Cari Ionson is a guest writer for the Calgary Journal and works at Mount Royal University as a sexual violence and awareness coordinator.
I confront sexual violence every day and see the darker side of humanity. I walk through the world knowing how prevalent this violence is, constantly noticing the social attitudes and beliefs that shape it into reality.
I was unphased when #MeToo exposed how experiences of sexual assault touch the lives of so many. To me, this is the world that I know. It is inescapable.
I even felt a little envious that some were just coming to terms with recognizing how common sexual assault is. What was it like, not to know?
I have been working to end gender-based violence for over a decade. I have been worked in shelters, women centres, sexual assault centres and currently as the Sexual Violence Response and Awareness Coordinator at Mount Royal University.
This work can be lonely. Working in sexual violence response seldom affords the opportunity to talk about your day and your work, knowing full well what it can bring up for people.
So many of us have survived sexual violence and so few of us want to invite those experiences into the everyday conversations that start with the ever-so-normal questions of: “So, what do you do?” or, “How was your day?”
When my work comes up, I am often met with comments like, “That must be so hard,” or, “You are such a good person.” Neither of these comments feel like they reflect this work.
It is likely no coincidence, then, that some of my closest friendships are with those who have done anti-violence work. The type of deep connection, skilled empathy and the snarky dark comedy that only comes from such shared experiences are at the core of these friendships.
It is almost a game, amongst my friends and colleagues, to ask one another, “What would you being doing for work if sexual violence did not exist?”
In this game, we imagine a world that is free of sexual violence, and we imagine ourselves in that world and the vocation we would hold.
Given that option, I would spend my days on a farm breeding golden retriever puppies or arranging flowers, or both.
It is a strikingly common game among those who work in the anti-violence sector. We are eager to play. We love sharing our answers and hearing each others. We are enticed into imagining a world that is just, and people are good to each other. We are curious about what our own world could look like without this work.
In my position at Mount Royal University, I confront how the trauma of a sexual assault can impact a person’s life and academics.
Even when me and my client get the appropriate resources, referrals and academic accommodations, people still can find themselves struggling to focus, feel safe and learn.
Similar to imagining what I would do if I weren’t working in this field, I imagine: what would happen if my clients did not experience sexual violence?
But this is not a game; it is an unjust reality.
We don’t get to see the papers, the research and the degrees that were not completed because of the impact of someone else’s choice to sexually assault.
I am compelled to continue because I cannot unsee, or unlearn what I know.
To stay with this work is a hopeful act. I watch and see people heal in many different ways everyday.
When I facilitate or host workshops, people get excited about engaging with topics about consent, how to be a bystander or how to respond effectively to a disclosure.
People do shift their attitudes that uphold sexual violence to ones that support survivors and hold those who perpetrate accountable. More and more, institutions and governments are working to prevent sexual violence.
In my two years of being at Mount Royal University, disclosures through my office have increased.
Last semester alone, there were 13 disclosures in my office compared to the year prior — there were seven.
The increase in disclosures is positive and suggests that more people are accessing support and resources to succeed.
The #IBelieveYou campaign recently came through Mount Royal University for the third year. Research from the campaign indicates that people are more willing to say, “I Believe You,” when they receive a disclosure of sexual assault.
In my work I have seen the impact of this campaign and how my community has come to adopt a philosophy or perspective of believing. How we talk about sexual violence has shifted to believing people and validating their experience rather than minimizing or questioning it.
There is no one easy solution to end sexual violence. The solutions are nuanced, multifaceted, complex and a collective effort.
We each need to ask ourselves tough questions like, “In what ways do I contribute to a world where sexual violence so prevalent?” “How do I uphold attitudes and beliefs that minimize, excuse and justify sexual violence?” “How might I hold myself accountable when I do this?” and, “How might I hold my friends, family and community accountable when I see this?”
Ending sexual violence also requires that we care about consent, not that we understand it.
Research shows that people do understand consent. As humans we know consent. It comes out every day in how we talk to each other and our body language. We need it to be successful in our day to day.
Having a sense of each other’s boundaries is how we have successful relationships professionally and personally.
Stigma around talking about sex, gender norms and fear of rejection are some of the things that can complicate consent, but it does not mean that consent is not understood.
It is not enough for us to teach and talk about consent only within the context of the law. We need to talk about the type of interactions that we want to have and the kind of sex that we want to have. Not being a criminal is a pretty low bar.
We should be thinking about what feels good for our partners and ensure that they are willing and engaged with what is going on. We can do this by asking, by checking in and watching body language.
More and more people are having conversations that are supportive and affirming to each other and creating a community of care and a culture of consent.
There is a momentum moving in a direction that realizes a world that is free of sexual violence.
We are all learning to be better in many different ways and maybe one day I can look back at all the change that has occurred, surrounded by flowers and golden retriever puppies.
- By Cari Lonson