Breaking the Silence

Though the work of Global Rights for Women focuses on systems change and legal form, we believe that in order to do our work effectively, we have to be continuously connected to the voices and experiences of survivors. In a four-part series on trauma-informed skills, Twin Cities, Minnesota advocate and survivor Sarah Super shares her insights on how we can be trauma-sensitive in our support of survivors of gender-based violence. Read on for the final installment in Sarah’s series. Click here for Parts One, Two and Three in the series.

Survivors of sexual violence surround each of us. I didn’t learn this until I was raped. Before I was sexually assaulted, I could not name one survivor I knew. No one had talked to me about their own experiences of surviving sexual violence, so I assumed sexual violence wasn’t a lived reality for my friends and family.

But I was wrong. In the first six weeks after being raped, I learned firsthand that silence surrounds and protects sexual violence. And I learned why sexual assault was something very few people felt safe talking about: from the failure of our criminal justice system to hold perpetrators accountable to the shame and stigma our community casts on sexual assault victims to the lack of trauma-informed allies. In my own experience, I was discouraged from talking about what happened to me for fear that it would risk the outcome of the court process. I was shamed that I had chosen a rapist for a boyfriend, as one person told me. My life was dissected in attempts to analyze and prepare for whatever defense my rapist’s team of attorneys and supporters might come up with.

It was not until a friend encouraged me to, “Do whatever it is you need to heal,” that I called the Star Tribune to break the silence and share my story. I wanted the community to know what had happened, what this process looked like from a survivor’s perspective, and to put a face to a seemingly faceless issue.

It was not until I shared my story that people I knew began to tell me theirs. I was especially struck by the many people who said, “You are the first person I’m telling this to,” and “I have never talked about this before.” By naming myself as a survivor, I became a safe person who other survivors could trust – someone who would believe them and understand their suffering.

While I take pride in being this trusted person carrying the painful secrets of many, I also regret that I wasn’t this person before my rape. I had not previously made it safe for the survivors in my life to trust that I would believe them, support them, and stand with them in solidarity. I see now that my silence around gender-based violence and rape culture before I was raped supported perpetrators, not victims. I see now that I never had to be a survivor to be an ally and that I was not previously a real ally to survivors of sexual violence. I hadn’t done the homework to know how to support the hundreds of thousands of people who are impacted by sexual violence, including people in my life I knew and loved.

Being an ally to survivors of sexual violence is a learned skill. It requires an ability to see rape culture and then to intentionally taking a stand against it with actual words and actions. Being an ally to survivors is more than just being a nice person or a good friend. It requires people to seek out a trauma-informed education to counteract the societal norms keeping victims silent. But hear me when I say that knowledge alone will not make anyone an ally.

Allies are defined by their action.

Allies don’t remain silent in the face of injustice. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said,

“And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Allies know that in gender-based violence, there is a clear victim-perpetrator dichotomy. They know that in a patriarchal system where institutions were built by and benefit perpetrators, we must support the victims. Being an ally means to be victim-centered, and to attend first and foremost to the victim’s needs.

Allies know that their words are powerful, even more powerful than violence. They do not respond to violence with violence, for the world does not need more violent people in it.

Allies stand up for those whose voices are marginalized, whose bodies are dehumanized, and whose communities are systemically oppressed.

Allies do not wait until their family and friends disclose their stories of being sexually assaulted to care about the pervasive issue of sexual violence.

If I could change one thing about the person I was before I was raped, I wish I had been a voice of an ally to the hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans who suffer in the aftermath of sexual assault in silence. Just as I spoke out about marriage equality as a straight person and support Black Lives Matter as a white person, I see just how important it is to pro-actively communicate to the people in my life that I know sexual assault happens far too frequently. And if they are sexually assaulted, I will believe them, support them, and stand with them in solidarity. And I will fight to make others aware of this repeated and pervasive trauma, too.

By educating ourselves and giving voice to this suffering, by joining together as a community to break the silence that enables perpetrators and denies survivors healing, we will create a culture where it is safe for survivors of sexual violence to name themselves and share their stories and get the support and justice that they have deserved all along.

Actionable ways to be an ally:

Drawing from her work studying trauma and her personal experience surviving rape, Sarah Super invites our community to build a trauma-informed skill-set for supporting survivors of gender-based violence in their healing. Read more about Sarah and her work at: www.wholebeingsolutions.com.