That Awkward Moment When There Isn’t Informed Consent in an Event for Survivors

This is an article of mine that was originally posted in Feministing’s community blog.

Recently I went to an event organized by a survivor of sexual assault whose purpose is to support other survivors. The cruel irony: An event for helping people heal after their consent has already been violated… didn’t practice informed consent. What?

Before I go on, I’d like to make one thing clear: I have no interest in naming and shaming the organization and the event. That’s not what this post is about. The experience just got me thinking about how we can events like these more welcoming and inclusive.

So here’s what happened: I went to an event for survivors and allies. Survivors could “break their silence” by telling their stories. The event was well-organized and definitely made me feel supported. I was one of the last people to tell their story. A few people came up to me afterward to thank me for sharing. I was also given a goodie bag full of self-care items and a couple dozen notes with words of encouragement from other people who attended the event.

Overall, I really enjoyed the event. It feels wonderful to share my story with a bunch of people who will support me. At the event, the only thing that really bugged me was the organizer’s language. She always referred to survivors as female and perpetrators as male. That could be alienating to male survivors, people who were assaulted by women and people who don’t fit the gender binary. I fit under her stereotypes, but throughout the event I worried how it would feel to be erased by an event that’s supposed to uplift you. Being the shy person that I am, I said nothing to the organizer before I left the event.

Back at home, the organizer invited me to a private Facebook group for people who attended the event and broke their silence. After an emotionally taxing event like that, I was glad that the event organizer went as far as to provide aftercare for us. I was scrolling through the group, trying to get a feel for what it’s about, when I came across a comment made by the organizer. It was then that I found out the event’s true purpose: Speaking at the event means a survivor is going public with their story and is giving people permission to speak their name as a survivor. In no way was this made clear at the event.

Seeing that my name and my story may be shared without my consent was terrifying. With the glaring exception of my college campus, I have no intention of ever going fully public with my story (Kira is not my real name). I never want someone to find out that I’m a survivor or hear my story from anyone other than me, ideally. Unfortunately, once something like that is on the internet, there’s no taking it back.

My interpretation of “breaking the silence” is very broad. Society at large doesn’t talk about sexual assault nearly as much as it should, so I believe that talking about it in any way can be a way to break the silence. It can be posting an article about the issue on Facebook, it can be telling a friend in confidence about surviving sexual assault, and yes, it can also mean going public.

The good news is that this all happened less than an hour after the event ended. I was able to contact the organizer before any damage could be done. I also used the opportunity to respectfully make a recommendation about the non-inclusive language she used during the event. “I’m sorry that it was unclear to you what it meant to break the silence,” is what she said in reply. She never apologized for not making the event’s purpose clear in the first place and she didn’t even acknowledge the part of my message about non-inclusive language. It definitely left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

The event I went to happens regularly. A few months later I was glad to see that the next Facebook event had a disclaimer at the top. “This is NOT an event where what is said in the room stays in the room.”

I’ve been to many events regarding sexual assault. None of them were perfect of course. We’re only human, after all. Shoot, I’ve even made mistakes at events I’ve organized. One in particular still makes me cringe… However, I do think it’s important to remember that even survivors can create a space that is inhospitable to other survivors. We need to think critically about our actions and our words to make sure these events are having the positive impact we’re hoping for. By learning from our own mistakes and from others, we can make sure that safe spaces are actually safe.

Thank you for reading this article. You can find my backstory here.

Related article: Getting Triggered in Public

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