Each April, colleges, universities, and non-profits across the country recognize Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM).
SAAM provides the institutional framework for schools that are just starting to engage with this type of programming on their campuses and for schools that are well-versed in SAAM programming. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center provides a theme and shareable content each year, and some events, like Take Back the Night, bystander intervention workshops, and Project Unbreakable photoshoots are programmatic staples.
But despite the prevalence of SAAM events on college campuses, there is still a big programmatic gap.
Often, SAAM events aren’t designed with the needs of survivors in mind.
When SAAM events aren’t designed thoughtfully, they operate under the assumption that sexual violence hasn’t yet occurred, although statistically, we know that isn’t true.
There are a lot of issues with developing SAAM programs that don’t fully consider survivors and their needs, not the least of which is that those programs simply aren’t relevant to our students.
In order for SAAM programming to be successful, it must center survivors and it must be trauma-informed. And that programming is what attendees want to see.
I should know — the first time that I designed SAAM events, they totally flopped. But then I did a needs assessment of the students on my campus, and one thing was a thread throughout: people wanted programs that felt relevant to their experiences, not just programs that seemed to be thrown by default or because other campuses were doing them.
So the next year, we totally revamped SAAM events, and at our biggest event, 25% of the student body showed up.
And that’s really, really cool — but also not the point.
Increasing attendance is always a good goal to aim for with any program, but during SAAM, we need to think about more than numbers.
We need to consider the emotional needs of the people in the room, how we advertise events, and how we can create holistic programming models to support survivors, their loved ones, and everyone else.
So, I put together this list of 11 ways that you can center survivors in your SAAM programming efforts. It’s a pretty long list, so let’s just get started:
1. Identify your desired outcomes
When you’re planning a program, what’s your end goal?
Are you looking to simply educate students that sexual violence happens in the world and on campus? Do you want to build community and support systems for survivors on campus? Are you implementing a bystander intervention program?
Each outcome requires you to take a different route, so plan your calendar accordingly. When you’re getting started, determine how many programs you want for each category of learning outcome, and build from there.
2. Balance prevention education with advocacy
So often, SAAM programs are built with one end goal in mind: Prevention education.
I get it. On campus, we’re thinking about how to reduce the number of incidents of sexual violence. But we have to acknowledge that no matter how robust our prevention education efforts are, we will still have students, faculty, and staff in attendance who have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives.
So if we’re only building programs with the goal of preventing sexual violence, we’re seemingly ignoring those who have already experienced it — especially if those programs aren’t being facilitated from a trauma-informed place.
We know that sexual violence is happening on campus, so consider how you and your office can incorporate advocacy efforts to influence positive change.
That might look like hosting an It’s On Us pledge event, hosting a roundtable conversation about your institution’s Title IX policies and processes, or hosting a Survivor Solidarity (Take Back the Night) march.
Prevention education is absolutely essential, so ensure that as you build those events, you remember that survivors are already in the room.
3. And balance advocacy with recovery
As crucial as SAAM programming is on a college campus, it can also be incredibly draining for survivors, particularly those who are struggling with their recovery.
At your educational and advocacy-based programs, make sure that there is a counselor or advocate available to serve as a crisis resource to students who need them at the moment.
You can team up with your campus’ counseling center or your local rape crisis center to see if they are able to have someone in attendance. If you have a good working relationship with your local organizations, they’ll likely be happy to send a staff member over to help out.
In addition to your education and advocacy programming, incorporate some that are specifically focused on survivors and their recovery.
Events that have an objective of supporting survivors’ recovery paths can help let survivors know that you see them and want to support them. They can also help survivors understand that they are not alone in their experiences.
Some ideas for recovery-focused programs include Project Unbreakable photoshoots, workshops geared toward loved ones about how to best support the survivors in their lives, and workshops about sexuality after trauma. Another common recovery-focused passive program is The Clothesline Project, which can help survivors be able to talk about their experiences in a more anonymous, less-public format.
4. Have counselors on standby
As briefly mentioned in item 3, it’s crucial to have counselors and advocates on stand-by throughout your SAAM programs (or any program that relates to sexual violence).
Regardless of where someone is at in their recovery journey — or if they’re someone who has experienced secondary trauma — engaging in conversations about sexual violence can be incredibly difficult. When you combine that natural difficulty with the high-pressure environment that colleges and universities create, it means that individuals often struggle to cope healthily with the ongoing effects of their past experiences.
Well before SAAM ever begins, reach out to your counseling center and local rape crisis center to see if they would be able to have one or two staff members in attendance at each of your programs.
The counseling/advocacy staff can provide emotional support and healthy coping techniques to survivors who are potentially struggling with flashbacks or retraumatization. They can also serve as helpful resources for individuals who may be struggling with program content in different ways (like if they have a loved one who has experienced interpersonal violence).
Ask the counselors to hang out toward the back of the room during an event or to sit outside of the event space. That way, if an attendee leaves midway, they have the option to sit down privately with the counselor without drawing attention to themselves.
Have your event facilitator introduce the counselors at the beginning of the event, and ask the facilitator to remind participants at another point in the event that there is currently a resource available for attendees who are struggling.
5. Offer support groups
Whether or not you offer support groups during the rest of the year, consider adding in some ad-hoc groups for SAAM. This is a great opportunity to further partner with your counseling center or peer support group facilitators.
If your SAAM schedule is pretty heavy (more than three events per week), consider offering a standing weekly support group throughout the month. The attendance might even let you know that it’s something that should be offered year-round on campus!
For survivors who want to move forward in their recovery or who simply want to know that they’re not alone, support groups are great options. They also provide another layer of security and comfort, as support group locations are often provided only by request.
6. Program with the struggles that survivors may experience in mind
Sexual violence is something that affects much more than one facet of our lives, and recovery is not a short road.
Survivors of sexual trauma may experience a variety of mental health side effects as a result of the trauma they’ve experienced, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse issues, eating disorders, and difficulties with sex and sexuality.
When developing your programming calendar, keep these struggles in mind. How can you offer programs that are responsive to these?
If your programming staff is unable to develop programming specific to any given issue, ensure that you acknowledge it in some way during another, more general program. Simply shedding light on post-traumatic side effects can help survivors draw connections and begin to feel in control of their recovery.
7. Provide fidget tools
Talking about sexual violence is uncomfortable, and when people are uncomfortable, we often fidget. Let attendees know that it’s okay to work out their anxiety however they need to by providing fidget tools at your event. Some of my favorites are colorful pipe cleaners, Play-Doh, and kinetic sand.
8. Offer materials in different mediums
Let’s be honest — focusing can be difficult for anyone during a longer workshop. But when we’re talking about a more difficult topic (like sexual violence), focus is an entirely different issue.
Attendees may mentally check out of an event for a short period as a way of increasing their psychological safety.
If, for example, they are triggered by a particular aspect of the event or if simply engaging in the discussion is more than they can give at that moment, an attendee may opt to fidget with something, look at their phone, doodle on a sheet of paper, or work to turn off their thoughts.
Let attendees know at the beginning of your event that it’s okay for them to take space to take care of themselves — they can leave to go to the bathroom or get some air if they need to, no questions asked.
In order to accommodate this possibility, offer the materials from the event in different mediums. If you’re primarily presenting with a Powerpoint, print out a 1-page summary of information and resources that attendees could bring home with them, offer to email out the slidedeck, and share high-level takeaways on your office’s social media accounts. (Instagram stories works great for this)
Of course, attendees could also be tuning out simply because the workshop itself isn’t very engaging. Which brings me to my next point…
9. Don’t talk at them
Conversations about sexual violence, consent, and communication are some of the most fraught conversations we can have on a college campus. Whether your event is during SAAM, orientation week, or any other time of the year, people are going to be coming into that space with some pre-existing feelings.
Talking at your attendees, rather than engaging them, will only make them disconnect from the topic that much more.
Regardless of your learning outcome for that specific workshop, ensure that there is some type of engaging component to your event. If it’s a Title IX process education workshop, you could ask attendees to write or draw out what they think the process is and who they can go to. If it’s a consent and communication workshop, you could have attendees do a quick quiz about different types of communication and then talk through how we can translate communication styles.
There are tons of options for building engaging programs, so don’t just talk at your attendees.
10. Build healing spaces
Recovery looks different for everyone. SAAM events can help that recovery along, but if they’re not done well, they could actually hinder some survivors’ progress. Focus on creating healing spaces so that regardless of each event’s objective, survivors feel welcomed and like their work in recovery is acknowledged.
Part of building a healing space means that as programmers, we need to not only consider what information we need to share during the event but how we want attendees to feel when they leave.
How will you make those two objectives work together?
11. Center identities that are less frequently acknowledged
This last one should go without saying, but it bears repeating: SAAM programming absolutely must be inclusive of a variety of identities and experiences. That means moving beyond the idea that cisgender women are the only people who are sexually assaulted, that men can’t experience (or talk about) trauma, and that sexual violence equals one specific sexual behavior.
We’re moving past those tired tropes as a culture, and we need to reflect and advance that in our programming.
That means de-gendering much (if not all) of your SAAM programming, acknowledging that LGBQ and transgender people experience sexual violence at much higher rates than the average, as do people with disabilities. It means realizing that students aren’t the only people on our campuses who experience or are vulnerable to interpersonal violence.
If your campus has a large percentage of students who are undocumented or who are immigrants, how can you develop SAAM programming that addresses their needs and experiences? Can your LGBTQ student union partner with your office on a program about queer survivorship? Can your faculty union host an event for the faculty?
These are all questions that you should be asking yourselves. If we overlook our most vulnerable — even unintentionally — we implicitly tell them that their experiences aren’t important in the greater conversation.
How do you center survivors in your SAAM programming? I’d love to hear from you, so drop me a line on Twitter or Instagram @FeministSexEd.