Speaking up about sexual assault
Project Unbreakable gives voice to survivors
Too often those who have been subjected to sexual abuse are silenced, by their attackers and by the victim-blaming propagated in our society.
On Oct. 17, Mount Royal University welcomed Grace Brown, 20, the creator of Project Unbreakable, to speak to students about a movement working to increase awareness and decrease stigma surrounding rape and sexual assault.
The project works with men and women who have been sexually abused by taking a photograph of the victim holding a sign with the words their attacker said to them. The photos are then displayed on Project Unbreakable’s blog site.
The common stereotype is that the abuser is someone the victim doesn’t know, but that is often not the case. Most attacks come from people known by the victim, and because of this, it can be very hard to speak up. Brown has done more than that. She said she has always been attached to helping those who have been assaulted, even from the young age of 16. She tried to raise awareness in her school, but was told to give it up, that she couldn’t make a difference.
Brown was going to university for photography when she came up with the idea for Project Unbreakable after one of her friends had confessed her own experience of being abused and what the attacker said to her.
In October 2011, the first of Brown’s photographs was of her friend holding a sign saying, “You wanted it though.”
Now Project Unbreakable has over 1,000 photos submitted and more coming in every day, according to Brown. Many people in the pictures said that they felt liberated to finally be able to share their experience.
Many of the things that were written on the signs are similar, such as, “I’m doing this because I love you,” “Why are you crying?” or “You said ‘yes.’ You can’t change your mind. You can’t say ‘no.’”
People who have been assaulted need to know that they are not at fault and that they can tell people what is happening. They are not alone.
“What students said is that they really didn’t understand what dating violence was,” said Dr. Gaye Warthe, associate professor in MRU’s department of social work and disability studies, and coordinator of Stepping Up, a sexual assault prevention workshop.
“A significant number of men indicate that it’s okay to have sex with your partner even if they don’t want to — that wasn’t violence as far as they were concerned,” Warthe said.
Society teaches, especially to women, how to protect themselves from rape: to not walk in the dark alone, not to wear provocative clothing or act in suggestive ways.
Brown said protection is not what needs to be taught. What is important is to teach people to not assault others.
The problem goes beyond the abusers. Many of the pictures in Project Unbreakable are not just what the assailers have said to the victims, but also the reactions of those whom the victims have told, such as, “They’re not gonna believe you,” “You must have wanted it” or “Tell her to get over it.”
That is the stigma around sexual abuse and part of the reason it is still so prevalent — the idea that the person attacked is not the victim, but that they somehow did something to deserve it. As one woman wrote, “The scariest part is, he knows what he did…and he doesn’t think it’s wrong.” If you think that rape doesn’t affect you or someone around you, you should know that 30 per cent of students starting Mount Royal University have experienced some form of dating violence, and another 10 per cent will have it happen to them in their first year here, according to Warthe.
If you want to be active fighting this problem, Stepping Up will take place at the end of January, pending funding.
Stepping Up is a weekend of workshops and community prevention projects, open to anyone, regardless of discipline and background. It is facilitated completely by students, as well as professors and researchers who aren’t involved but support the students. Last year 60 students participated, and 16 facilitated the weekend event.
They are still looking for volunteers and event facilitators, so if you are interested in volunteering or attending, please contact Dr. Gaye Warthe at email@example.com.
If you would like to know more about Project Unbreakable or submit a picture, you can go to http://projectunbreakable.tumblr.com/. You can also find links to their related sites.
Brown said that everyone has worth and power inside of them, and the most important thing that you can take from Project Unbreakable is to stand up and do something.