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Speaking Out

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brittany Keegan
October 5, 2018

My column usually focuses on immigration and refugee policy, but considering recent events I felt that I should change topics just this once. Today, I’m writing about sexual violence and its subsequent impact on survivors. The Kavanaugh hearing, in which Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has testified that she was sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh, will not only determine the future of the nation’s Supreme Court, but it will also have strong implications for current and future survivors of sexual violence.

Although statistics show that one in five women and one in seven men will be raped at some point in their lives, and that one in three women and one in six men experience some form of sexual violence in their lives, rape remains one of the most under-reported crimes and 63 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police. So many people feel that they can’t come forward.

That includes me. I’ve been raped. More than once. And I never reported it.

Sometimes people ask why survivors do not file a report. Although every survivor will have their own reasons, some common reasons include feelings of shame, the desire to minimize what happened, denial, fear of backlash or consequences, and uncertainty about the reporting process. Although the “common reasons” link above discusses the desire to minimize what happened from the perspective of the person who experiences the violence, there is also the fear that others will minimize what happened or disbelieve the survivor entirely.

Survivors might also wonder if others may believe them about what happened, but not care. Or tell them that it was their fault. It may seem easier to not say anything than to speak out and take the risk that things could get even worse.

Clearly, something needs to change. I’m not naive enough to think we can ever actually end sexual violence, but I do believe we can reduce it and that we can work to improve things for those who have been affected. In particular, what can we as public servants do? How can we ensure that those of us working in the fields of public administration and public policy can not only support survivors who come forward with their stories, but also prevent sexual violence from happening?

One way is though policy creation. Some organizations have created written policies or codes of conduct that address sexual violence and explain consequences for those convicted. Others have created polices or codes of conduct that have a broader perspective and may not directly address sexual violence, but that outline general standards of conduct and steps that people can take if they feel a violation of the policy or code has taken place. For example, ASPA’s Code of Ethics describes a process through which complaints may be submitted and reviewed.

Other organizations have policies mandating periodic trainings for their employees or members. At my university and many others, for example, students, faculty and staff are required to undergo mandatory Title IX training, with the option of taking an additional training on consent and healthy relationships.

In addition to working to improve our own organizations and agencies, we can also vote in favor of laws that will support survivors such as the Violence Against Women Act. This provides funding to agencies assisting those impacted by sexual domestic violence. It also must be renewed every year, meaning that it’s important for this Act to have strong, ongoing support. To ensure this, we can vote for elected officials with a strong track record in the areas of sexual and domestic violence. We can also make phone calls to voice our support for House and Senate bills protecting survivors.

While policies, codes of conduct, trainings and laws are a great start, they alone are not sufficient. What will truly make a difference is changing individual attitudes toward sexual violence and those who report it. We can’t just have policies, trainings, etc.; we also have to internalize their meanings. We have to hold ourselves and others to a high standard in which everyone is respected, and in which all voices are heard. We must also understand that not everyone impacted by sexual violence, or any kind of violence, will feel comfortable reporting it immediately. Some may wait a few days, while others may wait years. Some may never file a report. Regardless of if and when they report, their experience still matters.

Again, I know that this isn’t the topic that I typically address in my column. I actually started writing one about refugees and completed about 200 words, but I felt that I had to write about this topic instead. Posting about it on Twitter and Facebook didn’t seem like enough. I know that not everyone impacted by sexual violence is willing or able to speak out, but I’m getting to the point where I am. So I feel like I should. As Dr. Ford has shown us, when one person speaks out others gain the confidence to speak out as well. We make each other stronger.

Survivors shouldn’t have to live in silence anymore.

Author: Brittany Keegan is the Land Use Education Director and Research Coordinator at VCU Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy while she completes her Ph.D. dissertation, which examines the effectiveness and responsiveness of nonprofit organizations in promoting the socioeconomic integration of refugees. She also serves as a volunteer, employee, consultant, and board member for nonprofits in Virginia. Email: [email protected].

Twitter handle: @BritKeegan

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