validate someone’s experience and encourage them to continue to speak up and get support.

Give options, not orders or ultimatums. Sometimes when we see someone we care about in distress our instinct is to pick them up, carry them and forge the pathway for their healing. In our overwhelming empathy, we know exactly what to do to make it better for them. “You should….”  “You have to…” “You must…”  Ask them how they feel and what they need. Offer up that there are resources and options to help them navigate those decisions. Encourage them to make choices for themselves and support those choices – even if it’s not what you want them to do.

Not every victim has the same needs and must come through the process in their own time and way. You will find that when you lay out this supportive foundation, it will give victims the solid footing they need to make informed and healthy decisions that will help them take back control of their life. When we choose to support victims by directing their healing process, we have inherently substituted their will and judgment for our own. We have effectively taken on the role of the abuser, but because “we mean well” we overlook how our efforts to help can be harmful.  Even in the instances where you may be mandated to report information, it is still best that you inform them of the options that give them control of their situation and prepares them to deal with the next steps.

Nina Harris is the violence prevention educator and advocate at the college. 

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