“So many [celebrities] have used [their power] against the powerless,” said Me Too Movement Talkback student organizer Vanessa Frimpong. As a result, sexual assault victims’ “stories are being told through this beautiful movement.”
The Me Too Movement, which encourages sexual assault and harassment survivors to share their stories using the hashtag “MeToo,” spreads awareness for “how often [sexual assault and harassment] happens in our society,” said student Lindsay Tucker. This action has spread to other high school advocates: during a school visit, a panel composed of sexual assault crime specialists, counselors, advocates, and Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg answered student questions and provided student recovery resources regarding sexual assault and harassment.
Additionally, according to Director of Alexandria Office of Human Rights and sexual assault attorney Jean Kelleher, Me Too Movement efforts like these have caused “more [sexual assault survivors to come] forward, more perpetrators [to] admit fault, and more friends, colleagues, and families [to] give support and credence to the reports that come forward.”
While sexual assault is the act of unwanted touching of intimate body parts, sexual harassment involves the force or threat of force of sexual actions, often in the form of words or pressure. According to Alexandria sexual assault prosecutor Erin Earp, threats are often in the form of words and pressure that “put someone in fear that they are going to be harmed.” According to Alexandria sexual assault police officer Sergeant Jeff Harrington and Earp, survivors can prosecute for both sexual assault and sexual harassment, depending on the intensity of the crime.
The expert panel encouraged students to participate in the Me Too Movement and prevent sexual assault by “being a strong advocate and speaking up,” said Sexual Assault Center outreach specialist Ashley Blowe, despite that “It takes courage to speak out,” said Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg. On the contrary, “[People that speak up] are not just coming forward for [them]selves in the justice [they] are seeking, but [they] are also trying to prevent [sexual assault] from happening to someone else.” “As a society the default is to not get involved,” said Earp; however, “If [a bystander] sees something that concerns [them], they should act on that.”
Not only can people spread awareness about the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in order to reduce these occurrences, but people can also prevent these incidents in the moment. In order to encourage bystander intervention, sexual assault prevention experts advice the “Three Ds”: “Direct, Delegate, and Distract.”
When bystanders witness what they believe to be a situation of sexual assault or harassment, they can directly intervene by vocalizing to the perpetrator that they are offending the victim, demanding that they stop, and removing the victim from the offender’s presence.
However, if the bystander feels uncomfortable or unsafe in doing so, they can delegate someone else to put cease to the assault with their direct intervention. For example, people can call 911 or the Sexual Assault Center hotline, at 703-683-7273, seek out an authoritative figure, or find another bystander to report the incident to. After this, one of these individuals will assist the victim in leaving the situation.
Lastly, a bystander can save someone from sexual assault or harassment simply by distracting the offender enough to eliminate the possibility of assault. For instance, it someone witnesses sexual assault, they can approach the victim with an unrelated conversation or provide them an excuse to leave the situation. This will eliminate the possibility of sexual assault or harassment by “diverting the conversation,” said Blowe.
Whenever the victim is ready after any of these interventions, they should report the incident to the Sexual Assault Center hotline to begin recovery efforts.
While any of these efforts are advised, according to Blowe, the most important bystander intervention is simply to do, “whatever is in [a bystander’s] sphere of influence and whatever [they] have the power and comprobility to do.”
Additionally, when a survivor of sexual assault or harassment confides in someone else, “it is important to shift the perspective that [listeners] bring to situations when someone tells [them] that [they were sexually assaulted] and to believe them,” said Earp. According to Silberberg, “in historic [situations], when someone [admits that they are a victim of sexual assault] someone else would say ‘what did you do to cause this;’” however, victims are not at fault for their assaulter’s actions, regardless of what the victim is wearing, saying, acting, or drinking. “No one ever dressed to invite sexual assault,” said Kelleher.
Not only has the Me Too Movement increased the number of sexual assault survivors that have shared their stories on social media, but it has also increased the number of sexual assault survivors that call the Sexual Assault Center’s hotline, at 703-683-7273, in order to seek support after an incident of sexual assault.
In addition to bystander intervention in the moment and reporting to the Sexual Assault Center hotline, sexual assault and harassment survivors can participate in survivor support groups, counseling, and therapy held by the Sexual Assault Center. Additionally, survivors can utilize the One Love Foundation, which “promotes awareness about relationship violence,” said Earp.
Moreover, survivors that are under the age of 18 can report their incident of sexual assault to either the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children or Children’s Advocacy Center, where they only need tell their story once, instead of reliving this scaring experience to doctors, prosecutors, therapists, and many more. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which is housed in the city of Alexandria, also provides resources for “teaching children how to safely navigate the web, social media and address some of the questions that are of issue to children that have had crimes before,” said Harrington.
Because “sexual assault is most likely to come from someone [the victim] knows,” said Earp, survivors are encouraged to report their story to Sexual Assault Center counselors, Alexandria police, or the Sexual Assault Center hotline, even if they were assaulted by their friend or a member of their family. Tucker said, “If their a friend, it should not have an effect on the relationship if they truly care and respect.” However, if the sexual assault comes from a family member, child protection service will immediately remove a minor from the home from which they were assaulted. However, if the family wishes, the Sexual Assault Center offers resources to help the family recover after the persecution.
In addition to helping survivors after family sexual assault, the Child Advocacy Center offers a Non-offending Caretaker Group with a curriculum that teaches parents, teachers, and other caregivers how to both support survivors after sexual assault. This class also teaches these caregivers to prevent sexual assault from occurring because Kelleher said, “we need to put an emphasis on teaching respect and mutual respect.”
Additionally, a survivor of sexual assault can take a criminal approach, attempting to prosecute the persecutor by contacting any of the services previously listed. Though there is no statute of time limitations on felonies in the state of Virginia, a survivor is encouraged to report their story as soon as possible. This allows police to begin collecting accurate and prompt evidence, though they will not begin the trial until the survivor is ready, as “there is no clock on healing,” said Silberberg.
The panelists encourage survivors to share their story of sexual harassment. In fact, Silberberg said: “know that all of us care. We do want to know [every survivor’s story].”
Also, the members of the panel encourage shutting down the toxic culture that labels males “as weak… [if they] cry” and promotes “young males that are hyper masculine… [which often] leads to intimate partner violence and sexual assault,” said Blowe. Blowe stressed the importance of praising “healthy boundaries and healthy relationships.”
Similarly, Earp said, “There needs to be less discussion on how to prevent [people] from becoming a victim and more discussion on how to prevent these people from becoming these predators… and victimizing other people.”
Also in order to prevent people from being sexual assaulters, society needs to “take away the labels that frame women and girls as victims and boys and men as perpetrators,” said Blowe. Additionally advocating for sexual assault prevention needs to not just be aimed at victims and perpetrators: “[Anyone] can be a part of this movement without having to be a victim or a perpetrator,” said Blowe, “It is important to have everyone is the room,” said Kelleher.
Most importantly, the #MeToo advocates emphasize the importance of mutual respect, communication, and consent in a healthy relationship. Blowe said, “Consent is not the absence of a no but the presence of a yes.” Both participants need to communicate to each other the interactions, whether sexual or not, that feel good, they are both comfortable with, and they desire. Tucker said, “It is not for [anyone but yourself] to decide [what] makes you uncomfortable or not.”
In addition to consent, Blowe hopes to educate youth on how to build healthy relationships, including: “ensur[ing] boundaries and expectations are being met by a partner… there is equality and a healthy power dynamic… and mirroring a relationship to [values] in a friendship,” said Blowe.
Despite common misbelief, even if a perpetrator does not intentionally sexually assault or harass, the victim can communicate that, “it felt like sexual harassment… [and] that made [them] feel uncomfortable,” said Ashley Blowe, “having that clear line of communication is really important.”
Alexandria residents proclaim their hopes to integrate consent and healthy relationship education into middle and high school curriculums because right now, “a lot of the health education we have [in school] is about the physical side of sex… We don’t talk that about the emotional side and consent,” said Tucker. Alexandria Campaign on Adolescent Pregnancies coordinators work “to ensure the way sex ed is both medically accurate… and the social emotional side of [sex]… and consent education.” The organization advocates for resenstating the requirement for high school students to take a class similar to Human Growth and Development taught by Stephanie Ghent. Ghent has rewritten the curriculum to incorporate sex safety, consent, healthy relationship boundaries, and respect into her curriculum in order to ensure compassionate and success for students in relationships, and hopes for this curriculum to be included in middle and high school health classes.
Additionally, Blowe hopes for school curriculum that teaches how to communicate, “what feels good [in sex], what is welcome and unwelcome [in sex]” and how to form “healthy relationships, boundaries, expectations, consent,” said Blowe.
If Alexandria community members support Ghent’s proposal to include this curriculum in health classes, they can communicate this to the school board by attending the meetings, speaking with student representatives Jay Falk and Betelhem Demissie, and communicating these goals to administrators in order for this curriculum to be approved and taught to students.
Lastly, in order to promote awareness for sexual assault and harassment, students can follow AlexandriaTeenLife on Twitter and AlexTeenLife on Instagram. These resources will educate followers in consent and will provide support groups and other Sexual Assault Center support services.