The importance of being an ally: to survivors of sexual violence

As Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman stood in court to testify against Larry Nassar, a former team doctor who pleaded guilty to multiple counts of sexual violence, her hands trembled and her eyes became fixed on her perpetrator. 

I am no longer a victim,” her words rang throughout the room. “I am a survivor.” 

The courtroom burst into applause. 

Raisman is just one of the numerous survivors who have demonstrated courage by sharing their stories. Sexual violencean umbrella term encompassing sexual harrassment, sexual assault and rapeis a prevalent issue, but is often difficult to confront. 

The Oracle Editorial Board urges the Glenbrook community to not only recognize the struggles faced by survivors of sexual violence, but also to demonstrate allyship in accordance with the needs of these survivors. 

To begin this conversation, one must ask themselves: what does it mean to be an ally towards sexual violence survivors?

Believe them.

Junior Harmony-Keli Tomety, a sexual assault survivor, recently began sharing her story with others. In opening up about her sexual violence experience, she has found that the most vital role an ally can hold, in addition to listening, is believing the survivor. 

“Survivors have to be listened to but, more importantly, have to be believed because I think that there is this skepticism around [sexual violence] victims with people always wondering if they’re telling the truth,” Tomety said. “And nothing hurts more than you telling your story and people not believing you.”

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center found that the prevalence of false reporting stands only between 2 and 10 percent. When a victim of sexual assault shares their experience, their vulnerability should not be intensified by the listener’s disbelief, instead, it is an ally’s responsibility to not only listen to, but believe a survivor’s story.  

Support them. 

While it may seem like a proactive approach, allies must remember to not take unilateral action on behalf of a survivor and recognize that seeking support is not their decision to make. However, if a survivor does choose to share their story with a school official, after their parents and authorities have been contacted as part of the district’s policy, there are various supports offered to them, both inside and outside of the building. 

Each South student has a Student Support Team (SST) which consists of their counselor and dean, in addition to their assigned social worker and psychologist, Principal Dr. Lauren Fagel said. These faculty members play a large role in providing support if a student comes forward with a sexual violence allegation. 

“[The SST] is going to work with [the student and their parents],” Fagel said. “They are going to refer them to the appropriate agencies and provide support whether that is weekly counseling, or, if the harm was done by another student, making sure that [the student] does not have any classes with them.”

If a student does not feel that they are receiving adequate support within the building, social worker David Hartman explained that his department will connect them to further resources and support groups outside of school. 

“I think that the reason social workers and psychologists would be [contacted] is because we are really aware of the supports [offered] outside of our building,” Hartman added. “Within our building I think that everybody is equally aware of some of those supports, but outside the building, that is typically where our expertise is.”

Although making survivors aware of these resources is an important part of being an ally, junior Kennedy King, a sexual violence survivor, emphasized the importance of respecting the pace at which a victim of sexual violence would like to seek support. 

“I think the best way to be an ally toward survivors is to encourage them to talk about it, and to assure them [that] they have your full attention and disclosure,” King said. “With that being said, however, it is important to let them speak at their own pace, and not rush them [into telling] you everything [because] victims may even feel ashamed to admit that something like that happened to them. It is pivotal to create a no-judgment environment, where the survivor can talk freely about their experiences and not feel like they will be judged for it, but rather praised for having been brave.”

Educate yourself. 

The most impactful form of allyship is preventing sexual violence from occurring in the first place. The Center for Disease Control Injury Prevention sector has highlighted various educational tools that high schools can utilize to teach students about sexual violence prevention, ranging from further social-emotional learning to promoting safe relationships. 

The Physical Education, Health and Driver’s Education Department has taken part in this initiative by educating students on healthy dating and relationship skills, Fagel said. 

“I think we could do a better job raising awareness about sexual violence, [however there has been] work done in the health curriculum around [this topic], in terms of what signs to look for in an abusive relationship that could lead to sexual violence,” Fagel said. 

The South community has made great strides towards raising awareness about sexual violence, although Hartman emphasized the importance of reflecting on our progress and continuing to question if we are doing enough as allies of survivors. 

“I would ask ´Can we be better at highlighting the prevalence of [sexual violence], and in doing so, decrease the stigma in such a way that we encourage more young men and women to come forward if they have experienced sexual assault?’” Hartman said. “I think we can do more, culturally, to decrease the stigma and increase the education of [sexual violence].”

Survivors are faced with an unimaginable trauma. However, if a survivor feels ready to share their story, it is our responsibility to believe them, support them and educate ourselves. 

Only through allyship can we continue to break the deep-rooted silence standing between our community and addressing sexual violence.