by Viviana Arcia, ’13
Disclaimer: Women are more likely to be survivors of sexual violence than are men. As such, I will refer to perpetrators by male pronouns and survivors by female pronouns. However, domestic violence and sexual assault affects men, women, transgender, and gender non-conforming people.
The recent article on sexual assault on campus has brought an often taboo subject back into campus dialogue. And, like almost every time the subject is back in public consciousness, two opposing and fiercely vocal sides begin heated and passionate debates, often failing to openly take in what the other says and feels, more often than not failing to reach a comfortable middle ground.
As an advocate for survivors of rape and domestic violence for four years and as someone who is close friends with numerous survivors, I myself have very often been dragged into these debates and, in the meantime, made enemies, gained allies, and learned difficult but ultimately fulfilling lessons in engaging “the other side.” Two very important lessons I’ve learned and would hope that others who engage in these discussions do as well is the idea of empathy and compassion.
One in three women will be raped or abused and one in six men will have been survivors of sexual assault/abuse in their lifetime. As such, you are guaranteed to have met a survivor, although most won’t readily identify as such. However, these statistics have failed to affect much of Stanford’s campus culture regarding rape and domestic violence, and it is this culture which I believe holds the most power in reducing the number of violent acts that we perpetrate against each other.
One way to effect change in this lethargic, misinformed and, at times, defensive campus of ours is through learning compassion and empathy, for both survivors and perpetrators. And as a radical feminist who was often on the defensive, ready to aggressively engage with anyone who disagreed with my feminist and activist views, it has taken me much self-reflection, practice, and, most importantly, patience, to learn that until one is open to engage both sides in a non-aggressive or combative way, very little will change.
Compassion and empathy towards survivors means learning to put oneself in the shoes of these individuals, imagining or visualizing ourselves going through what they’ve experienced. It involves the conscious realization that we often project onto them feelings or ideas we have developed and to instead work towards understanding their feelings and perspectives, using that to orient how we behave towards them. It’s often very difficult for us to actually empathize with survivors, mostly as a result of our preconceived notions of ourselves and how we think we would react if we were ever in a position where we could be raped or where a partner would physically or emotionally abuse us. This phenomenon, referred to as the just world theory, allows us to rationalize when rape or domestic abuse happens by convincing ourselves that if we only follow delineated steps and are vigilant of our surroundings and behavior, we will not be victims. We will not be weak. Worldviews such as these prevent us from truly being empathetic to those who have undergone these experiences.
However, as someone who directly works with survivors in crisis, both at Stanford and in a San Francisco domestic violence agency, I’ve learned a difficult truth. In order to truly end violence, one needs not only compassion towards survivors, but compassion toward perpetrators. And for me, compassion means accountability. This factor, as difficult as it may be for those of us who are close or friends with both survivors and perpetrators of violence, is central to ending violence. As has been reported time and time again, most men are not rapists or perpetrators of domestic violence and abuse. It is only a subset who repeatedly rape and abuse, and much of why they continue is because few hold them accountable.
So how does this compassionate accountability look like? For starters, it means understanding that people who commit violence or are abusive were not born that way. Instead, they are products of their own personal histories and a culture that gives them permission to replicate inequalities and unequal balances of power in their intimate relationships. By failing to hold perpetrators accountable and speaking out against their views and behaviors, we too are giving them permission to continue. Having the compassion to understand this, we should then be willing to interrupt these acts as bystanders and support processes that allows for transformation. This requires:
Acknowledging the harm done.
Acknowledging its negative effects on individuals and the community.
Acknowledging the explicit and implicit ways we as bystanders have contributed to the behavior.
Acknowledging its connections to other unequal practices like racism, homophobia, ableism, and classism.
Engaging in practices that prevent further violence and support liberation.
This last one is especially important and perhaps the easiest to do, especially at Stanford. Even simple acts like not laughing or actively responding to sexist jokes or jokes about rape, not playing music by known perpetrators like Chris Brown at parties, being active bystanders at social events, and even peacefully confronting friends about problematic or abusive behavior, encouraging them to change their behavior through therapy, counseling, and contemplation. Small acts like these can go a long way towards transforming campus behavior. Standing up to friends is a very difficult thing. It requires a critical and unflinching look not only at someone we care deeply about but also at ourselves. Do we want to contribute to a culture of violence, aggression, and abuse or do we want to interrupt these behaviors and allow for ones which heal and liberate?
I say all of this as a continued defender, advocate and loyal ally of survivors of rape and domestic violence and as someone who has made an unwavering commitment to nonviolence for the rest of my life. It’s imperative, now more than ever, to begin the journey of holding ourselves and each other accountable.
Viviana Arcia is a senior at Stanford majoring in Feminist Studies and Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. She has been working as a survivor advocate within the violence against women movement for four years and is currently a domestic violence crisis line counselor at the San Francisco-based organization WOMAN Inc.