by Jessica Martin-Weber
“WHY are there workshops on how to avoid being a victim but there aren’t workshops on how to avoid being an attacker?”
She had a point. I encouraged her to lower her voice and be mindful of how others were processing in the moment but I couldn’t deny that she was right.
“If we’re going to have mandatory classes on how not to be a sexual assault victim then we need to have mandatory classes on how to not be the rapist,” she hissed in as low of a tone as her outrage could manage.
She was not wrong in her 15 year old indignation. Rape culture should make us angry.
Maybe having such a training would help the likes of Brock Turner and save their promising futures from the severe impact of committing sexual assault.
And as an added bonus, maybe it would also help spare their victims the severe impact of being raped.
Safety training. It was called safety training. I was nervous when I learned of it and talked with our 17 year old daughter before the workshop to warn her that the subject matter may include sexual assault. I didn’t want her to go but it was a mandatory class for her ballet program and though she was a little nervous about it, she felt that she was able to handle the topic as she has been speaking openly as a sexual assault survivor for years. Just the day before, she had live-streamed with me on Facebook and publicly talked about being a survivor. Her confidence was strong, she could handle hearing about and talking about sexual assault. I looked up the program and hoped that the third party organization that was presenting the workshop had experience with trauma survivor sensitivity given the longevity of this particular organization that operates through local law enforcement.
Unfortunately, we were wrong. Very wrong.
The workshop involved case studies, role playing of unwanted touch with other class participants- her peers and dance partners, techniques to deescalate a threatening situation, tips to make oneself less appealing to a potential assailant, and a list of how to avoid being a victim. There was no warning on the content, there was no announcement to prioritize caring for oneself if the materials were triggering, no permission given to leave the room if the conversation and practice was too intense, and no accommodations made to support survivors in a group large enough to statistically have 3-4. In a setting where walking out is the ultimate disrespect of a ballet master, my daughter felt trapped in the session, leaving only when dismissed, re-traumatized.
Our two eldest children are survivors of sexual assault. They were groomed and abused when they were 3 and 5 by the then teenaged son of our closest friends at the time. We have been and will continue to be open about this experience, believing that owning our stories and telling them gives us power over them, raises awareness, fights against rape culture, and strips the abuser of the power given them by our silence. For nearly twelve years now we have been outspoken about our experiences, refusing to be shushed by those who are uncomfortable with our openness. The shame isn’t ours or our daughters, you see, it is on the one who sexually assaulted them. There is power in speaking openly about abuse, it removes the cloak of shame to reveal the one who did the despicable thing.
We have worked long and hard to walk the path of healing, spending time and money to give our daughters and our family the tools necessary to build a new normal where fear does not dominate. It has not been easy and many have not understood our path.
People process trauma differently. Filters, experiences, personalities, previous trauma, cultural conditioning, age and development, and even how others react (secondary trauma) can impact an individual’s processing of trauma. The mind doesn’t follow a set one-size-fits-all textbook. Between our two eldest, one responds with anxiety and self blame, the other responds with fury. Both have journeyed with depression. They are different in their responses but have learned how to handle their triggers and move through their emotions in processing. Sometimes though, something feels bigger.
Which is why the workshop triggered a PTSD episode, the first our eldest has had in 10 years. We had to pause before responding to see what she needed and how to support her. Her processing of trauma and her PTSD reactions had changed. We were surprised, in a good way, by what was most beneficial for her in the midst of the episode. We were introduced to a new chapter in the story of trauma.
And so Ophélia, 17 years old, became gripped with fear following the workshop. Questioning everything she had been confident about just an hour and a half prior, including how safe it was to leave the house (paranoia), what she might have done nearly 12 years ago at 5 years old that contributed to her assault (self-blame), how she was supposed to apply everything on the list of how to avoid being a victim (anxiety), who she could actually trust (distrust), why everyone suddenly looked like a potential assailant (anxiety), wondering when she wouldn’t stop crying (depression), and how she was ever going to sleep again. We followed her lead, helping her find anchor points in her real world not dominated by PTSD.
Lavinia, who didn’t attend the workshop and has a completely different response to trauma (and in this case, hers was secondary trauma), became angry. Very angry. At their abuser and at the organization that led the workshop. Pacing and loudly proclaiming all she saw wrong with the world that led to her sister being traumatized by a workshop intended to help her be safe.
Sometimes it feels like we’re doing this backwards. Because we really are.
No doubt someone will tell me rape culture doesn’t exist but nothing confirms the reality of rape culture to me more than having workshops that aim to teach women and girls in particular how to avoid being raped. The insight of my 15 year old is spot on, why are we teaching how not to get raped without teaching how not to rape? Where is the balance and why are we focusing the responsibility of avoiding assault on the potential victims and not on the potential rapists?
I get the point of the safety workshop even if the way they went about it was damaging. I understand the attempts to give people tools to mitigate their individual risk of attack. It isn’t lost on me that these measures can reduce an individual’s personal risk. But I still take issue with the idea that this is where we should be focusing our energy, rather than on reducing the individual and collective risk of being the one perpetrating sexual violence. We will always be behind the 8 ball if we’re just training people how not to be targets so the next girl is instead.
What would happen if we were teaching how to not target potential victims for assault instead of or along with teaching how to avoid being a target of assault? What if we taught how to accept disappointment? How to handle feelings of desire for power? What to do to deal with hurt, rejection, and anger? When to ask for help if you are excited by the idea of forcing yourself on someone? How to understand verbal and non-verbal consent? What respect looks like? How to practice bodily autonomy? What accountability for assaulting somebody looks like?
What would happen if we were teaching HOW TO NOT RAPE?
I can’t help but wonder if such education was the norm perhaps the boy who sexually assaulted my daughter would have been able to get help before violating them. Maybe Brock Turner wouldn’t have even had a part of him that would think assaulting someone was an acceptable thing to do when there had been too much alcohol. Is it possible that clear communication of just how despicable it is to assault someone and the consequences related so severe could reduce the number of sexual abusers, the onus on the potential perpetrator to not abuse rather than on the potential victim to not be abused? Is it untenable to set up our society to understand that the responsibility for avoiding sexual assault is on the one doing the assaulting? Is it impossible for the shame and the suffering to fall harder on the one committing the crime than on the one victimized?
Maybe we should find out because I certainly hope things can change.
I have reached out to the organization that conducted the training to share my concerns and connected them with resources to improve their trauma sensitivity and to reduce the amount of inadvertent victim blaming in their materials.
We need a companion workshop “How Not To Be An Assailant”. The 15 year old has some pretty solid ideas on what such a course should entail.