Retaking our story

I believe in the power of personal stories. Facts do not create change, but stories do. It is a proven truth that information alone cannot create change, but it is something that we often forget when we touch on some of the most difficult topics faced by our peers, students, organizations and communities. Whenever I get asked why I speak on sexual violence prevention, why I feel comfort when opening up on my personal difficult experience, why I would considering taking on this identify, I know the answer immediately, because I believe in the power of personal stories.

To understand the impact of personal stories, we need look no further than my own story. When I went through college, I was engaged. I was invested and went through the trainings. I was a New Student Orientation Leader, I was involved in student government, I was a proactive part of my fraternity and many organizations on campus. I never lacked training on sexual violence prevention. As an engaged student, I could tell you the facts and numbers, I could provide statistics – I knew what to do to prevent it. I thought I knew about the issue.

Yet where I was educated, I was not invested. Here I was, young and seemingly invulnerable. I knew I would never condone sexual assault and never allow it to happen to my friends. I thought this was enough and that I was safe. Then an experience happened and I was victimized by assault. I went from being invincible, knowing that assault was an issue, to experiencing it first hand. It was a harsh shock facing my new reality. The problem with only education on numbers is the lacking investment. I knew all the facts but I never fully invested in preventing it on my campus.

In the time since my assault, I educated myself. I went through support. I trained myself on how to manage this situation and how to understand the complexity of sexual violence in new ways that I never imagined possible. I managed to transform my perspective because of my experience, but we need our communities to transform their perspectives before these issues ever occur.

Fact alone are not effective, they are just numbers. If I tell you that any where from 18 to 25% of women experience assault and an estimated 1 in 6 men as well, these facts might startle you. I could discuss percentages about how many assaults involve alcohol. I could talk about how a majority of assaults occur when the survivor knows the perpetrator. I could list all these statistics, validate them with sources, tell you why these numbers matter.

We do this all the time but this is not enough. Just because we educate on the numbers behind assault, it doesn’t necessarily create buy in or create a change in the mentality of our communities. Simply educating on assault is no more likely to change someone’s perception of assault any more than if I told someone that a certain number of people in their community were hungry would cause them to donate food to a local charity. Awareness matters, facing reality matters, but this cannot be all we do.

I speak on sexual violence prevention, I share my story and discuss the power of stories within this topic because I believe in the power of stories. I believe that until we begin conversations by relating it to our communities, to our members, to the people we know, we are never going to be successful. When we rely on just facts and figures to influence the conversation on assault, we allow for circumstances to exist where our students and communities can distance themselves. We must always be careful that in the urge to educate, we do not forget the human element that exists within this topic.

Sexual assault is a difficult thing to discuss. It is hard for survivors, for people impacted by it, by people who know or do not know anyone who has been touched by this issue. There is no lack of difficult emotional, psychological or mental baggage that comes with this topic, but until we begin having conversations about the real stories that exist in the real world, we are never going to move things forward. We have reached a point of saturation, purely educating on assault no longer works. It is not enough. We need to get to a point where we create the room to reframe our narrative.

Sexual assault is a serious topic and requires a serious conversation but we need our students to be willing to participate in the conversation before we can really move forward with the conversation. If members of our community are not willing to participate in the talk at hand at the first place, we will never succeed in engaging them. Be certain that your students feel like they can participate in a meaningful conversation towards sexual assault. Empower your communities to create safe places where this topic can be addressed on an individual and greater level. It is not enough to simply tell our students about sexual assault, it is important we make prevention a part of the regular conversation that is occurring on our campuses, that assault is not just a number we can push away, but that prevention is part of our reality.