Conversations Cafe: Abuse, Consent, & Agency

Maria Nanos of Porchlight Counseling Services presenting an educational segment on sexual assault.

Maria Nanos of Porchlight Counseling Services presenting an educational segment on sexual assault.

In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, this April’s Conversations Cafe covered sexual assault and abuse through a multi-faceted presentation featuring education and expression. The event welcomed YWCA Chicago and Porchlight Counseling, two of HFTD’s incredible Partners in Prevention, to raise the visibility and educate our community on the prevalence of sexual assault, factors of silence, defining consent, dismantling rape culture, and how to be supportive of survivors. Poet, Natalie Dykema and singer/songwriter, Alex Subak also joined us to share their stories through unique forms of self-expression.

Natalie kicked off the event, performing a spoken word piece rooted in her personal experiences in an abusive relationship. Her poetry opened the dialogue on consent and showcased the importance of self-expression through outlets that allow us to validate and share what we’ve been through.

In her poem “Aftermath” she writes,

This anger sits in me like a brick,
Constantly told consent is not an option,
But I’ve said “no” and caved so many times,
It’s a hollow echo.

Her candid words break the silence and provide the opportunity to explore what “abuse” is and what “consent” means.

Following Natalie’s performance, we engaged in an educational segment by Maria Nanos, LCSW, PhD, and Executive Director of the Center for Law and Social Work, which houses Porchlight Counseling. In her presentation Maria discusses Porchlight Counseling’s efforts to provide college sexual assault survivors with free therapy. To give a visual representation of the prevalence of sexual assault, Maria stated that if one out of every 3 women and 1 out of every 5 men in the room were to raise their hands, it would showcase what we’re talking about.

This statistic extends beyond the college demographic however, and includes victims of childhood sexual abuse, intimate partner abuse, rape, and sexual violence at any age.  In providing a platform to talk about the wide-ranging topic of sexual assault, it was crucial that we not box anyone out of the conversation.

HFTD joined YWCA at Sip of Hope to make ribbons for Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Denim Day this April.

HFTD joined YWCA at Sip of Hope to make ribbons for Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Denim Day this April.

“This touches all of our lives,” Maria said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re heterosexual or homosexual or somewhere nicely in the middle.” Later in the context of childhood sexual abuse she explained, “Childhood sexual abuse crosses every socioeconomic and cultural ethnic group.”

Despite so many individuals experiencing various forms of sexual assault, the biggest obstacle we continue to face is the silence of stigma. Stigma encompasses the social and cultural factors that try to dictate how we express ourselves. In a culture that perpetuates victim blaming and slut shaming, disclosing one’s experience with sexual assault can be a challenging undertaking and contributes to the underreporting or late reporting of sexual assault.

It is far too common that survivors feel shame, turn the blame on themselves, and even question if they were asking for it. In childhood abuse cases, children can be silenced by their shame, not entirely understanding their abuser’s inappropriate behavior or fearing negative consequences for themselves or their abuser(s). In adult cases, there are still misconceptions about what constitutes sexual assault, resulting in a victim’s uncertainty after an assault takes place, or the trivialization of their own experience despite feeling shame, guilt, low self esteem, or other mental health challenges.

Maria reiterated a common story involving a college-aged woman who attends a party, has a little too much to drink, and finds herself in a precarious situation with a man who is pursuing her for sex. He is cute, they are kissing, and up until this point it is consensual. Things take a turn when he insists on taking things further, even though she says “no.”

“I don’t care if you’re doing the naked dance, licking his ear, nobody gets to touch you unless you’ve had the conversation and [you] allow it,” Maria said.

LCSW and Clinical Program Director at YWCA Chicago, Amy Smith joined the conversation for a second educational segment about Denim Day and how no behavior or clothing choice welcomes sexual assault. HFTD was honored to make ribbons with YWCA at Sip of Hope earlier this month for Denim Day. We hope by educating our community on this day of awareness, more individuals will stand in solidarity with sexual assault survivors throughout the year.

As Amy explained in her presentation, Denim Day began when the Italian Supreme Court overturned a rape conviction in 1999 because they said the victim was wearing tight jeans and must have helped her attacker remove them, implying consent. The following day, women of the Italian Parliament came to work wearing jeans, showing their solidarity for the victim.

Singer/songwriter and survivor, Alex Subak performing her song “Fight”.

Singer/songwriter and survivor, Alex Subak performing her song “Fight”.

“The biggest thing we can do for prevention is dismantling rape culture; the notion that ‘she wouldn’t have worn a skirt that short if she didn’t want something,’  or the victim blaming and implication that someone wanted something to happen to them. We must understand that no behavior invites sexual assault. It is another person who is making a judgement and taking power and control over someone else . . . Without complete, affirmative consent, drop the action.  It’s not about teaching people not to be raped, it’s about being considerate of others, teaching people to respect others, and with respect and empathy, living in a culture where all people are valued.” -Amy Smith

Following an engaging Q and A session between our audience and presenters, we ended the night with a poignant live performance by rape and intimate partner violence survivor, Alex Subak. Alex’s song “Fight” reminds us how important it is to hear from survivors who have found ways to heal and connect with others through self-expression. By providing survivors like Alex and Natalie with a platform to share their experiences, we hope to inspire others to render more safe spaces where communities can talk about the intersections of mental health, including sexual assault. Together we can break the silence.

To hear the entire conversation with a section on how to be supportive of survivors and an extended Q and A, please listen to the podcast episode on Anthologies of Hope.

To all those who attended and participated in this event, thank you for one of our most impactful Conversations Cafe’s yet. We can’t wait to see you again for our special Mental Health Month episode on May 22nd at Sip of Hope.

Sydni Budelier