Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Assault on Campus

This is the first instalment of a three-part series exploring ways to support employees of universities and colleges in responding effectively to disclosures of sexual violence.

Every day, people across Canada make the brave decision to tell someone about their experience of sexual violence. The conversation might last only a minute, but it can have a long-lasting impact on the survivor. If a survivor doesn’t get a supportive response, they might never tell anyone again, or might blame themselves for what happened to them. A supportive response, on the other hand, can affirm that person’s experience and can help them find the supports they need.

“People need to understand how important their response is,” says Barb MacQuarrie of Western University. “It’s a huge act of trust when somebody discloses, and there’s a concurrent responsibility. The responsibility isn’t to fix the situation, which is where people often go wrong. The responsibility is to hear the person, to affirm their feelings and experience, to believe that person and let them know that there are supports and resources available to them, and that you’re with them.”

It’s with this urgency in mind that MacQuarrie and a team of researchers at the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children at Western University have developed new training on how to effectively respond to disclosures of sexual violence. Titled “Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence,” the web-based resource is the product of three years of work by experts in best practices of responding to disclosures of sexual violence. The provincially funded project’s goal is to educate post-secondary staff and faculty—anyone from professors to custodians—on post-secondary campuses on the best way to react and respond to those who come forward, and to direct them to supports on and off campus.

“We can’t always control where disclosures are going to happen,” adds Amanda Cook, Director, Sexual Violence Prevention and Response at the University of Waterloo. “It’s often going to be whomever the survivor trusts with the information, and that might be any member of the campus community. That’s why we need to build capacity for these people to respond effectively to disclosures and give these people the support they need.”

The Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence training consists of videos showing a wide range of students of various abilities, races, genders, and sexual orientations disclosing or reporting an incident of sexual violence, and provides examples of supportive responses. Any campus employee from any school can visit the website, explore the training, and if they wish, take quizzes to practice their own responses. They will also have an opportunity to print a certificate of completion after taking the quizzes. The resource is fully open to the public and has a user-friendly interface that has been designed with adult learners in mind.

“We’ve been using scenario-based training for a number of years, both in person and online,” adds MacQuarrie. “We’ve learned from using this training in the field that it offers a strong way to immerse someone in a situation, explore different possible responses, and help that person work toward modelling a supportive response without fear of harming anyone during the trial-and-error period.”

It is important to note that providing a supportive response to a disclosure of sexual violence also requires the listener to be mindful of common myths about sexual violence, which can often lead them to harm the person disclosing sexual violence in unintended ways.

“This initiative is about changing attitudes toward sexual violence, working to reduce the stigma around it, making it okay to talk about,” says Mandy Bonisteel, a professor in the Assaulted Women’s and Children’s Counsellor Advocate Program at George Brown College. “We need to address the feelings of discomfort that make many people not want to be disclosed to for fear of not providing a skilled response. This means exploring the myths that exist around why sexual violence happens and whom it happens to in order to stop blaming the victim, looking especially at the ways that stigma results in reactions that are not always conscious to the responder at the time.”

MacQuarrie adds that close to a dozen post-secondary institutions are represented on the advisory committee behind the resource, and have taken the training back to their campuses for in-person programming. In the case of UWaterloo, Cook reached across campus to people in many roles and invited them to learn about the resource and work with it.

“You never quite know what the uptake will be when you put out an ask like that,” says Cook. “In our first meeting, we had over 32 staff members voluntarily participate, and additional staff who wanted to be a part but couldn’t participate on the given day. There was some trepidation around the subject at first, and we had some participants who had very little understanding of how to respond supportively to a disclosure. But by the end of the session, we received very positive feedback on the helpfulness of the training. People told us that they felt much more confident about how to respond to a disclosure, which fills me with a lot of hope for how this resource can help all members of our campus communities.”

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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