One in five women and one in 71 men will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes. On college campuses, 11.2% of all students will be victims. Many of us have heard statistics like this before, but when Melody Posthuma of the Army of Survivors told students about the scope of sexual violence, the numbers struck in a new way. Given those odds, Posthuma told the audience, it’s likely that there are individuals in the room who have been victims. It’s also likely that there are individuals who have been perpetrators. The “At the Heart of Gold” documentary, which tells the story of the USA gymnasts who survived sexual abuse, prompted conversations and reflections that lingered long after the showing ended. For Jannae Nutter (’21), the stories of these gymnasts hit close to home because of her own experience. “I felt like as a dancer I could’ve easily fallen into that trap, which was terrifying,” she said. Because of the nature of a training in which coaches frequently physically correct technique, dancers and gymnasts often acquire a desensitization around being touched. This, paired with the close emotional bond that can form between coaches and students over years of long and intensive practices, can make these relationships fraught with the potential for problems. Many of the gymnasts interviewed in the documentary explained how these dynamics contributed to an environment in which their abuser was able to go undetected and unchallenged for far too long. The documentary is not the only event that’s been creating dialogue around the prevention of all kinds of interpersonal violence. Students Teaching and Empowering Peers (STEP), an organization committed to raising awareness and providing information around these issues, held its annual training this past weekend. Through days packed with lectures, panels, and discussions, members of STEP gained new knowledge and ideas.
According to Maggie Houseman (’22), who recently completed the program, “Although the weekend of training for STEP was filled with emotion and heavy subjects, the training was filled with tons of great information on sexual assault on our campus, in the community, and in our broader society.” Her training left her empowered not only to bring light to the pervasiveness of sexual violence but also to provide meaningful support to victims: “I think that students at Hope should know these three of the most important things to do when someone discloses something like this to you are to 1) tell them “I believe you,” 2) listen to their story (do not ask questions or probe for more information) and 3) ask them what you can do to support them. It is essential that you do not offer advice, rather offer your time, attention, and resources when appropriate.” Aidan Jones (’23), who also completed STEP training this past weekend, discussed the importance of responding compassionately and helpfully to those who have experienced sexual assault. “We learned about how to correctly respond to a victim but also how to empower them and help them give a piece of their freedom back,” he said. “Victims can often feel like they no longer have a choice in their decisions and it can be a result of the trauma they experienced or how others could’ve told them what to do.” Like Houseman, Jones emphasized the importance of reminding victims that they are believed, supported, and have agency to make their own decisions as they move forward. Christian Gibson, who works as Hope’s Victim Advocate and Prevention Educator as well as the STEP advisor, expressed similar thoughts: “Survivors/victims know no age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, ability or religion. They can hold a multitude of identities and be in various stages of life. If students at Hope College begin to take survivors seriously and recognize that they do not fit into the boxes we like to place them in, they will be better supporting and advocating for them.” Gibson works in her advocacy and education roles to combat all forms of powerbased interpersonal violence (PBPV), a term which encompasses sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking. According to Gibson, PPBV is preventable, and organizations like STEP can play a critical role in eliminating it. She told us, “STEP is grounded in bystander intervention, which means recognizing a potentially harmful situation or interaction and choosing to respond in a way that could positively influence the outcome. The more that we take responsibility for intervening when we observe that another person is at risk of harm, the less that PBPV will happen on our campus. Your voice and your actions matter!” Gibson concluded by passing along words she deemed applicable to every student on campus, saying, “We tend to think of this [sexual assault] as a large-scale, societal and civil rights issue, and although it is, it is also a personal and communal one.” She went on to cite maintenance of one’s own physical and mental health as a necessary facets of a community united against instances of sexual violence: “I strongly believe that practicing healthy self-care and self-awareness and learning how to press pause, are the first steps toward prevention of violence and healing for both individuals and communities.” STEP is a great resource for those interested in learning how to take care of themselves and becoming a better advocate for others, as is the Press Pause campaign, described on blogs.hope.edu as “an initiative by Student Development to provide honest resources for students about all aspects of their health, from self-care to healthy relationships.”
Written By: Claire Buck and Ruth Holloway