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Experts on sexual assault: #MeToo efforts of survivors and advocates show that change can happen

Rodney Lofton, deputy director of Diversity Richmond, and Zakia McKensey, founder of Nationz Foun...
Rodney Lofton, deputy director of Diversity Richmond, and Zakia McKensey, founder of Nationz Foundation, discuss efforts to prevent sexual assault and harassment Thursday at Virginia Commonwealth University. (Photo by Kevin Morley)

Virginia Commonwealth University Police Chief John Venuti thinks the first step toward addressing sexual assault is to start believing people.

“I believe there's an obligation to start by believing those who come forward,” Venuti said Thursday. “One of the problems that’s been highlighted in the national conversation about assault and harassment is that people are afraid they won’t be believed. Believing is really a fundamental place to start when we’re trying to address systematic problems.”

Speaking at James Branch Cabell Library during a panel event that covered sexual assault, harassment, abuse, civil rights and the #MeToo movement, Venuti and topical experts spent more than 90 minutes unraveling underlying issues that lead to assault and harassment and outlining steps to prevent it.

The systematic problem, Venuti said, has gone on long enough.

VCU Police Chief John Venuti provides opening remarks at the panel event. "I think this is a really important opportunity for all of us to think about how we are serving each other as colleagues and how we are serving our community," Venuti said.
VCU Police Chief John Venuti provides opening remarks at the panel event. "I think this is a really important opportunity for all of us to think about how we are serving each other as colleagues and how we are serving our community," Venuti said.

“In American society, far more has been tolerated than has been accomplished,” Venuti said. “It's time to turn the tide and everybody plays a role in doing that.”

Change, the panelists said, is slowly happening, fueled by survivors, advocates, community organizations, education and a Twitter hashtag -- #MeToo -- that has cut through social media like a power saw in recent months, beginning with accusations of sexual misconduct and assault against film producer Harvey Weinstein.

#MeToo is providing survivors and advocates with a way to mobilize and stand in solidarity, said Zakia McKensey, founder of Nationz Foundation, a Richmond organization that focuses on health and wellness and HIV prevention. The movement has expanded the way people think and talk about sexual violence, said Abigail Conley, Ph.D., an assistant professor of counselor education in the VCU School of Education.

“Both movements [#MeToo and #TimesUp] have really brought to the forefront a lot of powerful institutions and shown that change can happen,” Conley said. “We've seen powerful executives in Hollywood and politics and institutions that for so long couldn’t be touched. That message is really powerful.”

What happens beyond that message is still fluid, said Gail Stern, Ph.D., co-author of Sex Signals, a sexual assault education program. At a macro level, she said, #MeToo has galvanized people into action “more than any other hashtag I’ve ever seen.” At a micro level, she’s also noticing positive change.

“I got a text from my husband last night saying, ‘I was a great dad.’ And I called him and he’s with my 11-year-old daughter,” Stern said. “He said she was upset at something that happened in school and she said, ‘All my friends hate me.’ My husband was about to say, ‘No they don't. You're wrong.’”

Stern paused.

“But he said to me, ‘The #MeToo movement has shown me that I’m supposed to listen and believe,’” Stern said. “And he said to her, ‘OK, I believe you.’ And she went on to tell him and then she stopped and said, ‘I’m so happy you said you believed me because I thought you were going to tell me that you didn't.’”

It was a tiny moment, Stern said, but a wonderful one.

“If it has those small effects, then [there] can be ripple effects where we stop and listen and believe,” she said.

Gail Stern, Ph.D., co-founder of Catharsis Productions, said #MeToo is a catalytic moment that has sparked action.
Gail Stern, Ph.D., co-founder of Catharsis Productions, said #MeToo is a catalytic moment that has sparked action.

Policy changes, meanwhile, occur glacially, said Jonathan Yglesias, policy director at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. But there is movement. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law last week a bill requiring General Assembly members and full-time staff to complete sexual harassment training once every two calendar years.

“Very small, but there are many legislators who love this idea and want to build on it and figure out what it actually takes to have a comprehensive response to sexual harassment and violence,” Yglesias said.

That response, the panelists said, should be a layered one. Education, including consent training, is a good start, Yglesias said. Many universities provide sexual assault training and pledge efforts — including “Not Anymore” and “It’s On Us” — to educate and create better awareness about sexual assault, domestic violence, abuse, harassment and consent.

Thursday’s event was moderated by Carmina Galvez, a senior in the College of Humanities and Sciences and president of the VCU group Students Advocating Violence Education and Support (SAVES), which facilitates education events on sexual assault, partner violence, stalking and harassment.

However, education efforts must start earlier, the panelists said, and the options and resources colleges and universities offer must be connected, Stern added, beginning with curriculum integration.

“[That way] these issues aren’t seen as ancillary, they are seen as a core part of the mission,” Stern said. “It’s not that we just want to know stuff. We want to know how to apply that to making the world a better place.”

For individuals, getting involved could take many forms, McKensey said.

“I think it really depends where you want to fit in,” she said. “It can be donating, it can be volunteering your time, it can be supporting someone who has experienced sexual assault, or accompanying someone somewhere. It’s about where you want to start your work.”

An important step is introducing yourself to different perspectives, said Rodney Lofton, deputy director of Diversity Richmond. It sounds simple, but when it comes to sexual assault, harassment, misogyny, prejudice or other forms of intolerance or bias, the antidote is often exposure.

“If you really want to be a force for change [then] go out, challenge yourself, be willing to put yourself in the shoes of someone who may not look like you, who may not have the same background,” Lofton said.