Content warning: This article contains discussion of sexual assault and rape.
Brittany Piper, a trauma coach that travels around the country educating students of varying backgrounds on rape culture, presented her story as a survivor of sexual assault at the Ent Center for the Arts on Oct. 16.
Piper asked members of the audience who were physically able and willing to stand up if they knew someone in their life who had experienced sexual assault. Almost all of the seated individuals stood up to face her on the stage.
Piper then asked those standing to sit down again if the person that they knew — whether it was a friend, co-worker, family member or themselves — reported their assault. The majority of people standing then sat down, which Piper used to demonstrate how common unreported sexual assault is.
“We shouldn’t have to experience sexual assault or know someone who has [in order] to care,” Piper said. As a society, our lack of empathy is the reason why sexual violence — as pervasive as it is — continues to be an uncomfortable conversation that only happens behind closed doors.
Members of the audience were then asked to discuss their understanding of what rape is. One individual mentioned penetration and physical violations, while another talked about emotional abuse and the trauma that comes from being forced to partake in a sexual act without consent.
Zeroing in on the word “consent,” Piper explained that, in order for sex to be consensual, both parties must mutually agree to partake in it. Piper also explained that consent is voluntary. “There is no consent when there is force, intimidation, coercion or manipulation,” she said.
“If someone does not or cannot consent to sex, it’s rape,” Piper said. Rape does not have to look a certain way, or be perpetrated by a certain type of person, in order for it to be considered rape.
According to Piper, the belief that rape is only committed by strangers in dark alleyways is a huge myth. 90 percent of reported instances of sexual assault are perpetrated by someone the victim knows.
Delving into how rape relates to culture, Piper brought up the powerful effect of stories, saying that they “shape our views of the world [and] compel us to act.”
The murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, for instance, was a story that led to the development of Black Lives Matter. Additionally, the sexual allegations case against Harvey Weinstein in 2017 was a story that led to the development of #MeToo.
“Culture is learned through stories,” Piper said. She believes this is why our society needs to recognize the effects that the lack of sex education has on the prevalence of rape culture.
The presentation also touched on sex education in the U.S. In this country, sex education is mandated in only 24 states. This results in the widespread consumption and promotion of pornography, which often depicts sex violently and inaccurately, teaching viewers that sex should be a dehumanizing experience rather than a consensual one.
According to Piper, rape culture itself does not fall only on pornography but also on the continued use of sex as a tool for economic gain. The phrase “sex sells,” is common, but few stop to think about the ways in which the phrase dehumanizes sex and objectifies bodies.
Sayings like “tear it up,” “hit that” and “smash that,” were also discussed. These statements all promote the idea that bodies are something to be objectified, which desensitizes people to the ways in which they perpetrate rape culture in their everyday language and interactions.
The only way to combat the normalization of rape culture, Piper said, is to promote empathy. Her storyboard model, which separates rape prevention into primary and secondary categories, cites the importance of empathizing rather than analyzing when it comes to sexual assault.
“We shouldn’t have to experience sexual assault or know someone who has [in order] to care,” Piper said. Lack of empathy is the reason why sexual violence continues to be an uncomfortable conversation that only happens behind closed doors, according to Piper.
In her own experience as a rape survivor, Piper explained that the empathy she received from family and friends is what gave her the courage to report her assault.
In her storyboard model for rape prevention, Piper called empathy a “bystander intervention,” as it serves as a motivating factor for rape victims to not only report their assault but seek help from a mental health professional and learn how to live with the pain that comes from being a sexual assault survivor.
For UCCS students who have been sexually assaulted or who know someone else who has been, there are resources out there to get the help you need. Piper suggested texting “wellness” to 47177 for a free, downloadable self-care workbook on sexual assault survival. Piper also opened her own Instagram DMs up to students in need of more personalized resource options.
Students can call (719) 633-3819 to be directed to all TESSA Rape Crisis & Safehouse services here in Colorado Springs, or (719) 255-4444 to access information on sexual assault and rape from the UCCS Wellness Center.