Accounting for power in responding to disclosures of sexual violence

Good intentions are important when responding to a disclosure of sexual assault on your campus, but without the proper knowledge base and training, these good intentions might still lead to unsupportive responses that can do long-term harm to survivors.

In this three-part series on responding to disclosures of sexual violence, we have already focused on myth-busting and providing supportive responses to those who make the brave choice to disclose an experience of sexual violence. In this final installment, we will look at how intersections of power and privilege influence the moment of disclosure and how a person can respond supportively.

“When you design training for responding to disclosures of sexual violence, you need to make sure you train people to recognize their own power and privilege as well as the potential barriers experienced by people of various social locations relating to gender identity, race and indigeneity, class, culture, disability and sexual orientation,” says Barb MacQuarrie of Western University. Along with a team of advisors made up of university staff and representatives, researchers, and survivors of sexual violence, the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children at Western, led by MacQuarrie, has helped create the Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence initiative. This initiative aims to provide all members of the campus community with the skills, knowledge, and confidence to respond supportively and effectively to a disclosure of sexual assault.

Of the many important features of the training provided through the Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence initiative, MacQuarrie highlights the scenario-based video training as key.

“For starters, scenario-based training gives people the ability to watch and compare their own responses to both supportive responses and unsupportive or even harmful responses,” says MacQuarrie. “But on top of that, the use of multiple scenarios allows us to represent various social dimensions of gender, gender identity, race and indigeneity, class, culture, disability and sexual orientation for both survivors and responders.”

MacQuarrie notes that providing a supportive response to a disclosure of sexual violence is strongly influenced by context, and that the lived experiences of both survivors and responders can significantly impact what makes for a supportive or unsupportive response.

“Sexual violence is a social issue,” notes Mandy Bonisteel, a professor in the Assaulted Women’s and Children’s Counsellor Advocate Program at George Brown College. “It is not about sex. It is an act of physical or psychological violence carried out through sexual means or by targeting sexuality. As with any act of violence, some social groups are disproportionately affected. While sexual violence and harassment can affect anyone, those who identify as women, Indigenous, living with disability, young women and boys, those whose sexual orientation or gender expression does not conform to social norms, and those who are racialized or poor experience higher rates of being targeted.”

The Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence training is designed for adult learners, allowing for varying depth of exploration into issues and research related to sexual violence, in addition to a final quiz that provides a certificate of completion.

Bonisteel sees the training’s social dimension focus as particularly relevant at a time when postsecondary institutions are undertaking inclusive and universal design initiatives that recognize and respond to multiple identities, multiple oppressions, and difference. Members of disadvantaged groups experience individual, systemic and institutional barriers which can occur in the context of a conversation, classroom materials, and in institutional decisions about accommodations and access. The training offers learners the opportunity to understand the ways that lived experience affects situations of sexual violence and disclosures, and helps them apply this awareness to broader contexts.  

“The social dimensions and lived experience of the survivor can also guide the kinds of formal supports you point someone toward,” adds MacQuarrie. “If the person disclosing to you reporting is a student, you can let them know about Student Counselling Services, and student supports for specific groups such as women, transgender, LGBQ, Indigenous, or Black/students of Colour. You can also let them know about the Sexual Violence Support/Response Person at your institution as well as the resources in your community.”

To explore the “Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence” training, please visit the resource’s homepage. Or to discuss how you can bring this training to your campus in an in-person format, please contact Barb MacQuarrie.

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