By Mikale Thomas
Cleveland Rape Crisis Center (CRCC) outreach specialists Jaliah Neely and Marissa Pappis traded their third-floor office in the Student Center for the Fenn Tower theater on Wednesday, April 10. The reason? Sexual Assault Awareness Month and the Creating and Sustaining Supportive and Empowering Relationships event, part of an annual, two-week series supported by the CSU Sexual Violence Advisory Council.
“With everything happening in the media right now, we wanted to do something to bring awareness to CSU students,” Glenn Parker, one of the resident assistants that helped bring students to Creating and Sustaining Supportive and Empowering Relationships, explained the significance of the event.
Parker has a point: the media has definitely had a hand in making sexual assault a part of the public discourse. Still, the sexual health and safety movement, like any other, has also had to take on the disadvantages to getting everyone talking at once. The facts tend to get muddled amid all the buzz.
“[Sexual assault] isn’t always ‘SVU’: someone coming out of an alley, wearing a mask. People are surprised to hear that it’s usually… people you know,” Neely mentioned before the event. “We just need to have those uncomfortable conversations and open up the lines of communication.”
She started by demystifying consent, defining it in five simple terms: clear, ongoing, specific, fun and — most importantly — mandatory. Neely also reminded students of what consent is not: coercion, the absence of a “no” or incapacitation.
Contrary to common belief, “We were both drinking” is not a valid excuse – especially not in a courtroom. Neely recommended students take a close look at the university’s sexual misconduct and alcohol usage policies.
“You simply cannot give consent if you’ve been drinking,” Neely explained.
Neely also helped elucidate the now increasingly mystical concept of a “healthy relationship.” Simply put, partners in a healthy relationship are equal, supportive, honest and respect each others’ individuality and boundaries.
In fact, boundaries should never be sacrificed for a partner. They provide safety and self-preservation for those who set them and allow each individual to honor their prior experiences, sexual or otherwise. There’s a difference between trusting your partner enough to expand your comfort zone and crossing a boundary.
“Your boundaries are decided by you,” Neely reminded attendees.
The speaker also discussed what to do when a loved one opens up about a traumatic experience. According to Neely, victims often remember others’ initial reactions to their trauma more than the actual assault, and fears of a confidant invalidating their experience keep many from telling their story.
Supporters must resist the urge to discredit or judge a victim if their trauma response seems inappropriate, as many of these reactions are completely involuntary. Asking someone why they “didn’t fight back” or “just say no” isn’t fair because they had no control over their innate fight-flight-or-freeze reaction. In fact, the triple-F response is what distorts the memory enough to make someone else’s reaction stand out in a victim’s memory more than the event itself.
Neely also pointed out that everyone’s recovery time is different, and the remnants of trauma may manifest in other seemingly ill-fitting ways, like laughing or trying to minimize the experience.
“Assault is more about power and control than desire — sex is just the vehicle,” Neely noted when discussing other ways to give support. “Don’t make victims feel more powerless by trying to force them into a course of action they’re not comfortable with.”
It’s best to ask someone how they want to be helped before pulling out a laundry list of referrals and resources. Neely warned about the dangers over-extending yourself to help a loved one work through their trauma, noting that even just listening can be tough.
She suggested taking a moment to yourself to say “Wow, something really horrible happened to someone I really care about, someone that I love, and that’s hard to take in right now.” Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue await someone in the supporting role if they’re not too careful. Then, the helper risks getting frustrated with the victim and cutting off the support system entirely – something neither party wants.
For some in the audience, Neely’s energy made it hard to write Creating and Sustaining off as yet another judgemental lecture rebranded as a sexual health discussion, and managed to balance pop culture references with useful information while maintaining a candid, disarming tone. Students seemed to appreciate her style.
“I think the speaker herself made it less of a taboo thing,” Gabrielle Shackelford, first-year marketing major, said, “[She made this] a conversation that should be talked about, and a conversation that’s allowed to be talked about.”