Op-Alt: 'Healing is a journey, not a destination,' sexual and domestic violence survivors speak out

Survivors are everywhere—your friends, colleagues, classmates, and family—across all identities, although historically disenfranchised communities are disproportionately victimized, including Native, Latinx, and Black women, disabled women, and transgender individuals.

While this year's stories on sexual assault are not new, the inclusion of survivor perspectives and identification of the culture that allows rape to thrive are. We find survivor narratives everywhere. Millions of individuals recently tweeted assault stories using the hashtag #notokay. This was to draw links between rape-supportive attitudes and actual victimization, in response to coverage of the "Trump tapes" where Donald Trump described using his power to assault women as "locker room talk."

During the sexual assault trial of Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, the survivor's letter to Turner, in which she powerfully describes the harrowing legal process, the damage of victim blaming, and healing from trauma, was widely shared.

Survivor narratives are in the DOJ's report on the Baltimore Police Department's mishandling of sexual assault cases and abuse of city residents, particularly women of color, transgender women, and sex workers. These show the necessity of survivor-centered spaces, where we lead conversations about prevention and healing, and inform and direct efforts for us.

Amongst the growing recognition of survivor narratives, a collective of sexual and domestic violence survivors called Gather Together formed under the direction of FORCE, the organization behind the Monument Quilt and the Victoria's Secret Love Consent prank. We design public campaigns to support healing and prevent rape and abuse. During bi-monthly gatherings, we develop skills in communications and self care, creating a platform for survivors to heal through collective action.

As survivors, we see our voices are crucial to policies and services designed for us. We center our stories and create campaigns and events to demand public healing space for survivors. Our collective came to this work for a multitude of personal and political reasons. Some sought community with other survivors as part of healing—as Gather Together member Ella says, "Being able to do things in a community has allowed me to become more comfortable reflecting alone." Others were interested in art as a political statement, and others for self-expression. Some found other spaces to be surprisingly unsupportive of survivors.

In addition to public campaigns, Gather Together meets for self-care workshops. We focus on healing ourselves while (and through) working to create healing space for others. There are no uniform definitions of healing. Alanah Nicole calls it "transparency," while Kiara describes it as "a journey, not a destination," and Alexis as "practicing wholeness." Shanti says healing is "refusing to blame yourself," Marlo as "accepting what happened," and Stephanie as "spaces where our needs our centered."

Most members express the importance of emotional acceptance, and trusting oneself. Specifically, many members find help through what is offered through Gather Together and FORCE: community with other survivors; acknowledging the larger systems that enable and perpetuate rape and abuse; and telling and hearing stories, especially through poetry and art.

As a group of survivors, we've had varied experiences with non-survivor loved ones; in some cases, they've been helpful, and in other cases, hurtful to our healing. They were helpful when they were supportive and proactive in challenging the culture in which rape and abuse thrive. More often, though, they were hurtful by failing to acknowledge the pervasiveness of rape and abuse (especially in youth), assuming the survivor is doing the work "for others" and not also for themselves, and claiming to support survivors while being complacent about victim blaming, misogyny, and rape jokes.

Gather Together highlights survivor voices for many reasons. "We have to tell our own stories," says Alanah Nicole; "I don't need someone to save me," says Kiara. While the violence prevention field works to counter the notion that survivors are damaged or hysterical, there continues to be stigma about being "out" as a survivor within the field, particularly among leaders. This idea of telling our own stories underlies our upcoming event, Gather Together: Survivors Speak Out, co-sponsored with TurnAround, on Oct. 22 from 6-9 p.m. at Impact Hub. We are celebrating the release of and performing pieces from the seventh annual "Purple Poetry Book," a collection of stories and artwork by and for survivors.

This event, and the work of Gather Together, envisions a world where rape and abuse can end. We call on Baltimore residents, both survivors and non-survivor allies, to join us in fostering a culture of consent where survivors are supported and believed. Consider supporting survivor spaces and events, and making space for the stories of survivors in your life.

Thanks to Gather Together members Ella, Alanah Nicole, Kiara, Shanti, Stephanie, Alexis, and Marlo for providing the inspiration for this piece.

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