Last week, we scheduled an interview with Sharon Travis, a prevention and outreach specialist for the Nashville Sexual Assault Center. The SAC operates from funding provided by private donors, grants, and patient insurance. They staff 15 different masters level therapists and deal exclusively with cases of sexual assault, directing domestic violence cases elsewhere. Their primary services are education/prevention, therapy, and maintaining a crisis support line. We were surprised to find out that it was actually two Vanderbilt students who originally founded the SAC in 1978. It serves patients of all ages and gender identities. The center has a relationship with law enforcement services, but does not pressure their adult patients to prosecute.
Ms. Travis’ work deals largely with outreach to college campuses, and she had several interesting insights into how to most effectively teach prevention programs. She emphasized heavily that every school needs a program custom tailored to its size and cultural competency. She said that a school like Fisk, for example, could use a one size fits all program, because the culture of the school is tightly woven enough that the message wouldn’t miss certain parts of the cultural landscape. MTSU, however, would need a program with several entry points, one for the greeks, one for the athletes, one for the musicians, and so on etc, because the sense of collective identity isn’t as strong. She remarked that schools with a small cultural scope usually only have good program turnout among females. Large scope schools, which she considered Vanderbilt to be, have good success rates with men as well.
One of the most interesting points she made was about the difficulty in bringing prevention programs to socially conservative, usually religious schools like Lipscomb. Lipscomb assumes when you enroll that you won’t be having sex, and actually has been known to expel students if they’re caught. However, all schools that receive government funding are legally required to provide sexual assault prevention education, or risk losing their funding. She said that a normal program wouldn’t work in that kind of environment because most the rhetoric of most sexual education programs assumes students will be seeking out sexual encounters, which could well be the case at Lipscomb, but it can’t be explicitly acknowledged in any school sanctioned program. For the most part, she said the SAC just provides those kinds of schools with educational material then lets them design their own program.
In our interview, we asked Sharon about the ways she believes that the discourse surrounding sexual assault victims can be shifted to lessen stigma. She said that a change in the narrative regarding consent is the first step in this process. We need to express to males and females alike the importance of their right to express what they DO want, rather than only what they DON’T want. This process starts by encouraging conversations about consent early in the relational interactions, and keeping lines of communication constantly open. When males and females are both on board with talking about consent, a more sex-positive atmosphere is created. In much of the recent discourse surrounding sexual assault on college campuses, as we’ve seen in the TIME magazine articles, more positive discussions of sex are heavily encouraged. Another need that Sharon expressed is the need to change the tendency to “blame the victim.” Rather than constantly question a victim’s accusations to avoid false guilty verdicts, we need to portray disclosure in a more positive light. A result of honoring disclosure is removing shame and stigma.
Sharon brought up another interesting point about the lack of services offered to offenders. Most sexual offenders themselves were abused as children, and the majority are repeat offenders. As we’ve seen in class, the statistics do not always account for this phenomenon. We spoke with Sharon about how these numbers could change if we offered therapeutic services to offenders just as we do victims. Isolation is necessary to an extent, especially with violent and malicious offenders, but some may have experienced abuse that they have never had a chance to confront in a therapeutic environment. Would resources targeted towards sexual offenders help stop them from re-offending? Or would these efforts further stigmatize and marginalize perpetrators? Should services even be created to help men who sometimes do not have malicious intent, or should all offenders be treated the same and be forced to comply with the consequences served them by the criminal justice system?
A neat thing that we were given the opportunity to gain more insight about at the Sexual Assault Center is the benefits of art therapy. Different forms of art therapy give victims the chance to tell their stories, produce art that gives them a sense of community among sexual assault survivors, and publicly take a stance advocating awareness of sexual abuse. It was incredible to see some of the work done by adults and children alike. These are some of the works of therapeutic art proudly displayed at the Sexual Assault Center:
To learn more about the Sexual Assault Center, visit http://www.sacenter.org.