The last few years have been a watershed for awareness and activism around sexual violence. Survivors have come forward to share their stories and demand accountability. Lawmakers have responded with affirmative consent legislation for college campuses in California and New York, and additional states are considering similar laws. And in February of this year, Vice President Joe Biden stood onstage at the Academy Awards to reaffirm the federal government’s commitment to ending sexual violence just before a powerful performance by Lady Gaga and 50 survivors of sexual assault, including Portland resident Robbie Woodsum.
But in spite of increased awareness and prevention initiatives on college and high school campuses, and in communities across the country, rates of sexual assault remain alarmingly high. In 2015, a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that one in five women and one in 20 men experience sexual assault while in college. Among high schoolers, one in three adolescents is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner.
So where do we go from here? How can we build off the present momentum to work toward a world where everyone is entitled to only safe, fulfilling, and healthy sexual and romantic experiences?
The first step is shifting our collective understanding of the nature of sexual violence. The scale of the statistics cited above demonstrates that sexual violence is not a problem of individuals; it’s systemic. Systemic issues can’t be solved by targeted responses that treat every instance as an isolated case. They require a community-wide response. As the White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign asserts, to end the problem of sexual violence, we must all commit to being a part of the solution.
This may sound daunting, but even small steps can have an enormous impact. Seek enthusiastic consent in your own sexual relationships. Talk to your friends and loved ones, particularly the young people in your life, about what it means to be in a healthy sexual or romantic relationship. Believe and support survivors. Take a moment to check in if you see a potentially unsafe situation at a party or bar. Get informed about these issues, and let the people around you know that you care about solving them.
All of these actions, multiplied by many members of our community, will help bring us closer to a future free of sexual and relationship-based violence.
Kaylee Wolfe is program coordinator at Speak About It Inc., a Portland-based nonprofit aiming to change conversation about sex, consent and healthy relationships on college and high school campuses. Through performance and discussion, it gives language and examples for getting consent, inspires empathy for survivors of violence, and provides practical strategies for intervening in potentially unsafe social situations. The next free public performance of Speak About It will be at 6:30 p.m., April 6, at the Portland Public Library’s Rines Auditorium.
If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual or relationship violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 1-800-871-7741.