Where institutions should have consensus on cases of sexual violence

A significant amount of debate exists on Canadian campuses around how schools should review or administer discipline in cases of reported sexual assault, yet one area where there is consensus, yet perhaps not enough attention, is the importance of supporting survivors at the moment of disclosing an assault. The need for training in this area was recently highlighted by a survey of Ontario students that found that 63% of university and 50% of college students reported experiencing sexual harassment during their time at school. That’s why an initiative at Western University is working to ensure that any member of the campus community is prepared to offer a supportive response if someone discloses an experience of sexual violence to them.

Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence is an initiative created by a team of researchers at the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children at Western University. The goal of the initiative is 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.

“The way a person responds to a disclosure of sexual assault will have a significant impact on the discloser,” notes Barb MacQuarrie of Western University, who is leading the project. “There are a number of reasons why people do not disclose an experience of sexual violence, and we want to make sure that fear of an unsupportive or even negative response is not one of them. Also, we have strong research showing that survivors who receive more supportive responses have more positive psychological health moving forward compared to survivors who receive negative responses to disclosure.”

MacQuarrie notes that unsupportive responses can take on a number of characteristics, but that some common features include:

  • victim blaming

  • encouraging the survivor to keep the violence secret

  • taking control, trying to “fix” the problem

  • making decisions for the survivor without permission

  • minimizing the seriousness of violence and aligning with the perpetrator.

Supportive responses, on the other hand, are characterized by:

  • telling the survivor that they are not to blame

  • comforting the survivor

  • listening and understanding and showing them that they are believed

To train campus community members to offer more positive responses, Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence has offered free public resources that include several video scenarios of survivor self-disclosures, each with examples of both supportive and unsupportive responses. While it might be easy for campus community members to understand that these types of responses are negative in the abstract, being more conscious of the many nuanced ways that they can manifest can completely change a person’s response to a disclosure of sexual violence.

“We recognize that it’s a challenge, especially in an environment where members of the campus community have competing commitments and are expected to be trained on many issues,” says Mandy Bonisteel, a professor in the Assaulted Women’s and Children’s Counsellor Advocate Program at George Brown College. “But one thing we’ve found from this work is that people really care about being supportive. In many instances, they just don’t have the tools, skills, or understanding to feel comfortable responding to a disclosure. That’s what these resources are all about.”

Bonisteel notes that participants in the training can gain an entirely new perspective on how well they might respond to a disclosure by studying not only one video scenario, but an array of scenarios with survivors coming from very different social backgrounds and disclosing different types of experience. The scenarios also depict various social dimensions of gender, gender identity, race, class, culture, disability and sexual orientation. The video scenarios are key learning tools for exploring the multiple issues that can influence both the survivor and responder.

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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