By Katie Ward
As scores of sexual assault allegations in the Hollywood and national political scenes has started to die down, PEERS has organized an “Empowerment Week” of events from April 9th to April 13th to promote conversation and support between survivors of sexual assault and violence.
The organization, which stands for Peer Educators Empowering Respectful Students, is hosting events, some that are parts of national campaigns and others that are creations of its own, during the national Sexual Assault Awareness Month to bring awareness to the issue.
On Monday, April 9th, PEERS kicked off the week with “Empowerment Yoga” held in the Pryzbyla Center Great Rooms. On Wednesday, PEERS encouraged students on campus to wear denim for “Denim Day”, a national campaign that promotes the idea that survivors are not to blame for sexual assault crimes, no matter what they were wearing.
On Tuesday was the annual “Take Back the Night” event, which aimed to provide survivors of sexual assault a safe space to tell their stories. Take Back the Night events have been held across the country for over forty years since the first marches in the 1970s that protested violence against women. About forty students attended Catholic’s event in Great Room A; multiple students stood to read prepared statements of what had happened to them and why they thought it was important to magnify these voices.
“I deserve to have a voice,” said one student, after recounting how she had been assaulted while fully sober and clothed.
Another student said that she had been assaulted after her drink was spiked at a Halloween party off campus. After being blamed for the crime, she tried to change her major, study abroad, and even transfer colleges to get away from the environment that had been created after her assault.
“It’s been shown that survivor testimonials have a really huge impact on changing attitudes, changing perspectives,” said senior PEERS member Katie Broshek. “Take Back the Night definitely makes space for survivors on our campus to come forward and share their stories in a comfortable– well, probably not that comfortable, an uncomfortable but safe environment, and feel supported and heard by members of the community.”
PEERS and the Counseling Center co-hosted an event on Wednesday night, “Shatter the Silence”, which was a “dialogue on how to build an intersectional culture of empowerment”. Students gathered to talk about their past experiences, awareness of the issue on campus, and what still has to be done to end the vast number of sexual assaults reported every year.
“I’ve been here for three years,” said Frank Vinik, the university’s Title IX coordinator. “And I’ve talked to some of my colleagues who have been here for six or seven years, who said that there just never used to be this kind of dialogue on campus. Nobody talked about it. But this conversation is necessary.”
All month, PEERS is encouraging students to participate in “Teal Tuesdays” by wearing teal, the official color for sexual assault awareness and prevention. PEERS is also tabling in the Pryzbyla Center every Tuesday to hand out teal ribbons to student supporters.
Just a few feet away from its table is the “Vision Wall”, a wall of bright teal paper on the windows of the Food Court with an increasing amount of post-it notes carrying the personal sentiments of students. PEERS asked students, “Imagine a world without sexual assault. What’s different?” and to share their perspectives and ideas by writing on the wall.
“Even if students don’t choose to contribute to it, it’s still something that you definitely notice, so it’s just kind of a discussion starter, a talking point, something students have probably been passing every day,” Broshek said. “It’s meant to be large so people have to notice it. And we’ve had a lot of students contribute to it all week.”
The events come after a multitude of sexual assault allegations against celebrities, Hollywood insiders, and politicians, and the subsequent rise of the #MeToo movement on social media.
Broshek said that the viral movement of women sharing their stories and coming forward to identify abusers helped to change the perception of the problem by making people more aware of what is happening.
“What I don’t think it did, though, was open up the space for women of color, men, people in the LGBT community to have that same space to come forward about their stories,” she said. “I think, while it was really great in bringing awareness to something that’s definitely a problem, I think it could’ve been done better in including that aspect of intersectionality.”
This was one of the inspirations for the theme for this year’s Empowerment Week at Catholic, “Intersectionality”.
PEERS encourages any students who has experienced any form of assault or violence to reach out to the numerous resources available, including the office of the Dean of Students, Title IX Coordinator’s office, or the Counseling Center, all of which can provide support and further resources for students.