Here’s a guide for non-survivor cis men who want to talk about the critically important topic of sexual abuse. We’re very appreciative of your willingness to speak out—this is extremely important work that requires all of us to leverage our voices and platforms to create change. However, doing so responsibly, especially for those not personally impacted by sexual abuse, can be complicated—so here are a few tips on how to do that.
We use the language of “non-survivor cis men” because, according to the CDC, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact at some point in their lives. For trans, non-binary and gender nonconforming people, the statistics are even more dire; a recent survey found that 47% of trans people are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and that number rises when an individual is a person of color and non-binary, trans or gender nonconforming. Cis men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of sexual assault, though there are others, and therefore very little can change without cis men changing the way they think about and take on this responsibility.
Understand your audience.
If you speak out about sexual abuse, know that there will certainly be survivors of sexual violence in the room. The probability that you can speak about sexual violence without engaging the trauma history of someone listening is just about zero. How would a victim hear your words? In what ways would it comfort them? Hurt them? It might be wise to run a draft of your comments by a survivor of sexual violence and/or someone with another kind of #MeToo history. Know, as well, that there will likely also be people who have been bystanders of sexual violence in the room, as well as perpetrators. The messages you give will be heard differently by each of these people, so think very carefully about what you want to convey.
Don’t make this about yourself.
Do some thinking about what format makes the most sense for your engagement around this issue. Do you need to be speaking from the front? Is this the right time for you to be offering your own personal wisdom on the subject? Might leadership at this moment look more like handing over the mic to a survivor of sexual violence? Might it look like putting your community in 1:1 dyads to discuss carefully crafted questions (perhaps with a text as a prompt?) What do the people in the room need, and what models can help get them there? Keep in mind that creating survivor-led space is not simply about giving survivors opportunities to speak — it’s about letting survivors’ insights drive the format and tone of the event, as well as the recognition that there are both a multiplicity of survivors’ experiences. This could be a powerful opportunity to model what it looks like to deliberately give your power to let other people speak to other people. Remember as well that some survivors are in a place of pain and healing, some in a place of power and resilience, and many are in both places simultaneously. So don’t make the mistake of turning the event/conversation into an abuse-narrative showcase that can be hurtful to speakers and hearers alike in many ways. If you do offer survivors opportunities to speak, think about how to ensure that they are ready and in a safe place to do so.
Be hyper-attuned to power dynamics.
There is already a power dynamic in play if you are a cis male non-survivor ally speaking about trauma that you have not suffered. Especially since sexual victimization is about power, being especially attuned to this is key. Are you also the person or one of the people with the most positional power in the room? Are the doors of the room open or closed? Would someone feel genuinely comfortable getting up and walking out if they needed to? Sometimes it is helpful to ask the people in the room to brainstorm some ground rules together. If participants feel ownership of the rules of the space and the discussion, they are more likely to honor them and to feel the ability to take advantage of them (e.g. leaving the room if needed).
Don’t tell survivors what to think or feel.
There is no one right way to respond to victimization, either in action or in feeling. And there are a myriad of places that a person might be in their potentially lifelong process of healing and recovery — including anger, hurt, and a disinterest or unwillingness to talk about their or others’ experiences of sexual violence. Certainly every survivor has their own journey in making sense of their experiences—definitely do not push them to forgive or reconcile with those who have hurt them in any way. Unless you are asked explicitly for advice about a specific situation, don’t give advice at all to survivors about how to think or feel or make sense of their own experiences.
Guila Benchimol is a PhD candidate in sociological criminology at the University of Guelph, with a focus on sexual violence, particularly in religious communities. Hanne Blank is on the faculty of Denison University and the author of numerous books including Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (Beacon Press, 2014). Danya Ruttenberg is author of several books, including “Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting” and Rabbi-in-Residence at Avodah.
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Guila Benchimol is a PhD candidate in sociological criminology at the University of Guelph. Her research and advocacy focus on sexual violence, with a special interest on violence in religious communities. She brings over 10 years of experience as a Jewish educator to her work and she consults for and addresses Jewish organizations and communities regarding abuse prevention and intervention. Guila is also a research assistant at the Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence where she has worked on projects related to homicide and domestic violence cases. She has written for Huffington Post Canada, The Canadian Jewish News, The Jewish Week, and more.