Promoting the Positive: Prevention Education

I often think about how to promote the positive in my life—eating healthy, getting outside and being active, and building healthy relationships with my family and friends. When you work at a Rape Crisis and Prevention Center you have to be very intentional about making more space for the good things than the bad things. Now don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean ignoring the reality that people I love, people in my community are experiencing sexual violence at alarming rates and that violence has a huge effect on their health.

As a prevention educator and someone who is known for working at Our VOICE, people often ask me: “How can I have (or continue) these conversations with people who are important to me, who are uncomfortable with or don’t want to have these conversations, without alienating them?”

I believe the best answer to that question is to promote the positive. Some of my friends and family may not be interested in or comfortable with talking about sexual and intimate partner violence or rape culture. But if I can engage the people in my life by talking about consent and the other elements of healthy relationships, I believe I am still doing my part.

If we want to get folks involved and committed to ending violence in our community and beyond we have to give folks the tools, language, and skills to create the community they desire. We cannot only say NO to what we do not want (i.e., sexual violence, rape culture, racism, transphobia, homophobia) but we have to actively decide upon and seek out what we do want in our lives and communities. Experiences of privilege and oppression play a huge role in how much ability a given person has to set boundaries and have those boundaries respected. However, as individuals we can do our personal best to communicate our own boundaries and respect others’. Modeling that kind of behavior will only help the people around us to feel safe and to reflect on their own boundaries, desires, and relationships.

For example, when I watch television shows with folks like this, I try to point out moments between characters that are consensual or demonstrate healthy communication. To be clear, conflict is a normal part of relationships. And conflict can be both healthy and unhealthy. So when I see healthy communication and conflict on TV or in movies I point it out! I say: “Wow they did such a great job working through such a difficult issue.” Or: “That was sexy/awesome/impressive… the way he just asked what they wanted and if they were comfortable!”

When I listen to songs on the radio I try do the same thing. One beautiful example of consent in a song is in Primetime by Janelle Monáe featuring Miguel, who sings, “Bang bang, I’m calling your name. You’re like a fire the world can’t tame. I wanna riot ‘til the stars come out and play. Is that okay?” Is that okay? What a beautiful example of making consent sexy and approachable. Consent and healthy communication are not easy. They both require constant learning and practice (and mistakes! Lots of awkward mistakes).

Although it can be more difficult, pointing out these moments IRL is just as important. (Apologies, I work with middle schoolers. IRL=In Real Life.) If you have a friend struggling to communicate their needs with an intimate partner, offer healthy suggestions, encourage them to feel empowered to set their boundaries. And if they try it out, give them constructive feedback. Say: “You are so brave for communicating your needs. Maybe next time you could be a little clearer about this one part. I’m so glad you feel safe to talk to your partner about this issue.”

Preventing sexual violence doesn’t have to always sound like “DON’T RAPE.” Although, duh. It can also sound like supporting the difficult processes that make up healthy sexual encounters and relationships. And as I’ve pointed out, media plays a HUGE role in modeling appropriate and acceptable (or unacceptable) behavior. Absolutely, call out sexual violence and rape culture when you see it. But let’s also celebrate the moments when our culture doesn’t fail us. When the teen show Beauty and The Beast shows a young woman communicating that her and her boyfriend will only have a healthy relationship if she is able to have alone time and time with her friends separate from him. (Not so guilty pleasure, I love YA media.)

And, if you’re into sports, celebrate the moments when athletes do the right thing. When they stand up for a cause that you believe in. When UFC Fighter Ronda Rousey tells young women and girls that they can be whatever they want outside of traditional (and often harmful) gender norms. Whatever they dream of being. Empowering individuals to live healthy, whole, authentic lives is just as much a part of dismantling the systems of privilege and oppression as holding perpetrators accountable. And this kind of empowering can feel so much less alienating (if at all) to folks who don’t think they are ready to hear about sexual violence and the necessary eradication of it.

–Erin is the Rape Prevention Educator at Our VOICE.

Sexual Assault and Homelessness: A Vulnerable Population

Over half a million people are experiencing homelessness on any given night here in the United States, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  People experience homelessness due to a variety of different factors such as a lack of affordable housing, poverty, a lack of employment opportunities, the decline in available public assistance, serious mental illness, and a lack of affordable health care if themselves or a family member becomes ill.

Once a person is experiencing homelessness, he or she is now living in a dangerous environment where their basic needs such as shelter, food, and clothing are no longer being met.  They also struggle with where to shower, brush their teeth, use the bathroom, and other hygiene processes that those of us who are housed often do not think about.  To attend to all of these basic needs while also looking for the limited affordable housing and employment that is available makes all of these decisions and tasks all the more stressful and overwhelming, which only makes getting out of homelessness even more difficult for the individual or family.

Not only do women experiencing homelessness have all of this to deal with, but the condition of homelessness itself also dramatically increases women’s risk of being sexually assaulted.  Women on the streets do not have the same level of safety provided to them as women who are housed under a roof.  Ninety-two percent of women experiencing homelessness report having experienced severe physical and/or sexual assault at some point in their lives.  Over 66 percent of these women experienced severe physical violence from a caretaker, and 42 percent had been sexually assaulted during childhood.  Sixty percent of women experiencing homelessness report having been abused by the age of 12.  This type of childhood trauma can be a factor in how someone began experiencing homelessness, and can potentially contribute to mental health conditions such as PTSD or the risk of substance abuse, which only makes it more difficult to escape homelessness with limited social services.

At Our VOICE we recognize that women experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to violence, and we hope to better serve this community.  Zac has recently joined the Our VOICE team as our new Outreach Counselor, which means that he goes out and tells underserved populations about our services and he provides counseling services to those that are interested.  We also realize that it could be very difficult to process these issues in counseling if you are worried about where you are going to sleep that night, or when you will eat your next meal.  For that reason, our Client Services Coordinator, Jerry, is expanding case management services here at Our VOICE.  He helps connect clients to outside resources such as food, housing, and transportation to assist people with all of the other complicated issues that they may be dealing with when they come here for counseling.  There is still a great deal to do to end both homelessness and sexual violence, but we will continue to strive to better serve this vulnerable population.

-Jerry is the Client Services Coordinator at Our VOICE

    References:

1. National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Housing and homelessness in the United States of America: 2014.
2. National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. No safe place: Sexual assault in the lives of homeless women: 2011.
3. Browne, Angela, and Shari S. Bassuk. “Intimate violence in the lives of homeless and poor housed women: Prevalence and patterns in an ethnically diverse sample.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 67.2 (1997): 261-278.