Higher Education, Survivor Centered environments

By age 18, one in four girls will be sexually assaulted (Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics, 2016). By age 18, one in six boys will be assaulted (Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics, 2016). Half of people who are trans* will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. These statistics are shocking, sickening, even. The probability of you knowing a survivor personally, or even are one yourself, is extremely high. We are empathetic human beings; we have the ability to understand and share the feelings of another . The thought of those around us having to go through an assault is unsettling and should lead us to be cautionary with our language, actions, and outreach strategies.

There are many types of violence a person can endure. For the purpose of this post I will be discussing the three primary types of violence:

(1) Sexual violence, as was briefly discussed above, is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent. There does not have to be explicit P in V penetration. This can be executed through the use of coercion, violence, alcohol, or physical force. (Violence Prevention, 2017).

(2) Intimate partner violence is any act of violence, threat or intimidation that harm or injure a partner in a current or former intimate relationship. It’s important to emphasis that this type of violence can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Violence is not exclusive to heteronormative relationships. (Violence Prevention, 2017).

(3) Stalking is any repeated, unwanted acts that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear or experience emotional stress.(Bulletins for Teens, 2012).

All of these types of violence, and those I did not explicitly define, can cause psychological, emotional, and physical trauma to the survivor. Their way of living can be altered; they can be triggered and possibly relieve the trauma or experience PTSD and other mental stressors. For this reason, it is important for us to all work to create Survivor Centered Environments in our daily lives. A Survivor Centered Environment is any social situation in which you consciously and proactively work to make survivors feel safe, wanted, and believed. This can be a classroom, a work meeting, a sport practice, essentially any situation with more than one person.


Aside from being mindful and respectful of people’s past experiences, creating a Survivor Centered Environment can actually prevent more attacks. Surveys show that 73% of survivors knew their attacker, and 40% of all sexual assaults take place in the victim’s own home (Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics, 2016). This means that they don’t always have a safe place to go to or could have a hard time trusting people they are close with. By showing that you are an ally to survivors, you are opening up a space where people can feel safe to disclose what has happened, feel protected from their attacker, and potentially get professional help. A Survivor Centered Environment can be anywhere or anything. It can be a business, a school club, a faculty meeting, your apartment with your roommates. We all assume a common regimen of respecting each other, the way we talk or jokes we make can be extremely triggering.Jokes or statements like “dude that test raped me” can trigger survivors. So the first step to becoming an ally and creating a Survivor Centered Environment is censoring your language.


Along with not using triggering language, proactively showing support for survivors is important too. People are more likely to report an attack if they feel like people will believe them. And if they can report the attacker, they are potentially taking a repeat offender off of the streets. Some studies have shown that one failed response can mean five more assaults, because the perpetrator feels empowered and as if they won’t get caught (Perpetrators of Sexual Violence: Statistics, 2016). However, it is very important that you do not force a person to report an attack. The legal process of reporting a traumatic event may do more harm than good for the survivor. Asking the person what they need, what you can do to help, or suggesting a multitude of outlets or steps to take helps the survivor feel more in control.

Whether it’s big or small, we all have an impact on a number of people’s lives per day. The words we use can carry a far heavier weight than we intend or even realize. Using trigger warnings before heavy or possibly upsetting discussions is a great way to show support for survivors and make people feel safe. If someone should disclose an attack to you, your initial response is important. The first thing you can do when someone discloses is THANK THEM for sharing this story with you as it was probably difficult to talk about. If you can, having a dedicated sexual assault advocate, or violence prevention advocate, at your office or school can be a great help. Being able to escort the person to a professional can be an amazing sign of support.

Title IX Awareness Sign/Image Example (https://uaf.edu/titleix/)

Knowing what resources you have access to is an asset. Being able to tell people about local counseling services, a Title IX director, or a Wellness Resource Coordinator can be a saving grace. We aren’t all equipped to give someone the help they need, so the next best thing is to be able to show them someone who can. Again, it is important to offer these as resources; do not push the person to come to any of these, because it is ultimately their decision.

Creating simple PSA’s to educate yourself, and those around you is a great way to show members of your organization, campus, business, etc. that you care about these issues and that you want to make survivors feel welcome and safe. You can also participate in group trainings on how to handle these situations, host events on violence prevention, or bring in guest speakers to educate your community.

Hosting a Survivor Centered Environment is a step towards allyship. We are empathetic human beings. We care about those around us and want to make the world a better place. Hopefully this article has given you some easy and educational strategies you could apply to your organization.

Bulletins for Teens. (2012). Retrieved June 18, 2017, from https://victimsofcrime.org/help-for- crime-victims/get-help-bulletins-for-crime-victims/bulletins-for-teens/stalking

Perpetrators of Sexual Violence: Statistics. (2016). Retrieved June 18, 2017, from https:// www.rainn.org/statistics/perpetrators-sexual-violence

Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics. (2016). Retrieved June 18, 2017, from https:// www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence

Violence Prevention. (2017, March 22). Retrieved June 18, 2017, from https://www.cdc.gov/ violenceprevention/sexualviolence/definitions.html

Violence Prevention. (2017, May 22). Retrieved June 18, 2017, from https://www.cdc.gov/ violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/index.html

Higher Education, Speaker, Programs, College and Universities, Student Affairs, Social Justice

This post was written by Jillian Abel.

Jillian is JPHigherEd’s summer 2017 intern. Jillian is a senior year at Virginia Commonwealth University. Over her college career she has developed a passion for inclusion, diversity, and social justice.

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