April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, or SAAM. This is a month to recognize those who have experienced sexual trauma and educate people on how to prevent it, raise awareness and support survivors. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center is an excellent resource for people who want to learn more about SAAM and the topic in general, and every year they launch a campaign and have a theme. This year the theme is – Building Online Safe Spaces Together.
Being a SA victim or survivor means that someone will be on a non-linear, lifelong healing journey.
When I was a teenager, and as a freshman in college, I was sexually assaulted. Those events put my body into survival mode, and it was difficult to do anything, whether it be basic hygienic activities or reading for class. Taking the bus to class was difficult because of how jumpy I was and social interaction of any kind became difficult. I didn’t want to run into him, so I began to skip class and avoid the cafeterias. Eventually, I realized that I couldn’t do what I needed to do for others, so I decided to leave to take care of myself so that I could return to school in a better state of mind. Of course, I had to go through the hoops of asking my school for medical leave, and my counselor and student disability services helped me pass the word on to my professors and supervisors so I could leave without penalty. I went home to start intense therapy and begin my healing journey in a safer, more stable environment.
I returned to school around 2017 and despite the progress I had made and the courage it took to re-enroll, I knew that what happened to me wouldn’t just be forgotten. I was still in survival mode, a bit more forgetful, and always on edge, so despite me jumping back into the swing of things academically, my social skills suffered, and that impacted my ability to function in class and at work. I had developed PTSD and was in a major depressive episode, which as many studies have shown can heavily impair someone’s ability to function.
Thankfully, student disability services were very helpful and they helped assist me with classes and work. It allowed me to let my professors and student work supervisors know that I had a disability and the accommodations I needed as a result. I could even send it out electronically, so I wouldn’t have to worry about an awkward moment passing professors and supervisors an envelope and giving an explanation. This allowed me to thrive and succeed in my classes and at work, and I was given excellent support until I graduated.
There will be easy days, but there will be plenty of bad days too. Life changes after a traumatic event like sexual assault, and many have difficulties getting control over the overwhelming things that come along with being assaulted. That’s where leaders can play an important role. Leaders are the people employees have to go to when things like this happen, and it can be arduous for a fresh victim, or even a long-term survivor to be transparent and get accommodations.
For instance, a good example of an accommodation that I receive is that I let all my supervisors know that I usually take the anniversary of my assault off, and maybe a day before and the day after.
Here are some tips for leaders from a survivor that many victims and survivors may find helpful.
Tips for Leaders:
- Know your policy on sexual assault and how it is handled within the company.
- Do your research on sexual assault awareness and see how you can be a better advocate for those in your workplace who may have experienced it. According to RAINN, 1 in 6 women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime, 1 out of every 10 SA victim is male and LGBT+ people experience it at an even higher rate.
- Make sure your company knows about Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and make it known that you hear victims and survivors and you support them.
- Lead employees to potential resources the company may offer – EAP counselors, short-term disability, FMLA, PTO, personal days, etc.
- Be aware that some people who have experienced SA may need accommodations.
- Offer training and workshops on sexual assault awareness, and maybe get a consultant. Training could be offered twice a year, especially as laws and policies change.
- If you organize events around SA, be mindful that SA is a heavy topic. Offer a content or trigger warning of some kind, and maybe have about 10-15 minutes after the event (conversation, presentation, or training) to allow for participants to collect their thoughts and recuperate.
- Consider a having someone in HR who is knowledgeable about sexual assault, harassment and discrimination, and and employees would know that this is the person to go to with concerns.
- Consider mental health programming and resources that could be implemented in the workplace. Example – Meditation Room
- Remember that empathy is important when supporting sexual assault victims and survivors.
Sexual assault is difficult, complicated, and serious, and those who have experienced it deserve to be supported and seen. These are just some ways you as a leader can support and remember to not only lead with equity but also empathy and compassion. If you would like to learn more, please visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center for tips, blogs, how to be a better advocate, etc.