sexual violence

Supporting survivors of sexual violence

By Meg Cunningham, CHMA, Sackville Campus/Community Radio, 106.9 FM, Local Journalism Initiative

A social media post featuring grad photos of student Michelle Roy, which call out Mount Allison’s practices around handling sexual assault on campus, has ignited an online and on-campus movement. Approximately 400 people attended a protest in front of the Wallace McCain Centre on Thursday, November 12 to demonstrate concern for said practices and show support to survivors. Over 300 stories of on-campus sexual violence have been published on social media, which include experiences of university services and staff mishandling cases of assault or harassment.

CHMA reached out to local support counsellor, Joanna Perkin, to discuss how one can support a survivor of sexual violence and how survivors may care for themselves while the topic is in the spotlight.

Perkin is a woman’s support counsellor for Autumn House in Amherst, and mainly works with women who have experienced intimate partner violence, but also many survivors of sexual assault.

Perkin is not speaking on behalf of or representing Autumn House in this interview.

She advises that untrained individuals have the potential to inadvertently cause harm to survivors of sexual violence, and offers the following expertise:

Peers, friends, family and loved ones

Joanna Perkin: I think that peer support and support from your friends and your family and your loved ones… that is essential to ensuring that a survivor feels heard and supported, and can kind of start their healing process. That makes a huge difference, having support from friends and family and loved ones. However, that type of support doesn’t replace the role of a trained professional. So trained professionals who work with victims and survivors of trauma in general, but more specifically sexual violence, they have a lot of training and knowledge about trauma itself. How it works, trauma reactions, long term effects of trauma, and even specific to what sexual violence looks like, the effects of sexual violence, and also how to cope with that. So looking at how to carry that trauma and how to cope with that. That could look like grounding techniques, or mindfulness techniques like breathing techniques, how to cope with nightmares, flashbacks, those types of things. It can be really harmful when you’re dealing with somebody who is a peer support, but might be causing some pressure. Whether that’s to report to police or to the university or tell people you know. I’ve heard a lot of, especially in the last couple of days, “Come forward… take your power back… tell people,” and that’s great, but if somebody doesn’t want to come forward and they’re getting that pressure, then they’re losing their voice… they’ve lost that power, right?

Professional help: the survivor’s choice

Sometimes I think that people think, “I can support this person, they don’t need anybody else.” That can be really, really traumatizing and really damaging to the individual. Having said that, it’s also the individual’s, the survivor’s, choice whether they reach out for professional help or not. It really is about what that individual needs and requires. I just think that it’s really important with all these posts going around, especially with people saying “I’m always here for you always here to lend an ear…” that’s a really great sentiment. But are those people really prepared for those disclosures? Are they prepared to deal with the really raw emotions that a survivor might be having? Are they trained and equipped to cope with that themselves? Because that can damage themselves if too, if they’re not ready to hear that stuff. So, I think that that peer support is fantastic. It’s essential, but it has to go hand-in-hand with something else, if that person is ready for what that something else looks like.

What can an untrained person do?

Meg Cunningham: Okay, like you said, you’re endorsing peer support. So what are some ways that a peer or an untrained person can provide support to somebody who’s experienced sexual violence in a way that is appropriate?

JP: The best thing that anybody can do is to listen. To listen to a survivor and not just listen to the words that are coming out of their mouth, but actually hear what they’re saying or not saying. Picking up on those cues that they might be uncomfortable, or not wanting to talk about it. If they don’t want to talk about it, that’s okay. So my big thing for some people, sharing their story of sexual violence can be really empowering. It can be really helpful to them within their healing process. So for those individuals, this movement that’s going on currently has done wonders, I’m sure. However, it’s also important to recognize that some individuals may not actually want to share their experiences. I’ve had numerous people reach out to me over the last few days, and they’re sharing with me that they are feeling enormous pressure to disclose what happened to them and what they’ve been through.

Regaining power

So, to kind of go to the fundamentals of what happens when somebody is sexually assaulted… The victim of that assault, the survivor of that assault, they lose their power, their voice, their right to choose. That’s what happens at the core of a person when they’re assaulted. The effect of that sexual assault is that they didn’t choose, they weren’t respected, that that choice has totally gone out the window. So the most important thing for survivors within that healing process is to be able to regain their power, regain their right to choose, and that includes how they share their story, who they share it with, if they share it.

I want to be very clear that you are not less of a victim if you choose not to share your story with all of social media and all of the world. It doesn’t make you less resilient, less strong, or less of a survivor. So for those people who are dealing with friends or loved ones coming forward and disclosing sexual assaults to them, the best thing that you can do is respect what they want to do and respect their choice. So if they want to stand up and share their story, stand up with them and help them do that. Support them through that. If they choose to not share their story, you have to respect that choice, not put pressure on them, help them find resources in the area, but constantly be checking in and saying, “Does this work for you? What do you need from me in this moment? Is it okay that I asked this question?” Hear what they say, again, not only with what they’re saying with their words, but how they’re presenting. So if somebody asks a question and says, “Do you want to talk about this?” and somebody’s like, “Oh, I guess so…” and they’re not making eye contact and they are fidgeting, make it clear, “Well, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but I’m still here for you.”

Support has to be non-negotiable

That support has to be non-negotiable. You don’t need to know the story to be able to support somebody.

MC: On that topic, I suppose, of sharing stories… This week, many stories of sexual violence are being shared online. This does have the potential to trigger people who have experienced sexual violence. Can you give any advice to anyone who is a survivor, who might be having a difficult time this week?

JP: Talk to your loved ones. Again, you don’t have to share your story, but let people know that you’re struggling if that’s something that you’re comfortable doing. Turn your social media off, I know that I can say, I logged into Instagram a few times, and the stories were just everywhere. That is so draining, and it is it can be really traumatizing and triggering for survivors. So respect yourself enough to say “Listen, I don’t need to see this right now,” and turn your social media off, even if it’s just for a few hours. Take care of yourself, make sure that you are doing things that are going to be helpful for you in this time. Know, and honestly repeat over and over to yourself, that your experience matters and is valid.

Resist urge to compare experiences

Resist the urge to compare your experience with the experiences that other people have had. Throughout the last few days, I’ve seen and heard a lot of comments such as, “I know that this might not be as bad as other stories, but…” So just stop that, for your own sanity, because your experience is valid. If you are a survivor, and your experience has impacted you negatively, then what happened to you is not okay. You don’t have to compare that. You don’t have to think of somebody else’s trauma and say, “Oh, this one’s worse and this one’s better.” That’s not fair to yourself. Again, know that whatever you choose in this is okay. Whatever you choose, if that is to speak up or to stay silent, that is what you need to do for yourself and that’s okay.

Only about 5%

MC: On the subject of choice… This is the most recent stat that I have, which comes from Sexual Violence in New Brunswick. It comes from the director whose name is Jen Richard, who says that only about 5% of those who experience sexual violence or intimate partner violence make a report to the police. Could you as a frontline crisis worker explain a couple of reasons why that number might be so low?

JP: I think there’s a lot of reasons. Everything that’s going on at Mount Allison right now really highlights this. People don’t know how to respond to a disclosure of sexual violence for the most part, I’m generalizing there, and that includes police some of the time, unfortunately. So when people don’t know how to respond, as I mentioned before, they might respond in a way that is harmful to the survivor.

Not being believed

I’ve heard countless numbers of stories of survivors not being believed or respected when they report their assault, whether that’s reporting to police or another agency. They’ve come into a lot of questions [and] a lot of doubt. The reality is, unfortunately, if they do report that assault, and they are believed, what does that process look like? This is something that I do with a lot of clients, “What does this process look like for you?” They’re going to have to go to the police station, and they’re going to have to make a statement. That’s going to be a very intrusive statement. They’re going to have to detail out what they’ve experienced, then, depending on what happens with that statement, the perpetrator of the assault may or may not be arrested. Most of the time, if they’re arrested, they’re going to be released shortly after with some conditions. That causes fear in a lot of victims as well because now their perpetrator has been arrested, knows that they’re going to be in trouble, and is back out on the street in the community. After that, it might be a couple of months until a court date, and then a couple months more, and then there’s a trial, potentially, which is probably about two years down the road from the original assault. Again, that trial is really intrusive. You’re going to be asked questions, and cross-examined, and that whole process is really draining.

So that’s a really draining process on the survivor, to have to go through that for a couple of years and be asked a lot of questions. For some survivors, that’s what they want to do and what’s going to help their healing process. And for some survivors, they don’t want anything to do with that. So it is a really tough process. It’s a really draining process. That’s only for the survivors that are actually believed, not the ones that aren’t believed or are victimized further by reporting.

Really isolated and detached

MC: Okay. I’m asking you to speculate almost, or to think out loud, but what in your experience would be the most appropriate response from an institution like Mount Allison to an incident of sexual violence?

JP: So I think that one of the main problems is that Mount Allison and other universities, institutions like Mount Allison, they’re really isolated and detached from the rest of society and the rest of the community. I can say this, because I remember being at Mount Allison, and everything that happened on Mount Allison… it was like you were in a bubble. You were living in this community in and of itself. It’s not a part of the rest of society, it’s just Mount Allison, that’s all there is. So when you’re on campus, your world revolves around that campus. That’s the mentality of being at a university.

Not unique to Mount Allison

So when an assault takes place, the response happens, or typically happens, within that campus. That response happens with the intent of keeping it detached from the rest of the community and the rest of society. I want to make it very clear that this problem that everybody is talking about right now is not unique to Mount Allison. It’s happening across Canada, and the United States, and universities, and also in the rest of society. But for the sake of this conversation, specifically within universities… Universities are called out time and time again for issues of secrecy surrounding sexual violence. My opinion, and again my opinion only, is that sexual violence should not be a problem that is addressed only at the university level. This needs to be something that’s addressed within the community and within society as a whole.

I’ve seen a lot of posts asking for students to be expelled that have been that have been perpetrators of sexual violence. In my mind, that’s really interesting, because if somebody was to be physically assaulted, or murdered, or hit with a car, or all of these criminal offenses, that would not be a school issue. That would be a criminal issue. Yet, this is what people are asking for, is expulsion. What does that accomplish? I guess, is my question. Why is Mount Allison not partnering with other people to react in a way that is helpful, not only for the Mount Allison community, but for the rest of society? If you expel a student who’s perpetrating sexual violence, they can still go to any other school and continue that trend. There’s no real consequences. I think that the other thing to keep in mind is that a lot of what people are looking at, and a lot of what I’ve just said, is all reactive. What do we do after a sexual assault? That’s the question that’s being asked. My question is, what are we doing to prevent sexual violence? What are we doing to make sure that it doesn’t happen again? Not that survivors aren’t listened to, but so that there are no victims and survivors. So that people don’t have to experience this again.

Mount Allison has this really good reputation in terms of their education. They offer a really fantastic, strong education. So why are they not educating their students on what consent is? What sexual violence is? What healthy relationships are? If there are groups that are known to perpetrate more, why are we not doing mandatory information sessions, workshops, training, so that they are aware of “what does consent look like? What does a healthy relationship look like? How do we communicate effectively, especially when we’re having sex or when we’re drinking?” Why are we not looking at preventative measures, as opposed to reactive measures? I think that that’s something that really needs to start happening a little bit more… and that is on Mount Allison, right? They have this really great reputation in terms of their education, and this is something that they’re missing.

Perkin graduated from Mount Allison in 2017.

Mount Allison responds to concerns

President of Mount Allison Jean Paul Boudreau sent an email with initial steps being taken by the university to address concerns of sexual violence on campus.

Steps outlined in the email include:

  • Increase resources to support sexual violence prevention and response strategies,
  • Implement a number of immediate changes to sexual assault intake and counselling services,
  • Establish a Sexual Violence Prevention Working Group at Mount Allison, and
  • Initiate a comprehensive, third-party review of Mount Allison’s sexual violence prevention model, resources, policies, and procedures.

Potential for good? or harm?

JP: This movement has the potential to do a lot of good. But when done in certain ways, it can do a lot of damage, and it can do a lot of harm. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me, and they’re feeling very traumatized. They’re feeling very triggered. They’re feeling very broken about what has gone on in the last week. It has been overwhelming. I think that it’s great that people want to speak out. I think that’s fantastic. But people need to do what they need to do as well. If you don’t have the capacity to join into this, that’s okay. I think that it’s really important to say that as a survivor of sexual assault, you do not owe anybody your story. I think that that needs to be highlighted in this. It is okay to set boundaries with the people that are around you, and if that boundary is “I don’t want to talk about this right now,” and no further explanation, that’s cool. If people around you are not respecting your wishes and your boundaries, maybe those aren’t the people that you want in your life.

Does not have to define you

Sexual violence is really, really heavy. The experience of sexual assault or sexual violence does not have to define you. It impacts you, and it may impact you for a long time or the rest of your life. But that doesn’t have to be your whole identity. You don’t have to be the poster child, you don’t have to be the spokesperson. You don’t have to. I have a lot of respect for the people who have shared their stories over these last few days for this movement. I have a lot of respect for the people that have come out to name their experience, and describe their experience, and talk about their experience. I have a lot of respect for all of those people. But I also have respect for those people that I know are currently struggling in silence right now. Those people who might have a fear of speaking up, those people who are feeling very isolated, those survivors that are feeling pressured to talk about something that they don’t want to talk about, I have a lot of respect for those survivors as well.

This fight is a draining fight. If this is not your fight right now, that’s okay. I think it’s really worth saying that you do not have to sacrifice yourself for this movement. I think that needs to be said, because I’ve seen a lot of people whose mental health is really suffering right now with everything. I do this for a full time job, and this past week has been really overwhelming and really draining for me as well. Reading hundreds and hundreds of stories online about sexual assault… graphic, traumatizing stories… hearing from survivors, hearing from people that are struggling. I’m struggling with it, and this is what I do as a full-time job. I can only imagine the people that are not used to hearing these stories, how overwhelming and damaging this can be for them. So you do not have to sacrifice yourself, you don’t have to sacrifice your mental health for this fight, for this movement. We have a lot of fantastic people who are speaking up right now. If this isn’t your moment to speak out, or your fight right now or ever, that’s okay.

How am I going to carry this with me?

Mount Allison, I know, has started working on a plan, I haven’t been able to look at it in depth yet. But the other thing to remember is that Mount Allison, whatever it is that they offer… it’s not going to erase your trauma, it’s not going to erase your experiences, it’s not gonna take away that pain that you felt as a result of not only the sexual assault, but of being invalidated after that. So this might be the time for survivors to start reflecting on “how am I going to carry this with me? How am I going to carry the weight of this trauma with me in a way that’s manageable?” I wish there was a magic solution and I can say “Mount A could do this, and it’s just going to erase the pain for people.” But it’s not, and that’s that’s the reality of it. So survivors, take the time to do what you need to do. Know that this is probably a long fight coming. Mount Allison might have a lot of great solutions, and it’s not going to erase your pain. It’s not going to erase your trauma. So you still need to do some work to take care of you, and to make sure that you have the support that you need. If that means that you take a step back or that you don’t get involved with this, that’s valid.

Support Services

Perkin recommends the following local support services for survivors:

  • Autumn House (Amherst, NS), Women’s shelter with outreach services. Available 24/7 at 902-667-1200
  • CHIMO Helpline, available 24/7 at 1-800-667-5005.
  • Colchester Sexual Assault Centre (Truro, NS), Can be reached at 902-897-4366, Monday to Friday from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM.
  • The Moncton Hospital (Moncton, NB), SANE [Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner] nurse available in the emergency room. Request to see a SANE nurse upon arrival. No other explanation is required.
  • South East Sexual Assault Crisis Centre (Moncton, NB) available 24/7 at 1-844-853-0811.
  • Support lines for queer people in the area are: LGBTQ2+ Youth Line, 1-800-268-9688; Trans Lifeline, toll-free, 1-877-330-6366.