For many of us, Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a tough time of year. Having experienced sexual violence and all the pain that comes with it, I honestly can’t think of many things I want to do less than talk or even think about it—but as uncomfortable as the topic is for survivors and for everyone, sexual violence is too important and pervasive a problem for us to avoid discussing it.
Pretty much everyone can agree that sexual assault is wrong, but feeling vaguely bad about violence isn’t enough. Our cultural understanding of violence and consent won’t change unless we change it, so it’s on all of us to take an active role in supporting survivors, holding abusers accountable, and working toward a future where dealing with harassment isn’t just a typical experience for women.
Of course, sexual violence that has already happened can’t be canceled or undone, but the way we show up for survivors matters. On an interpersonal level, that can mean something as simple as being there for a friend or loved one who has confided in you about being assaulted. It also means using trigger warnings and being conscious about the language we use when talking about sex and consent. On a broader scale, supporting survivors can mean advocating for policies that will make therapy and mental health care more accessible to those who need it.
It means working to reform sex education in our schools, which often include misogynistic narratives and completely fail to discuss affirmative, enthusiastic consent—because if we want our kids to grow up understanding how to have healthy relationships and sexual encounters, we have to make sure they’re learning those skills. For the record, a bill doing just that has been introduced in the state legislature, but has failed to gain any traction with Republicans.
And, of course, it means holding ourselves and each other accountable. Ideally, that means when someone—whether it’s a stranger or your friend or a public figure you used to look up to—harasses or assaults somebody, they should face real consequences. And, if you’re the one in the wrong, it’s on you to recognize the harm you’ve caused, apologize, and be better.
For a case study in what not to do, we look to State Senator Peter Lucido. A few months ago, he made an extremely degrading comment to a female reporter—and when she called him out on it, he denied saying it and insisted she was making a big deal out of nothing. When two more women came forward with similar stories, he denied those, too. An investigation into the claims found these claims of sexual misconduct to be true—and yet, he’s still a senator and he still sits on committees.
I watched that scandal unfold, and when Senate leadership refused to take decisive action, I heard their message loud and clear, and so did women across the state who have experienced sexual violence. To them, an established pattern of harassing and degrading women isn’t enough of a problem to warrant any significant punishment. We’ve seen the same kind of story on a national scale, with Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh sitting on the Supreme Court and Donald Trump sitting in the White House. With men like them in positions of power, it’s no wonder more victims don’t come forward to share their experiences with sexual harassment and assault.
So, to sexual assault survivors of all genders, know that you’re valid and know that we believe you. To everyone else, it’s time to get to work. The sexist power structures entrenched in our culture didn’t pop up overnight, and we’re not going to fix them overnight either—but I truly believe that, together, we can make a difference in the fight to end sexual violence.