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How do I make my activism more accessible?

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Anarchofemme asks:

I'm trying to organise some sort of event/forum at my university in Australia about sexual assault and violence against women. I've got good ideas for speakers, the women's department at my uni is supportive and I have organised similar events before.

My problem is: how can I frame the event so as to draw people to whom information about sexual assault (myths, prevalance, how particular gender stereotypes/ideas about sexuality can contribute) would be most useful? Currently, events run by the women's department often only get a select group of women already engaged by feminist issues. I fear that if I call the event something like "myths and facts about sexual violence", or something similarly straightforward, it would only be attended by people from this group, as others would be intimidated by the reference to sexual violence and would view it as something only relevant to people who have experienced sexual violence, rather than EVERYONE!

Karyn replies:

Anarchofemme's question continued: So, to get to the point, do you know of any strategies feminist groups have used to make issues of sexual violence more accessible to those not already familiar with them? Would it help to focus on issues of gender and bring sexual violence in later as part of the discussion, or is it worth having an event specifically focused on it? I am eager to include men in this discussion, although how to achieve this I am not sure. I had also thought of using a somewhat controversial title, such as "Transforming a Rape Culture", to attract the attention of somewhat sceptical folk. Do you think this could work?

Thanks for reading my question! I hope it is not too out-of-place for this forum! And thanks for all the great work you do here - Scarleteen is priceless!

Right off the bat, I just have to say how great it is that you're organizing an event like this; it's so needed and university campuses are a fantastic place for activism (and the more, the better, in my opinion). Kudos to you!

Now, on to your question. I agree wholeheartedly that it can sometimes be very difficult to get people involved in activism and make that activism accessible to everyone, particularly if the work you're doing happens to be around challenging, painful topics like rape and sexual assault, or if the people you're trying to get involved don't necessarily see the issue as being relevant to them or their lives.

It's valid to be concerned that only those who have been directly affected by sexual violence will turn up to this event - unfortunately, that does happen, but I think there are some ways around that problem, and I think it's definitely possible to organize this forum in such a way that it has a broader appeal.

Before I get into strategies though, I want to address a little bit the idea you mentioned of organizing something about gender issues more generally and including sexual violence within that event.

While it is possible that approaching this in that way may bring in more of an audience, I would caution against approaching it that way. It can be tempting to downplay a tough issue a little bit in order to get people talking about it, but I think that tactic here would be counter to your goal of getting people to see that sexual violence IS a big deal, that it IS serious and needs to be considered as such. That isn't to say that you can't talk about changing rape culture in a positive and constructive way, just that framing it as less serious than it is is going to end up working against you in accomplishing that.

That said, and without knowing the format you have in mind for this event, there are a few things to keep in mind when you're organizing that will hopefully ensure that you get the audience you're hoping for.

Diversify. A good place to start would be with your lineup of speakers and make sure you have as much diversity there as possible.

You said you already have a few in mind - might those people have some suggestions for others who would be willing to participate? Maybe someone you know is a male rape survivor who would be willing to speak, or maybe a guy you know has a partner (or sister, or friend, or parent, or...you get my drift) who is a survivor, and therefore his life has been affected by sexual violence as well, and he might be willing to say something about how important this stuff is for everyone to think about and get involved with. I assume that you aren't entirely alone as the organizer of this thing, so take advantage of the knowledge others who are working with you might have.

Extended social networks can be a great tool - everyone knows someone who knows someone, and given how common sexual assault is, it shouldn't be too difficult to find people from all sorts of different groups who have some experience with it in some way and want to help. Making a few phone calls wouldn't go amiss either: a local rape crisis centre would probably have some suggestions, too.

Know your audience. If you have the time, and don't find it too intimidating, you might want to conduct a bit of an informal survey: ask as many people as you can - and not just people you know - what sort of content would make them attend a forum on sexual violence. What kinds of things would make it worthwhile for them to show up? If they were to attend, what would they want to get out of it? What kinds of things would make it UNappealing?

Obviously, it isn't possible to please everyone, but if you start your planning with a good idea of what would be a draw and what wouldn't, you're off to a good start. Since you specifically mentioned wanting to attract men to this event, you may want to do some digging and see if there are any organizations in your area dedicated to sexual assault education for men specifically - they would likely be able to suggest some strategies that have worked for them that you would be able to tailor to your particular event.

Go back to basics. Your goal is to draw in people who are not familiar (or at least not very familiar) with the issue of sexual violence, so keep it relatively simple and straightforward. Jumping in at the deep end and starting off with complex, heavy, tough discussions is either a) going to make people's eyes glaze over and/or b) put them off any sort of discussion for a good long while, and neither response is what you're aiming for.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, create a safe space and one that is as inclusive of everyone as possible. Do what you can to make sure that everyone involved feels supported and has a chance to have their voice heard. While it's true that the majority of rapes, whatever the gender of the victim, are perpetrated by men, no one wants to sit and listen to someone blaming their gender for a huge problem: that's just not constructive or useful, and doesn't help anyone. I assume that you'll be publicizing your event in some way before it happens, so when you do so, make it clear that it is open to everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, whether they have direct experience with sexual assault or not. Your idea of a title is a good one, but you might want to tweak it a bit to include something about how everyone can participate in transforming rape culture.

You might also talk with your fellow organizers about a way you can create a space for people to use who need to step away if they feel triggered or attacked and unpack those feelings, maybe even making a physical space somewhere where those folks can do that with someone whose job it is to mediate and support them. Just knowing there is such a space can go a long way to help people feel safe and supported. A good debriefing after something like this can also help keep your space safe.

In addition to the things I just listed, it would also be helpful to keep in mind that while men are most often the perpetrators of sexual violence, that means that they have pretty significant power when it comes to changing rape culture.

Men have a lot of influence with each other, especially when it comes to things like reinforcing gender norms and enabling behaviours, and that gives them a pretty awesome opportunity to have a really positive influence in altering those norms and behaviours. As I'm sure you know, preventing rape is far more involved than just preventing the act itself: dismantling rape culture takes so much more than that. Something as simple as a guy calling out a friend who's making rape jokes is a step in the right direction, and emphasizing to men that they have that power is a very positive and constructive way to get them engaged without making the whole discussion about blame. Including some discussion about consent and sexual negotiation may be something to consider as well - so many people don't have a good idea of what real consent looks and feels like, and that's a big piece of the puzzle right there.

I'm going to leave you with a few links that I think you'll find helpful. Good luck with planning your event - I hope it goes well!

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