Warning: This article discusses topics of sexual assault, child abuse and sexual violence.
“I reflect on how far we’ve come in the movement, but how far we have left to go,” said Adriane Lamar Snider, chief executive officer of the Riverside Area Rape Crisis Center (RARCC).
The month of April marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) and National Child Abuse Prevention Month (NCAPM), both of which seek to raise awareness and prevention of sexual assault, harassment and abuse. This year’s theme for SAAM 2023 is “Drawing Connections: Prevention Demands Equity.” The national awareness month is spearheaded by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC).
“We know that the sexual violence prevention movement still has a lot to do to make sure survivors of every background and demographic feel equitably represented in this field,” Yolanda Edrington, executive director of NSVRC, said in an announcement.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) defines sexual assault as sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. Some forms of sexual assault include attempted rape, unwanted sexual touching, forcing a victim to perform sexual acts and penetration of the victim’s body, also known as rape.
RARCC is a non-profit organization that provides support, resources and services for victims and survivors of sexual assault and their families — one of the few organizations that does so in the Western and Southwest regions of Riverside County. The center has been around since 1973 when a group of women who worked out of the University of California, Riverside came together and launched it. As survivors of sexual assault, they had no support from local law enforcement who lacked sensitivity training or hospitals that lacked knowledge and/or availability of rape kits.
Today, the center serves as a safe and culturally relevant space for sexual assault and child abuse survivors and their families who have access to needed services from trained staff. The center provides support seven days a week, 24 hours a day so “that the survivor and their family are never alone,” Snider said.
“We have become the place where families can come to and talk about their healing journeys, find support, find support services [and] get all of the education that they need,” Snider added.
As one of the few local organizations dedicated to supporting survivors of sexual violence, Snider emphasized the importance of having more services dedicated to survivors and their families. According to 2019 data from RAINN, an American is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds, and every nine minutes, that victim is a child.
When Snider stepped into her role at RARCC in 2018, there were eight staff members. Now, there are 22. In addition to growing the organization to increase their capacity to serve, RARCC utilizes volunteers to support survivors through advocacy training programs and educational outreach in the community.
A key part of addressing sexual assault stigmas and dispeling myths is educating the masses and spreading the word, Snider stated. She explained that she attended an event where she heard a women incorrectly refer to sexual assault as being a women’s issue. Snider said that awareness begins with the facts and knowing what is true.
Sexual assault is an everyone issue. Anyone can be a victim of sexual assault and it’s important not to treat this issue as being attached to a particular person or identity. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported, “Over half of women and almost one in three men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetimes.”
Additionally, recent data from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) found that in 2021, nearly one in four high school students who identify as LGBQ+ experienced sexual violence.
Snider shared that she is a survivor of abuse and said that it can be difficult for survivors and their families to seek out necessary support and services for fear of being judged, disowned by family members or even blamed for the abuse and violence. Snider credited Keyaira Allen, an associate marriage and family therapist at the center and her team, who address such mental and behavioral issues, for their work in empowering survivors. Allen first joined RARCC in 2019 as an intern and became a full-time staff member in 2021.
“I think one of the myths is that healing looks a certain way,” Allen said. “That for a survivor it should be: the assault happens, you notify law enforcement and then you go to therapy. That’s it. But it is an ongoing roller coaster.”
The process of healing from sexual violence or abuse does not happen one particular way or another, rather it is a process that has its ups and downs, Allen commented. There will be times when a person who has experienced this trauma may have to sit and process what has happened.
“I think society has put survivors in a box, that they have to present this way or all survivors look this way. No, it’s not that simple,” Allen said. It is often assumed that such experiences are black and white, but Allen explained that a large gray area exists.
“A myth we’re trying to dispel at the agency is one, [survivors’] abuse does not define them. This one moment, no matter how long the abuse lasted, it’s temporary. The pain becomes manageable,” Allen said. “It’s us uplifting them and empowering them, but it’s also allowing them to be where they’re at.”
Allen explained that part of the journey to heal is sometimes sitting in the aftermath of the experience and allowing survivors to feel what they feel. Every moment will not be one of reflection and growth, and that’s okay.
“It is allowing and providing a space for survivors to show up as they are and helping them as they go along in their healing process,” Allen stated.
In some instances, Allen described, within in mental health institutions some therapists — despite their training — can become closed off to patients who share their sexual assault experiences. This can lead to another layer of rejection, guilt and shame because they are not being supported, acknowledged or helped. This can result in doing more harm.
“On the clinical care side, we deal with this a lot in the sense of sometimes in the world, sexual assault and domestic violence is still such a taboo, even though it’s been going on for generations and generations,” Allen said.
According to RAINN, trauma from sexual assault and abuse can result in psychological, emotional and physicals effects such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks and more. With equitable counseling, support and care, these effects can be addressed and can support survivors on their journey to heal.
Addressing sexual assault prevention also comes with acknowledging barriers to access, including a generational lack of access to services, the belief that a person can “push through” their trauma, not seeking services to address their experience, not having a support system and shortcomings within institutions.
“There are no judgments here with this agency. We believe you. We know what’s happening with the family and we support you. We support you through your healing journey,” Snider emphasized. “We want to dispel all of those myths that ‘We’re so strong, we can’t ask for help.’ No, we’re strong because we’re asking for help — that is what we want survivors to know.”
Allen explained that one way to remedy these barriers is to have the conversations about sexual assault, to educate the people through outreach efforts and to “wraparound” survivors by offering services and spaces to heal such as community support groups, family counseling and one-on-one therapy.
“I still think it’s going to take time, but I think it’s also people getting comfortable with the uncomfortable, so we can support those in need,” Allen stated.
Individuals who seek to support survivors may also have to take part in “corrective experiences” where they address incorrect notions about sexual assault survivors and assumptions they have. Allen explained that sometimes a person may use their own personal experience to measure against a survivor’s experience or feelings, but it’s important to pivot and correct that behavior by acknowledging that everyone does not experience life the same way.
“Be kind to yourself and know that you may not know what to do,” Allen shared. She said that it is important to sit with them, to be present with them as someone who supports them and believes them.
Supporting survivors also takes place when you’re not sitting with them. Allen said it’s important to call out language and behaviors that contribute to the stigma and shame that survivors experience and trivialize their trauma.
With all the traumatic and scary situations someone may be facing, Allen emphasized that these circumstances won’t last forever.
“This is a temporary moment of pain. There’s so much beauty in life to be had after,” Allen asserted. In her work, she wants survivors to know how important it is to have self-worth and to know that “you are worthy of love and respect and boundaries, and that No is always a complete sentence.”
If you or anyone you know who may be experiencing sexual violence or abuse and are in need of support or services, here is a list of organizations that can help:
2. Tru Evolution’s Youth United support program for LGBTQ+ youth
4. University of Riverside, California (UCR) Campus Advocacy, Resources & Education (CARE) Center