From dialogue to action: Discussing sexual assault is the first step to change

By Lanthorn Editorial Board | 10/25/17 10:11pm

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Following the "Zapatos Rojos" (or "Red Shoes") installation created by artist Elina Chauvet to raise awareness about violence toward women, Grand Valley State University held a panel on the same topic  Monday, Oct. 23.

In the "Zapatos Rojos" display, which took place in the courtyard at GVSU's Pew Campus Saturday, Oct. 21, each pair of red shoes was paired with a message honoring a victim of violence or trafficking. This stunning show was meant to be impactful in a silent, visual way, but it was also intentionally designed to spark an important dialogue.

Chauvet's display actually inspired the gathering of the panel. She was a featured speaker at the event, which consisted of six experts in different areas relating to all types of violence against women, including emotional, psychological and physical abuse. The panel discussed the importance of acknowledging violence against women and emphasized the need to continue working to prevent this violence. 

This discussion could not have been more timely, considering the snowballing power of the "#MeToo" movement that has been circling social media for the past few weeks. For those who don't know, #MeToo is a hashtag used (primarily) by women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted to come forward and share their stories of abuse.

This social media activism has not gone unnoticed: More and more women have come forward to discuss their personal stories, including a sizable group of women using their platform to accuse Harvey Weinstein, American film producer, of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior. Many of the women bravely coming forward today have held their stories for many years in fear of the backlash they'd receive.

Having such open dialogue when it comes to these sensitive topics is essential for more than one reason. For one, it gives women a sense of community, letting them know they aren't alone. The GVSU panel, along with the #MeToo campaign, provided women with an empowering platform to talk about their assaults. Not only that, but increased discussion on any topic, especially one of this magnitude, subsequently makes it difficult to ignore. Hopefully these conversations will ultimately spur social and, potentially, policy change, stifling rape culture and other breeding grounds for sexual assault.

Even more, having these exchanges so accessible helps to spotlight just how many women have endured these types of horrendous acts. Seeing hundreds of red shoes fill the courtyard of downtown Grand Rapids, knowing each pair represents a woman who has been assaulted, leaves a lasting impression on any viewer. This, along with the #MeToo campaign, makes the prevalence of sexual violence against women extremely clear.

Having these displays so close to GVSU's campus is also noteworthy, as sexual violence on college campuses is extremely pervasive. According to statistics gathered by RAINN, college women between the ages of 18 to 24 are three times more likely than other women to be victims of sexual violence. Perhaps even more shocking, only 20 percent of female student victims of the same age group report to law enforcement.

We need to continue to have and promote these types of conversations, both online and offline. Victims need to feel empowered to come forward with their stories, both for themselves and for everyone who reads and hears their accounts. Sexual assault becomes impossible to ignore when millions (yes, literally millions) come forward and say #MeToo.

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