Not Victims, Survivors: Origins of Sexual Assault Awareness Month


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Since 2001, April has been recognized as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Throughout the month, advocates across the United States band together to raise awareness, share preventative measures, and provide resources to victims.

But let’s dive into how the month came to be.

The movement against sexual assault started long before 2001. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), advocacy for victims of sexual violence began to gain traction throughout the civil rights era, but conversations about the issue were limited as sexual assault was still taboo.

Unsurprisingly, Black women and women of color primarily spearheaded these efforts. Black women had been over-sexualized dating as far back as the 1400s, when utilizing stereotypes like the promiscuous Jezebel gave justification to commit sexual violence against Black women.

Prominent journalist, NAACP founder, and educator, Ida B. Wells played an integral role in the movement against sexual violence. In her Southern Horrors, originally published as a pamphlet but later converted into a book, she exposed that white men were the biggest perpetrators of sexual violence against Black women and that the idea that Black men were raping white women was purely a smoke screen. Wells ultimately flipped the script and revealed white men as the hypocritical rapists and murderers that they were.

In the 1970s, San Francisco housed the first rape crisis center that provided victims with counsel, a 24-hour hotline, educational programs, and survivor advocacy. San Francisco also was home to the first “Take Back the Night” event in the U.S. in the late 1970s. The international event aimed to give women the opportunity to reclaim spaces in which they felt unsafe.

In 1991, sexual violence conversations finally garnered political attention.

During Associate Justice Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court Nomination hearing, Attorney Anita Hill testified against him, accusing him of sexual harassment during the time they worked together. This had never been done before. It not only opened the door to having the uncomfortable conversations publicly, but it also caused a revision to the process of how Supreme Court Justices are vetted.

President Bill Clinton was the first to take genuine action when he passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994, which ultimately protected survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

When NSVRC was created in 2000, it became the leading resource to advocate and provide information about sexual violence. In 2001, the organization recognized April as SAAM, and in 2009 President Barack Obama formally recognized it as such.

It’s alarming to look at the numbers and see how close victims of sexual assault are to you. One in five women have experienced a completed or attempted rape, and about a quarter of men (24.8%) have experienced some form of sexual violence according to the NSVRC. One in three women and one in four men reported having experienced an attempted or completed rape between the ages of 11 and 17.

According to the National Institutes of Health, African Americans yield the most victims of forced sexual intercourse. In a report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the frequency of rape against African Americans is about one in five (22%).

But all women of color are at a higher risk of being victims according to the National Violence Against Women Survey, which revealed that “Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaskan Native women are at greater risk for rape victimization than white women.”

While we know we can’t completely eliminate sexual violence in the world in one month, there are ways that we can participate and be allies to those affected. Stay educated on the issues at hand, be open to the fact that victims and perpetrators can be in your neighborhood or at your workplace, and volunteer with local organizations that are fighting against the issue.

If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault, the National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24 hours at 1-800-656-4673.

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