Standing in solidarity with sexual assault survivors
This year’s Take Back The Night was a focused collection of hushed moments, respect, emotional first-hand testimonials, hugs, tears, support and rallying cries. “We believe survivors” was one of those powerful cries. It was infused with strength and a palpable determination to believe, support, and love those affected by sexual assault.
Backed by the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre, and led by Bring In The Bystander Coordinator Jenna Novasad, the annual event spoke to a rapt and attentive collection of students, faculty, support staff, and members of the local and wider community, as well as local police and emergency services personnel.
With introductions made on the steps of the Angus L. Macdonald Library, over two hundred sets of eyes, ears and hearts were introduced to several speakers who bravely and courageously shared their first-hand accounts of sexual assault and how those experiences impacted their lives. Those vocal leaders passionately relayed vital words of truth and wisdom to those who were in attendance: ‘… your outfit is not an invitation’, ‘… silence is not consent’, ‘…rape is not your fault’.
The messages were that the shame and guilt associated with being a victim of sexual assault is in no way a fair burden to take with you. Instead, the shame and guilt should be placed on the shoulders of our perpetrators. It should not sway our resolve to speak up, and speak out on an issue that has changed the lives of so many that we care for. Those same messages directed us to find that deep well of courage that is within all of us to allow our voices to be heard. We were encouraged to enact meaningful and positive change on an issue that is too real and too important for us to remain silent and opposed.
Dr. Chris Frazer, a professor from the History department as well as an LGBTQ advisor and supporter, was one member of the audience who spoke about his experience and involvement with Take Back The Night on campus for the past several years. He said he believes in solidarity with women and in women’s rights. He explained how he believes violence has been used to keep femininity suppressed, and how women’s bodies have been policed to keep their power in check.
He believes that freeing women from a culture of misogyny will help liberate the lives of queer, gay and bisexual individuals. He called for removing the privilege that exists in situations where sexual assault was committed on campus, with follow-up typically being too slow instead of swift, and of repercussions being too lenient as opposed to more severe.
As student Rebecca Mesay recounted her experiences, you could sense people were listening. They were listening because they could feel that she was someone who knew what she was talking about. She spoke with strength, poise and confidence. She said she felt she couldn’t tell her parents of instances when she was 12 years old, when men two and three times her age would ask, unsolicited, for her number.
When people would come to her and explain that they had been sexually assaulted, she felt helpless – that it was difficult to speak out. With conviction and defiance, she exclaimed, “Women are not the ones who are perpetrating these assaults.”
Statistically speaking, men commit the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults committed in Canada, as well as in Nova Scotia. According to a recent report by the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women, for every 1,000 people aged 15 or over, there were 40 sexual assaults, with the national average reaching 21 sexual assaults per 1,000 people. In the same survey, the vast majority of victims were female, while more than 90% of the accused were male. In the same year, only 8% of victims reported a sexual assault.
Since 2007, the proportion of sexual assault cases that resulted in charges declined substantially (56% to 30%). As the Advisory Council pointed out, “with a high incidence of sexual assault in NS, combined with a declining police and court response to sexual offences, women in this province are increasingly left in a state of vulnerability.” This should not be happening, but it is.
For the StFX family and the Antigonish community, support needs to be widespread and immediate for victims of sexual assault. Situations where an individual is sexually assaulted and questioned regarding the validity of their claims, while their attacker is presented with a stern warning or reprimand and the opportunity for what one of the night’s speakers described as, “a learning experience”, is unacceptable. We need institutions within the University’s umbrella to be unquestionably supportive for all of those suffering from the aftermath of sexual assault.
The Women’s and Gender Studies program is one such institution at StFX. During the evening, it was hailed as a supporter of women and women’s rights. The program was described as being a positive, helpful ally to victims of sexual assault. Institutions such as these should be commended and encouraged to continue what they’ve been doing, what should always have been done, and what will undoubtedly need to continue to be done in the years to come.
It is a duty we all share to help end completely instances of sexual assault. We are all people: deserving of love, peace and respect. As people, all of us have the ability to endure and to overcome moments of incredible hardship, pain and self-doubt.
Take Back The Night gave us an opportunity to hear some of those difficult moments shared by those directly affected by sexual assault. It demonstrated that it is possible to become stronger if we share those moments of pain.
It showed us that we must continue to use one of our most powerful weapons against sexual assault: our voice. If we are silent, we may not find the peace that we deserve. We will not allow ourselves to remain victims. We will Take Back The Night.