Rape survivors speak out tonight

By Dan Mollison

Today is a very special day for me.

Tonight at 7 p.m. in conjunction with the Office of Women’s Programs, I will be screening a documentary in room 160 of the English Building that I have been developing for nearly a year. This movie, which is called “Survivors Speak,” is the culmination of the four years of experiences and education I’ve received while being a student at the University. The story behind why I made this documentary begins my freshman year at UIUC.

When I signed up for Community Health 199B, the class that trains facilitators of the FYCARE sexual assault prevention workshops, I had no idea that I was in for a deeply unsettling surprise. As I became more respectful and open-minded toward sexual violence during the course of that semester, three women in my life approached me and told me their stories of being raped. I never would have guessed that they were survivors. I never again doubted the pervasiveness of sexual violence.

There is a paradox when it comes to being exposed to stories about sexual assault. Because victim blame is so strong in our society, many survivors quickly learn that to talk about their experiences is very risky. Disclosing their story to the wrong person puts them at risk of facing additional trauma as a result of being blamed for the perpetrator’s violence.

Imagine that you are driving to the store when another car suddenly veers into you. There is a crash; your airbag goes off, the windshield shatters all over you and you go into shock. You are terrified. You are unable to move, unable even to undo your own seatbelt. Your car alarm is blaring, you are covered with shards of glass, and you are completely helpless. You must wait to be helped out of the car.

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Afterward, you notice that you feel very differently about your life than you did just a few minutes before. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but everything seems out of the ordinary.

Your family and friends arrive at the scene, and a wave of relief flows through you. You have just experienced something horrific, and you could really use their love and support right now. But instead of offering words of encouragement, your loved ones start asking you questions: “Were you speeding?” “What were you driving in that lane for?” “Why were you going to the store, anyway?” “Come on. Didn’t you do something to deserve this?”

Although these reactions may seem ludicrous when staged in response to a car accident, they reflect the ways in which rape survivors are routinely treated by loved ones.

If we judge survivors, if we are not sensitive to their needs, or if we tell jokes about rape or women, then the survivors in our lives will know they can’t come to us. They will know that they won’t be able to rely on us for help.

I created “Survivors Speak” because I want everyone to have access to these stories, especially those who would normally be unable to hear them. If we don’t know how to be a “safe” person that survivors can go to for help, we will never hear these stories, and we will be left in the dark.

To discover what we can do to help survivors be more open with us, I interviewed four UIUC students who are survivors of sexual assault and asked them to share the stories of their rapes with us. I asked them about how their lives have been affected by being sexually assaulted, and I asked them what survivors need from us both as individuals and as a society.

It took incredible strength and courage for these women to come forward and share their stories, and they did so with a clear risk of being unintentionally “outed” as survivors to people they know. But by sharing this very personal piece of their lives, these women have offered us a valuable opportunity to grow.

I hope that you’ll be there tonight, at 7 p.m. in room 160 of the English Building, to hear what these four exceptionally brave women have to say.