[TW: this entire article discusses multiple forms of trauma, including sexual assault, PTSD, and mental health.
Denim Day is an international movement that supports survivors of sexual assault and calls for an end to victim blaming. It was triggered in the late 90’s when a teenager was raped by her driving instructor. He was sent to prison, but he appealed the case, and it went all the way up to the Italian supreme court. The court found that because her jeans were so tight, she had to have helped him remove them, implying consent. The next day, the women members of parliament wore jeans to protest the decision. Today, we wear jeans on the last Wednesday of April to show solidarity for survivors and victims of sexual violence as well as to call for an end to harmful myths that place the blame on victims.
Every year, Marquette University takes part in Denim Day as a campus community to spread awareness of sexual assault and show support to those within the community. We demonstrate that the men and women that experienced sexual assault are not alone. They are heard. We believe them. We support them. We want to be there for them. To truly embrace the resources Marquette has to offer the campus community in terms of wide-ranging support for individuals.
On theme with Denim day, this blog will focus on supporting survivors and where to reach out for help if you are a survivor. There is insight on PTSD and a number of resources to turn to if you need it. The topic of sexual assault may still feel taboo, but there are a lot of people willing to listen, believe, and support those who have experienced this sort of trauma. If you are a survivor, you are not alone. You are not broken. You are deserving of love, care, and happiness. This blog post is meant to help make the conversation easier for both you and your friends. There are a lot of resources and information included to understand the small adjustments that can be made to make things easier for you as a survivor or to support someone you know who a survivor is.
Sexual Violence is a Continuum
Each year, the Wellness and Prevention Peer Educators deliver bystander training to second year and transfer students. In this year’s presentation, we included the following image.
Sexually inappropriate behavior can range from more obvious actions or more discrete ones. If we look to the recognition and frequency continuum, we can see that there are differences in how certain acts of sexual violence or harassment are viewed. Recognition is the extent to which a given community recognizes that a given behavior or action is sexually violent or inappropriate. Things on the high end of this continuum are behaviors that are clearly violent, the sorts of things that people immediately think about when they think of sexual violence. They may be the most obvious examples of what we are talking about. The actions in the middle of the continuum are clearly inappropriate, but they may not always be noticed as such or as widely condemned. They are clearly problematic and not the sorts of behaviors we want happening on our campus, but they may not be the first things that come to mind when we think about sexual violence. The actions on the lower end of the continuum can happen on our campus and can hurt people. However, most people may not see them as a big deal, or even notice they occur. Nevertheless, they are crucial to this discussion.
Frequency is much simpler. We will define frequency as how often these behaviors actually occur in our community. On the high end of the recognition continuum, sexual violence, rape, stalking, domestic violence is the most highly recognized as violent. Behavior in the middle of the continuum might be catcalling, online harassment or online stalking or emotional abuse in relationships. On the low end of the spectrum are sexist jokes, derogatory language about women, gay slurs, and microaggressions, which are seen most frequently.
The recognition levels of certain actions may vary depending on context. For example, stranger rape is recognized more than acquaintance rape. Groping is more recognized if it happens at a store as opposed to on a crowded dance floor. Certain factors may not affect the severity of an act, but they affect how highly recognized it is. I have always lived by the quote, whether you skin your knee or stub your toe you’re still allowed to say, “ow.” One incident will make people react differently, so there is no “worse” situation, there is just a different situation. Remember to be empathetic. There is an inverse relationship. This drives home the point that more frequent behaviors are the sorts of things many people in your community do not even notice or recognize as problematic.
Generally speaking, victims who experience violent events on the low end of the recognition continuum are more likely to experience victim blaming, while those who are on the high recognition end of the continuum experience less victim blaming. Victim blaming can be defined as assigning responsibility for the violence on the victim, whether it is for drinking alcohol, engaging in a certain behavior, wearing certain clothing, etc. It is important for us to be aware of the frequency and recognition continuum because whether we recognize or don’t recognize a situation as violent has very real and harmful consequences. Victim-blaming is the attitude which suggests that the victim rather than the perpetrator bears responsibility for the assault . Violence is more likely to occur in communities with low levels of recognition and high levels of victim blaming. Low recognition and victim blaming make it less likely that a victim will seek help, which makes it less likely for the police to be notified. This, in turn, increases the chances that an offender may go undetected, which may lead to them re-offending.
Supporting a Significant Other Who is a Survivor
Someone who has experienced sexual violence or relationship violence may also experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a consequence of the event(s). “PTSD is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a traumatic event or series of events that a person experiences or witnesses. Symptoms may include flashbacks and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about their experience”  Even if a significant other suffers from PTSD, that does not give them the excuse to be abusive toward you. It can be hard for a survivor to revert back to the feeling of normalcy after an assault and there can be triggers that you can keep in mind to keep the PTSD reactions to a minimum. Being mindful of these triggers can make it easier to show respect and receive respect from your partner. Some suggestions from the National Domestic Violence Hotline are to communicate, encourage personal wellness, and build support systems.
Keep in mind that survivors oftentimes do not want to discuss the details of their assault. Setting boundaries is a wonderful way to navigate conversations. Saying something like, “I am here for you whenever and if you are ever ready to talk about it. Go at your own pace and I will care for you however you feel is best for you” can be enough to provide a space of comfort for the survivor. It can show the extent to which you care but gives them the control of the situation and relaying of information. This security can help your partner continue to heal. Learning and discussing triggers can also help in learning how to make your partner feel safe and avoid phrases or situations that would make them feel unsafe. It is also a way of signifying respect toward each other’s personal boundaries.
Encourage Personal Wellness
Self-care is important for everyone, especially someone struggling with the repercussions of assault or violence. You can promote this by encouraging a partner to create a personal wellness plan. If you create one too, you can both practice self-care regularly. You need to take care of yourself first before you can be strong and emotionally present for your significant other. In the same way they may need some time, you are allowed to take days for yourself too. Wellness plans can involve therapy or activities that are calm and stimulating like reading books or doing puzzles. You can do this together or apart, but you can encourage the self-compassionate behavior of taking a well-deserved break.
Build Support Systems
You can encourage your partner to strengthen their connections with the safe people in their lives. Being able to turn to “family members, friends, counselors, coworkers, coaches,” teammates, or other safe people can help with having security with emotional support . Not only can this help your significant other, but it can help you. Sharing the responsibility to provide your significant other stability can be more effective to maintain your own ability to sustain self-care. Again, your well-being has to come first before you can help someone else that you care for. “Remember that you’re not alone, and that your friends and family can support you through the recovery process” .
How to be a Survivor in a Relationship
Putting yourself out there after any instance(s) of sexual violence can be overwhelming. The time it takes to trust another person can feel impossible, but there are tips for dating as a survivor that can make the transition easier. You DESERVE a shot at happiness, no matter what happened in your past. It wasn’t your fault, as hard as that may be to believe. The methods are similar to the previously listed actions.
Communicate on Your Terms — No one is entitled to hear your story. It is YOURS to tell. When you decide you trust someone enough to share this part of yourself with them is completely up to you.
Listen to Your Gut — You are an expert of your own safety. You know your limits, or at the very least, you are the one in charge of finding your limits. You are allowed to ask for the things that you need to be and feel safe.
Do Research — Look through the resources out there confirming that you are not alone. It can be beneficial to understand what happens to your body when you experience trauma. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk explains that when you experience trauma, there is a physiological change in your body. .
When coping with PTSD, it can be easier to understand by using this image:
The “Window of Tolerance” is a place of comfort and security; you can function well here. Going out of this window is where things can feel overwhelming. Outside of the window of tolerance are hyperarousal and hypoarousal. Knowing the difference between the two can make it easier to find ways to 1. Cope and 2. Avoid reaching these states. Identifying stressors and triggers and setting boundaries to avoid them can help an individual limit the consequences of PTSD in their daily life.
“Hyper-arousal is also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. You may feel anxious or overwhelmed and can react with angry or aggressive outbursts. It can feel as though you’re constantly on high alert to danger. You may also be battling negative intrusive thoughts and becoming super-critical of yourself. It may be difficult to rest, sleep or digest — as though feeling always ‘on’” .
Hypo-arousal is also known as the ‘freeze’ response. Here you may become disconnected from the present and withdraw or dissociate — sometimes having no memory of what’s happening. You may feel separate from your thoughts and feelings, and those around you may experience you as being shut down — as though always ‘off’” .
With hyperarousal, it is hard to calm down. With hypoarousal, it is hard to avoid shutting down. Coping mechanisms for both should consist of calming measures. If you are having trouble sleeping, some ways to cope include having a set sleep schedule, exercising during the day, creating a calm atmosphere in your bedroom, practicing deep breathing before bed, avoiding taking naps during the day, and avoiding caffeine after midday. These tips may help you avoid hyperarousal and stay in your window of tolerance longer. If you need diverse ways to express your anger, try crying as a release instead of shouting, punching something soft that won’t harm you, talking to an empathetic friend, writing things down, or creating expressive artwork. If you experience trouble concentrating, try improving your sleep quality, practice mindfulness exercises, turn off distractions, focus on one task at a time, or do work in short bursts.
Extending Your Window of Tolerance
According to Psychology Today, “the sizes of our windows adjust in parallel to internal and external influences” . In instances when we feel stress, sadness, lack of sleep, the window will shrink. A smaller window results in a lower toleration of certain triggers. Some ways to broaden windows include CBT techniques, narrative therapy, mindfulness, and compassion-focused techniques. CBT techniques, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, can be used to treat depression, generalized anxiety, PTSD, general stress, panic disorders, and other chronic conditions. It can teach healthy ways to cope and identify thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that can help conquer fear. Narrative therapy can externalize the problem and remove the shame that may be associated with the incident(s). Mindfulness helps pull you to the present and ground us to the center of our window. Lastly, compassion-focused techniques also remove shame, and promote self-compassion and self-acceptance, which can lead to increased resilience and widened windows .
Below are a range of resources to reference for you and anyone who may need them.
On Campus Resources
Marquette Advocacy Services (support students who have faced violence with confidential help and can be reached 24/7): 414–288–5244 or in business hours at email@example.com. Find more information at https://www.marquette.edu/sexual-misconduct/advocacy.php.
You can also make a Teams appointment in 30-to-60-minute blocks with our victim advocates at https://outlook.office365.com/owa/calendar/MarquetteUniversityAdvocacyServices@marquette.edu/bookings/. You just need to use your Marquette email to do so.
Title IX recently changed to better accommodate the survivor. There are more options for survivors in terms of the extent they want to pursue investigating an instance. You may simply go to an advocate for emotional or physical support and leave it at that, or explore other routes of navigating the situation. More information can be found at https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/titleix-summary.pdf
Marquette Counseling Center: 414–288–7172 or find more info at https://www.marquette.edu/counseling/
Marquette Police Department: 414–288–6800 or find more info at https://www.marquette.edu/mupd/
Resources for Those Experiencing Domestic Violence
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or chat online at https://www.thehotline.org/#
VictimConnect Hotline: 1.855.4.VICTIM (84.2846) or chat online at https://chat.victimsofcrime.org/victim-connect/
Reachout: Reach out for free, confidential support from trained advocates at the Family Justice Center 716.558.7223
Resources for Those Who Experienced or are Experiencing Sexual Assault
National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline: 1.866.331.9474 or chat online at https://www.loveisrespect.org/#
RAINN (National Sexual Assault Hotline: Confidential 24/7 Support): 1.800.656.4673 or chat online at https://hotline.rainn.org/online
Resources for Suicidal Ideation
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1.800.273.8255 or chat online at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/
Create a Safety Plan
Use the following link to create a safety plan for yourself or a friend: https://www.thehotline.org/plan-for-safety/create-a-safety-plan/
Thank you for your time in reading this blog and learning more about Denim Day, sexual assault, and the consequences that come with it. It is hard to swallow, but with more people having the conversation, we can lessen its occurrence. No matter how difficult it may be to believe, there is still hope for a happy life. Take it from me, I’m a survivor. I use my experience to promote support for individuals in similar situations. There will always be someone who wants to be there for you and listen to your story. I hope this information can help you or someone you love on their self-care journey. It is hard every day, but it is possible. You are loved. You deserve love. And you will always be loved. You are not alone.
- “How to Avoid Victim Blaming.” Harvard Law School HALT, orgs.law.harvard.edu/halt/how-to-avoid-victim-blaming/.
- “Supporting Your New Partner If They Are A Survivor.” The Hotline, www.thehotline.org/resources/supporting-your-new-partner-if-they-are-a-survivor/.
- “Supporting Your Partner: Where to Start.” Love Is Respect, 24 Sept. 2020, www.loveisrespect.org/resources/where-to-start/.
- Der, Kolk Bessel van. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin, 2015.
- “Coping With Trauma: How To Stay Within Your Window Of Tolerance.” The Awareness Centre, 1 Oct. 2019, theawarenesscentre.com/coping-with-trauma/.
- “Expanding the ‘Window of Tolerance.’” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 10 Apr. 2020, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lifespan-psychology/202004/expanding-the-window-tolerance#:~:text=Resist%20shaming%20verbal%20and%20non,own%20interpretations%20of%20their%20experience.