Sexual assault survivors use the power of story to heal

Carissa Christensen, a Westminster College junior and sociology major, shared her story at the Survivors Speak event on Nov. 2. Christensen said she organized the event to give sexual assault survivors on campus an intimate venue to come together and share their stories. Photo by Craig Knight.

Carissa Christensen, a Westminster College junior and sociology major, shared her story at the Survivors Speak event on Nov. 2. Christensen said she organized the event to give sexual assault survivors on campus an intimate venue to come together and share their stories. Photo by Craig Knight.

Sexual assault survivors at Westminster College gathered together on Nov 2. at the Survivors Speak event in solidarity to share their stories in an intimate setting.

When sexual assault survivors are willing to share their stories, sociology and gender studies professor Kristjane Nordmeyer said they not only give other survivors hope and guidance but also contribute to sexual assault research.

Carissa Christensen, a Westminster junior and sociology major, organized Westminster’s Survivors Speak event to help survivors come together.

“It can be very cathartic for survivors and can help in their healing once they have reached a place where they are ready to share,” Christensen said.

For Kate Wilson, a first-year nursing major, telling her story at the event through poetry was part of the healing process.

In events such as these, my main motivation would largely be to just start a conversation,” Wilson said. “Oftentimes, we just don't talk about sexual assault because it's difficult and scary and taboo. Feeling healed through words is an inexplicably great feeling, and this venue was great in providing that.”

Some survivors said conversations surrounding sexual assault are difficult to start and uncomfortable, making events like Survivors Speak the best way to raise awareness and understanding of sexual assault. Although Christensen said it was difficult to share her story, she said it was important to do to get the conversation started.

“I think that the person hosting events like these needs to be willing to share a story,” Christensen said. “I'm not healed all the way from my trauma by any means, but being comfortable enough to share my own story was important to make others feel comfortable.”

Kristjane Nordmeyer, a sociology and gender studies professor at Westminster College, takes a break from her current research on lesbian and bisexual women's experiences with sexual assault in college. Nordmeyer said when sexual assault survivors share their stories, they give other survivors hope and guidance and contribute to sexual assault research. Photo by Taeler Gannuscia.

Kristjane Nordmeyer, a sociology and gender studies professor at Westminster College, takes a break from her current research on lesbian and bisexual women's experiences with sexual assault in college. Nordmeyer said when sexual assault survivors share their stories, they give other survivors hope and guidance and contribute to sexual assault research. Photo by Taeler Gannuscia.

Although sharing their stories can be healing for some survivors, Christensen said hearing stories about assault could be potentially triggering for some survivors since everyone is at a different place in the healing process. As a precaution, Christensen said she organized the Survivors Speak event in in a smaller setting to ensure comfort and to create an intimate and safe space.

“In a safe space like this one, it creates a system of support that many survivors didn't know that they had,” Christensen said. “I felt closer with these survivors that I barely knew than I do with some friends that I have known for years. When you share something so personal with a group of people, it is automatically unifying to some extent. Knowing you aren't alone is vital to a victim's survival.”

Nordmeyer said she also takes precautions when conducting research that requires personal narratives. She is currently working with the University of Michigan to conduct research on lesbian and bisexual women and their experiences with sexual assault in college—a study that requires eligible survivors to complete a short survey and a one hour interview to share the story of their assault.

“When I find someone who is interested in participating in my study, I give them the interview guide 2-3 days ahead of time,” Nordmeyer said. “This gives them the opportunity to tell their story in their own words and skip over anything they don’t feel comfortable sharing.”

Wilson said Westminster is working hard as a community to provide venues for students to share their stories and foster discussion about sexual assault. However, Wilson and Christensen both said there is room for improvement on campus.

“I would love to see more of a focus on consent and more discussions between survivors and the rest of the student body,” Wilson said.

Christensen said that although she appreciates how active the Westminster student body is when it comes to caring about societal issues and making their voices heard, she said she thinks students need to voice their concerns differently to elicit change.

“We like to assume that the administration knows what our concerns are, and we get very loud very quickly when our concerns aren’t being addressed.” Christensen said, “I have learned while being a peer educator for bystander intervention training that not all faculty members on campus know how we are feeling. We need to tell them before we criticize them.”