How to be uncomfortable
I, like most of you, spent my first week listening to a bunch of professors introduce themselves. I sat through some quality presentations and some I knew for a fact were at least 10 years-old. There was one that instantly stuck out above the others though. I was in Life Span Development and the professor said she had specialized in research in sexual assault.
I knew this special issue was coming up and I was a little stumped about what I could write about. I have not been personally sexually assaulted, so I was worried there was little I would be able to add to the conversation. When class was over I walked up to the front and asked her what she thought I could write about.
She was a little unsure at first. I’m certain it’s not every day that her students come up asking those kinds of questions. After speaking with her about it there’s one thing that stood out to me from our conversation.
People on campus have this misconception that sexual assault is a problem on other campuses not here.
My professor told me about a survey she had conducted. The first question was, “Do you think sexual assault is a problem on college campuses?” Overwhelmingly, people responded that yes, it was.
The second question asked was, “Do you think sexual assault is a problem at NDSU,” and the majority of people said “No.”
In reality, our campus sexual assault statistics are either the same or close to many other campuses of our same size. Meaning that all the survey results showed was that here, we just don’t talk about it.
Having lived outside of North Dakota and outside of the midwest, I think this comes from the culture that has developed called “Mid-western Niceness,” my family has always referred to it as sugar-coating. It’s the idea that we avoid talking about things that are uncomfortable to us. When we do discuss them we will make the experience more comfortable to us by explaining it away or dismissing it.
My home has always been very blunt. My family has never been afraid to talk about things that were uncomfortable. My mom was an OBGYN which basically means she worked with pregnant women and newborns. I will spare you the details but I had many uncomfortable conversations about STI’s and other such things from a relatively young age.
When I was younger, I didn’t really didn’t understand what my mom was doing. Or my dad for that matter. But when I look back at those conversations with adult eyes I realized that the reason they have those conversations was that it was better to be uncomfortable and educated than silently dealing with things I didn’t know how to handle.
I think that’s what we need to do with sexual assault. Yes, it is uncomfortable. It’s hard to be there for someone and listen to people talk about their trauma, but we listen to them because we love them. When you genuinely love someone there need for you should be more important than your discomfort.
It’s hard because sometimes we need to face the fact that we haven’t always been there for our friends when they needed us. It’s never gonna be perfect. The sun won’t rise one day with sexual assault no longer a problem. What we can do is change how we speak about it and change how we stigmatize it.
How can we say our campus is a safe place and that we are better than other schools when we aren’t making people feel like they can safely talk about it with others?
RAINN.org outlines what is most necessary for a victim to hear after a sexual assault. The first is reminding them that telling you isn’t a burden. Things like, “I am grateful you trust me enough to tell me about this,” and letting them know that you believe them are both essential to furthering the conversation.
The second is to remind them that it’s not their fault. Say it with me kids: it is never ever the fault of the person who was assaulted. Assault isn’t about what the person was wearing, it’s not about how drunk you are and it’s not about where you were. No one “deserves” to be assaulted. Crime and psychology tell us it’s about the perpetrator wanting to excerpt power over another human.
Remind them they are not alone. Statistics show that one in four women, or 27 percent of women on college campuses, are sexually assaulted. Out in the world, the statistics are one in six women.
I also want to take a second to point out that six-to-eight percent of men are also sexually assaulted. While this crime is more likely to be against women, it does happen to men too. They also should be allowed and encouraged to seek help when needed.
All this to say, your friend is not alone in dealing with the trauma that results from sexual assault. Phrases like, “You are not to blame for what happened” or, “You are not alone” are healthy reminders.
Finally, RAINN recommends acknowledging that this experience has altered their life. This shows that you empathize with them, that you care about them and that you recognize that they are hurting and need your support.
If your friends are ready to seek help, encourage them to do so. There are lots of resources available like the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.HOPE (4673). There are also resources on campus, such as well the campus police and counseling centers.
If your friends aren’t ready, then it’s okay to give them the time they need too. Remember to avoid being judgmental and check in on them periodically.
Telling someone that you have experienced trauma like this is very difficult and takes a lot of bravery to tell someone you trust. Even though these conversations are hard they are needed.
And to my dear reader, if you have experienced sexual assault and aren’t sure what to do, please talk to someone you trust. It’s a very heavy burden and you don’t have to carry it alone,
Be kind to one another. Be understanding. Be okay with being uncomfortable.