When I go to him in distress, which is more often than I’d like, my residential college dean asks, “How can I help?” It’s a simple question, and for a long time, I didn’t know how to answer it. Navigating trauma is a difficult thing, and I can’t ask my dean to single-handedly create a more supportive cultural climate for survivors.
Every week there’s a new headline about sexual violence on college campuses. We know that the prevalence of such behavior is a big problem, but we’re not sure how to address it — how do you eradicate misogyny? How do you change a small environment inhabited by people from all over the world and with various value systems? While increased reporting rates for sexual misconduct suggest a major shift in our ability to talk about this kind of violence, there are many ways in which we can shift our campus culture to be overall more supportive of survivors. There are concrete steps to make this happen.
As someone with a number of close friends who have experienced sexual violence, I can assure you that everybody has different coping mechanisms. Some people need to talk through things, and some people just need you to bring them a sandwich. Those of us who have also experienced violence have a tricky time navigating support for our friends, while also preserving our own well-being: Remember, that’s okay. The best you can do is to be mindful of the people you know best and try to make clear what you can offer. If you’re not emotionally capable of listening to someone in the throes of trauma, try to offer your time in other ways: Deliver them froyo or buy them a Kiko Milano gift certificate. You could give them a homemade card with a list of all the things you love about them. Make sure they’re eating regularly, or take them out to a movie. Above all, be honest with close friends about your boundaries, but try to give them what you can.
Many of us have survivors in our lives that we may not necessarily be aware of, or we may not know how to approach an intimate conversation. We often struggle to figure out how to navigate our roles in supporting people who comprise the fabric of our social spheres, the ones beyond our closest friends. One great way of showing support is to be mindful of the spaces you share with survivors around campus.
As students, we are responsible for enforcing socially acceptable standards of behavior. We live in a culture that overwhelmingly doubts those who have experienced violence, but we can shift that culture to one that chooses to be intolerant of violence. Given how many survivors exist on campuses like ours, it’s high time we stop giving accused sexual assailants the benefit of the doubt. We need to shift our efforts to supporting survivors, and that comes at the price of neutrality. We need to make it clear that regardless of enrollment status at Yale or formal sanctions, students who commit sexual violence shouldn’t be welcome here.
If you’re hosting a closed party or small-space performance, consider asking some of your friends if there are people they would prefer to keep off the invite list. Greek organizations, clubs and societies could consider forming blacklists of people who are known to be sexually violent. If someone feels unsafe because of someone’s presence at a social event you are hosting, ask the person causing this discomfort to leave.
Similarly, professors must strongly consider the effects of sensitive material in their courses. There is a great deal of controversy surrounding trigger warnings, but the warnings are useful and implementing them is quite easy in practice. If you are instructing a course that contains material (literature, photographs, videos, etc.) of violence, maimed bodies, sexual objectification, suicide or murder, please provide students with a heads-up. Students may choose to skip that discussion, or simply leave the room for part of the class. Alternatively, the advance notice may provide them with time to process the material at hand and remain active participants. Exposure to violence destabilizes our fight-flight-freeze instincts, making it difficult to differentiate actual danger from material that may provoke alarm. Being mindful of this fact could help prevent anxiety attacks and academic setbacks.
Students, professors and administrators all have a responsibility to other members of this community. If any of us are suffering, there are countless ways to offer support that exist outside formal channels. Our campus can benefit from mindfulness. Let’s continue to ask one another: How can I help?
Adriana Miele is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .