Building Bridges During Sexual Assault Awareness Month

It has been an interesting time for my alma mater, the University of Virginia, which has found itself at the center of two vibrant national conversations in the past five months alone. The first was triggered after Rolling Stone ran an article (now retracted) that highlighted an alleged gang rape by a campus fraternity and the second has recently been sparked by the apparent use of excessive force in the arrest of a Black undergraduate student. Both incidents resulted in an outpouring of emotion on my social media networks and I watched my peers express their concern about gendered violence and race-based violence respectively.

As I look back on the myriad of conversations that I had about social justice following the aforementioned events, I recognize that each event aroused separate communities. With very little overlap, the folks that spoke against rape culture were distinct from those who voiced their thoughts on police brutality. I watched many passionate advocates opt for silence when the particular social justice initiative that moved them was out of the national spotlight. This was disheartening to me because prior interest in combating racial discrimination is precisely what propelled me to become someone who wanted to speak against sexual violence. Many dismiss anti-sexual violence advocates as exaggerating the state of things but I initially responded to them partially because their message felt so familiar to me as someone who already accepted that America was not a meritocracy. So many of their arguments fit neatly into my existing worldview that accepted that there were real-world consequences to attitudes that belittled communities. So many of their statements felt at home on the lips of civil rights leaders that I already deeply respected.

Cries that women ought to have supreme authority over their bodily integrity and calls that Black Americans ought to be able to engage authorities without fear of bodily harm ultimately both rely on appeals to empathy and sovereign personal rights. Both fight common enemies such as objectification, societal acceptance of certain brands of violence, abuse of authority, and privilege. We can find common ground by taking issues to their most fundamental levels and thus find tremendous opportunity to develop the critical mass necessary to actually disrupt the problematic social dynamics that we spend so much time discussing.

I get that comparing different social issues is precisely what divides us at times. We can feel as if the nuanced history of a particular community is being minimized if we strip various forms of discrimination of their context and try to equate them to one another. Furthermore, speaking out on new causes can easily offend existing advocates through the perceived trampling of historical efforts and through the application of well-intentioned but harmful strategies. Recognizing this, those who decide to lend their voices this April to fighting sexual violence are encouraged to seek out training from the nation-wide network of anti-violence organizations if at all possible. Sexual Assault Awareness Month remains an excellent opportunity for you to honestly listen to what is being said and to lend your own voice if you feel moved to do so. If you are able to listen honestly, then you might just find that the women and men stepping up to microphones and computer keyboards this month are speaking to truths and values that you already hold dear.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Take Back the Night in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about Take Back the Night and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.

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