In contrast to rape crisis hotline volunteers or medical advocate, it’s less likely that I’ll be having conversations so specifically about sexual violence as a yoga teacher – but the level of detail that came up really expanded my picture of how sexual violence can affect people. A survivor assaulted by someone they know and will likely see again.One person’s concern that if they report the assault, their partner won’t understand, or the situation in which it happened will make their sexual orientation known and they haven’t come out. Parents who want their (adult) child to pursue a different path after the assault – reporting it or not, changing jobs, getting counseling – and struggle to let their child choose her/his own path.
2. Victim-blaming is still a thing, whether it’s blatant or subtle (and “subtle” can be just as insidious – see microaggressions below). Rape culture is the attitude that normalizes or trivializes sexual assault, for instance, shifting the burden of prevention from the perpetrator and the wider social context that normalizes sexual violence to the (potential) individual survivors: take self defense! don’t wear revealing clothing! never walk alone at night! Self defense isn’t a bad thing, but the main problem is not that survivors didn’t take self defense, but that perpetrators committed violence against them.
While it’s hard to imagine a yoga instructor speaking specifically on the topic of sexual assault in a yoga class, it’s worth considering whether the stories and quotes we do share in general shift the burden of responsibility onto the individual rather than exploring the wider social context that we live in – because people do sometimes extrapolate from a more general quote to their own specific situation…in fact, isn’t this often the goal of sharing these quotes? “Happiness is a choice” … perhaps more so if you receive adequate emotional support as a child, and live in an environment where your human rights are respected as an adult. It’s much more feasible to “choose” happiness when the conditions are amenable to it than when they are not.
3. Microagressions are indirect or subtle discrimination, which are implicit in language rather than openly stated. The intention (/lack of) behind them does not make them less aggressive, and they may reflect subconscious attitudes a speaker holds. How to avoid them? Try to notice assumptions and avoid them. In the context of rape crisis advocates, this could be the assumption that you know what pronoun to use with a transgender survivor, that you know exactly how a person feels, that men or disabled people can’t *really* experience sexual violence. Instead, ask, if it’s appropriate, or stick to what you know based on what the person has said in so many words.
4. We learned a survivor-centered approach to services, where the survivor chooses the path based on her/his knowledge of the situation in general and their own specific goals, rather than the agency creating one “best practice” path for all. You are the boss of you, at least in a survivor-centered approach! In a similar light, goals of rape crisis services include empowering survivors, increasing safety, and decreasing the impact of trauma…and not so much “fixing people”.
5. Privilege refers to benefits we receive based on membership in a group (race, gender, sexual identity, citizenship) versus benefits we earn. We sometimes take these for granted or assume we have earned them. In the context of rape crisis services, we may need to take stock so that our experiences of privilege don’t detract from the assistance we provide to survivors. For instance, economic privilege may allow some people to give up the shoes and clothes they were wearing during the assault as evidence – others may not have a second pair of shoes or another jacket and need their advocate to help them fight to get those things back. Having a history of positive reception from law enforcement or medical staff may reflect privilege based on race – a survivor who is concerned about not being believed may base that response on actual previous experience, and needs to be supported in whatever decision s/he makes rather than told s/he is wrong.
6. Strive for empathy (connection) rather than sympathy (disconnection). Brene Brown speaks vividly about empathy – in practice the right words to say are not always obvious. Maybe most helpful is Brown’s concluding remark – it is not the response in words that makes something better, but the connection. Perspective-taking, avoiding judgment, recognizing emotion and communicating that you recognize that emotion – these skills are essential in jobs that require empathy. “It could be worse” has probably never made anyone feel better; reveling in someone else’s suffering does not change mine.
7. Some of the training focused very specifically on interactions between the volunteer and survivor at the hospital – the importance of expressing non-judgment, avoiding making promises you cannot keep (I’ll be here for you, everything will be fine), being aware of your facial expression (sometimes we smile or laugh when we are uncomfortable).
8. Vicarious or second-hand trauma: seeing other people in great pain can be traumatic too. On top of the likelihood that there are sexual violence survivors in class, there’s a likelihood that there are people who help them too!