As my Research Assistant position at the SASC nears its completion, I have been doing a lot of reflection. Mainly, I have been thinking about the different things I learned and experienced during my time at the SASC, and how I might carry them forward. Before this summer I had never worked in any type of support centre. As one might imagine, some of my experiences were more challenging than anticipated (I’m looking at you, bureaucracy), and others were incredibly heartening, intensifying my appreciation for feminism and anti-violence work. And while these things are perhaps unsurprising, there is one thing I experienced that I did not anticipate which has perhaps impacted me the most.
Notably, this unexpected experience did not happen while I was at work. It happened in social situations, when people asked me where I was working for the summer. More often than not, as soon as I told them I was working at a Sexual Assault Support Centre, the typically relaxed nature of the conversation disappeared, and the conversation (if it continued at all), took on a much more serious, and sometimes uncomfortable tone.
At first, I thought this change in tone was a reflection of people’s surprise or confusion. Maybe people were incorrectly assuming that I was a support worker, and were confused because I am not finished my undergraduate degree, nor am I studying social work or a support-related field. There more I experienced this reaction, however, the more I came to suspect that people were not surprised–they were uncomfortable.
Before continuing, I want to acknowledge my awareness that some people may have been uncomfortable because they themselves were survivors of sexual violence, making our conversation potentially triggering for them. Statistically speaking, it is certainly possible that for a few people, this was the case, and I by no means would want to put a survivor into a position where they felt unsafe. However, it is unlikely that every person I spoke to about my job was a survivor, which has prompted this reflection.
Now, as much as a don’t think there is a “right” or “wrong” response to my employment situation, the discomfort of these situations intrigues me. Occasionally, it felt as though people wanted to show their respect for the distinct and complex nature of sexual violence, by choosing a few words to say and choosing them carefully. But more frequently, it felt as though people didn’t feel comfortable even saying the words “sexual assault,” which would bring our conversation to a grinding halt. At this point, my default reaction was to hastily change the topic, in attempt to end the awkwardness and discomfort. I often felt frustrated with myself for reacting this way, but had difficulty articulating any other response. Should I have called people out on their discomfort? Or perhaps pushed the topic further, detailing my research even if the person seemed to be uninterested or uncomfortable with what I had to say?
Ultimately, I do not feel that either of these responses would have been helpful. I did not want to shame or blame people for feeling uncomfortable with the topic of sexual assault, because it is likely this would have further reduced our ability to have a constructive conversation. And while I have more ideas now than I did three months ago about how to continue these derailed conversations, I definitely do not have a fail proof solution, and am aware that perhaps I never will. What I do know for sure, is how important it is to draw attention to the harm caused when we avoid discussing difficult or uncomfortable topics, such as sexual assault.
I believe that the more we avoid difficult topics, the more we limit our knowledge and understanding of them. This in turn can cultivate a fear of “saying the wrong thing,” leading us to say nothing when we should speak up (when safe), ask questions, and be willing to admit that even if we don’t know much about a topic, we are willing to try and learn. For example, before I started working at the SASC, I am not sure what my response to someone talking about their work at a Sexual Assault Centre would be. It is definitely possible that my fear of “saying the wrong thing” due to my lack of knowledge, or my fear of discomfort, would have led me to keep quiet. One of the major things I have come to learn about sexual assault is that it is a product of rape culture, which is perpetuated in both overt and subtle ways by all types of folks. Staying quiet for fear of “getting it wrong” or not wanting to talk about rape culture because it can be an uncomfortable topic, allows rape culture to continue. At times, it has not been comfortable to acknowledge my own complicity in this perpetuation, but I’d rather have the discomfort and thus awareness so I can work on changing my actions and the actions of those around me. Ultimately, rape culture is exactly that – a culture – it involves many people in many different ways. It is not perpetuated by individuals in isolation from one another, nor will it be challenged and dismantled by individuals in isolation from one another. We must work together, through discomfort and our inevitable mistakes, for real change to occur.