Inspired by the momentum of the #MeToo movement, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) spent the month of April—recognized each year as Sexual Assault Awareness Month—encouraging people to continue sharing their stories through the #EmbraceYourVoice campaign.
According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Assault Violence Survey (NISVS), one in five women and one in six men have experienced some form of sexual violence throughout their life. For survivors, breaking their silence can serve not just as a testimony to what is now an epidemic of violence, but as a call to action—and the start to a sea change. “There is a contagious courageousness when the uniqueness of each person’s voice comes out and people can no longer ignore reality,” Karen Baker, Chief Executive Officer of NSVRC, told Ms. “This is when policies, workplaces and cultures start to change, which is ultimately our goal.”
That kind of courage outlasts the activism of just one month—and advocates this year hope to use #MeToo and #EmbraceYourVoice to achieve their loftiest goal yet. NSVRC, the NFL, National Alliance to End Sexual Violence (NAESV), California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA) and Prevent Connect have come together this year to create Raliance—an initiative to end sexual violence in one generation. “Some people may think it is unrealistic, but a lot of younger people believe and are inspired by this idea of ending sexual violence,” says Baker. “It is urgent for them. They want to act not just read about things.”
Researchers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) agree that research, social media and action are important in amplifying survivors and for public accountability—on campus and beyond. “We are working on a multi-level, research-based approach of universal messaging and education,” UMBC psychology professor Chris Murphy told Ms., “to help students develop life-long skills for healthy consensual relationships.” Murphy’s research “works on ways to match students exhibiting coercive or abusive behaviors with the right interventions” in time to prevent sexual violence—while also creating “a survivor-focused campus where resources and response create agency and empower.”
Kate Drabinski, a professor of social activism and critical sexuality studies, also noted an uptick of research in recent years by male students about how to understand consent in more complicated ways, take accountability and change common understandings of sex and consent. “Talking about affirmative consent policies, where someone has to say yes, means that there is a chance to open the conversation about what saying yes to pleasure looks like and feels like,” Drabinski explained. “A space has opened to engage in serious conversations about consent due to the work women have done for decades. This is as much about accountability as it is about collective healing.”
Inequities in outreach, services and response, however, continue to be a barrier for capitalizing on the energy of #MeToo for women of color off-campus. Palestinian poet and assistant professor of Women and Gender Studies Mejdulene B. Shomali observed the positive effect of the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement for Arab Americans, but she knows there is far to go for liberation. “There is more awareness and access to resources due to social media,” says Shomali, “[and] the Women’s March posters presented a new representation of Middle Eastern women. However, this new image has not removed the stereotypes about race, religion and sexuality faced by Arab American survivors of sexual violence.”
In India, #MeToo is hardly the first digital turning point in the fight to end rape and sexual assault. “An attempt has been made in India to protect women,” says Amy Bhatt, associate professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, “but legislation has mostly been used to limit women, rather than to protect them. Young women activists are pushing against that and using these type of hybrid online and in personal awareness-raising campaigns to create change and demand accountability.”
In 2009, the Pink Chaddi Campaign led to the arrest of Pramod Muthalik, a right wing activist who carried out a raid at a bar where women were beat up for being in a public place; it was followed by a 2012 campaign against Eve Teasing, a term for sexual assault and harassment, after Jyoti Singh was gang-raped and murdered while on a public bus, which led to a death sentence. In 2015, the Break the Cage Movement brought awareness to sexist curfews; in 2017, Freedom Without Fear organized a march against sexual violence.
Sexual violence research and activism worldwide is at a pivotal moment—evolving from education to prevention to a bolder vision for societies where violence is no longer normal or normalized. “The country is ready to have this conversation more than ever before,” Baker said. “We want every person, no matter what role they are in, to realize that there are things they can do to create safer spaces—and when this becomes more pervasive, there will be a shift.”