Sexual violence is pervasive on McGill’s campus—according to the Annual Report on the Policy on Harassment, Sexual Harassment, and Discrimination Prohibited by Law, reports of sexual harassment increased significantly during the 2016-2017 academic year. Worse, many students feel ill-prepared to support a survivor when they disclose their experience of a violent or non-consensual sexual act. Consent McGill, an annual campaign running from Sept. 25 to Oct. 5, aims to address this problem.
Coordinated by the Office for Sexual Violence Response, Support and Education (O-SVRSE), the campus-wide campaign seeks to facilitate a dialogue about how the student population can make the McGill campus safer and more supportive for sexual assault survivors, while preventing future incidents from occurring. Among the activities at the fourth annual Consent McGill was the ‘How to Respond to Disclosures of Sexual Violence’ workshop, designed to equip students with the skills to “respond to and support people affected by sexual violence by using appropriate tools and approaches.”
To learn more about this workshop—which is also offered throughout the academic year for co-curricular credit—and about how students should respond when trusted with a disclosure of sexual violence, The McGill Tribune spoke with Bianca Tétrault, Sexual Violence Education Advisor at O-SVRSE, and the founder of Consent McGill.
The McGill Tribune (MT): Why is learning how to respond to disclosures of sexual violence an important skill for students to learn?
Bianca Tétrault (BT): The way one responds to a disclosure can severely impact the way that [a survivor] processes their experiences. [It] can perpetuate further harm if they are not met with supportive, validating responses. There are so many barriers to even just coming forward, and if [the person listening] holds misconceptions or judgements, or doesn’t use appropriate language, it just further perpetuates the difficulties and barriers for people that are struggling to come forward.
MT: It’s probably hard for survivors to talk about their experiences with non-survivors. If I haven’t experienced sexual harassment or assault, how can I possibly offer this person my support?
BT: I think the first point of reflection as the responder is that this is never about you, so regardless [of whether] you have experienced sexual violence in some way, your experience will always be different from the person disclosing. No one person’s experience is the same, and so it’s not about you or your lived experience, or how you can understand what someone went through. It’s about how you can best support the person talking to you in this moment.
MT: What are the most important things to keep in mind when survivors of sexual assault disclose information to you?
BT: There are four key steps. The first one is [to] listen and believe [….] If you make the conversation about you, or you continue to cut somebody off, they are not going to feel that they can trust you or want to continue talking, so listen. [The] second [step] is [to] believe and validate. You don’t need to know the details of any case or situation, all you need to know is that it has negatively impacted somebody and that you are there to support them. The third [step] is [to] support non-judgmentally, […which includes] checking your misconceptions [and] checking your privileges or your biases. Often we hear the first response being ‘you need to report this,’ or ‘you should tell somebody,’ but that [choice] may not be right for the person disclosing. Ask them how you can best support them. What do they want or need from you? And lastly, [understand] that all feelings are valid [….] I think there are a lot of misconceptions around how someone should act after a sexual assault, and we need to deconstruct [these].
MT: What do you do if you feel like you are unable to help the survivor?
BT: Ultimately, we are telling our participants in the workshop that we are not training you to be counsellors or therapists, we are training you to be first-responders. And first-responders are going through the key points that I just mentioned, letting this person know that they are not alone, and that you will support them to get the services […] and trained [professionals] to support survivors of sexual assault.
If you are a survivor of sexual violence or a friend responding to a disclosure, there are a number of campus services available to support you, including The Office for Sexual Violence Response, Support and Education, Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS), and the Peer Support Centre , among others. A complete list of services can be found on The Office for Sexual Violence Response, Support and Education’s website.