Survivors of sexual violence are more visible today than ever before. On campus, in the media, through art forms, in local and federal governments, and more, survivors are proudly telling their stories and advocating for change. However, survivors are also often viewed only through their stories, erasing their accomplishments. Consider many the films and TV shows you watch. Often, a subject who experiences sexual violence rarely leads a successful life after the fact, or is simply ignored. Look at all of the activists that have gained media attention in disclosing their experiences. Often, we focus on what they were forced to experience, not who they are as a person or what they have done to advocate for others. While there has been immense progress, our society continues to define survivors solely by their negative experiences, not the people they are.
I’m here to tell you, to proclaim to anyone reading this, that although your life can be greatly affected by your assault, you were, are, and always will be much more than what someone did to you. This line of reasoning is what has inspired me to become an advocate and to pursue a career in addressing gender-based violence. Yes, I am a survivor. But that is a part of who I am, not all of who I am. And while I have dealt with what has happened to me, I no longer see the need to tell my story publicly. Instead, I will tell you of the person I have become since.
Student activism began for me, like for many others, while I was in college. I went to George Washington University (GW). While I love GW and feel as though they have made major improvements in addressing sexual violence on campus, I also know GW, like our society as a whole, is continually in the process of learning more in order to better address this issue. During the final year of my undergraduate career, I was welcomed into an organization that had been doing advocacy in this realm for years, Students Against Sexual Assault (SASA). SASA proposed a referendum during our student association elections asking students whether they thought there should be mandatory consent education workshops established during our freshmen orientation. The student body responded. More students voted in that election than in any student election previously held, and over 90% of students voted in favor of mandatory education at orientation.
GW initially indicated that they would implement this education through an online module. We knew this wasn’t enough. We recalled our own experiences as freshmen, during which we were required to complete similar online modules for responsible drinking and being respectful to non-student neighbors in the city. Many people simply clicked through the modules, not taking the time to read or digest anything, and some did not complete the modules at all.
Noting that this was not going to be an effective model, Students Against Sexual Assault began rallying around getting an in-person training. After a rally in our university’s main plaza, we marched to the President’s office, asking for a meeting to be scheduled to discuss the matter. The rally was a truly touching experience. I was able to share my own experiences and hear from so many students who had survived sexual violence and not been aware of the resources available to them. Students chose to express themselves by speaking about the violence they had experienced, the difficulties of being a survivor while balancing responsibilities, and the effects the violence had on the people they loved. For me, it was so touching to hear so many students speak, as well as all those who had came out to support the rally. That was a moment in which I realized that although sexual assault affects survivors and their support systems in so many different ways, there is also an incredibly strong sense of unity amongst all those who it does affect. Eventually, we met with our university’s president, and he promised us that the university would hold in-person training sessions as well as the online modules.
My activism did not end there. I have continued to tell my story when I can and to support others who are doing the same. I am still in school, pursuing a dual juris doctor and master of public health at Temple University. I have been privileged with incredible opportunities to learn more about how the law can work with survivors of gender-based violence instead of against them. I have worked with student orgs to hold a student-led Title IX Know Your Rights Training, and I have been able to use this focus area to guide independent research into the connections between domestic/intimate partner violence and mass shootings. As I enter this coming year, I hope to continue to hold events and bring awareness to issues of sexual violence and harassment for both students and professors. I am also establishing an informal, community-based support group for students who have been affected by gender-based violence.
At the end of the day, I chose to share my long and arduous journey with EROC’s online community not simply because my career has been focused on addressing the issue of sexual violence. Instead, I hope that by reading this, survivors and allies remember that they are so much more than an assault. Even if your path is dramatically different than mine, I hope that you find an avenue to heal, whether that is through surrounding yourself with a supportive community, going to formal therapy, telling your story publicly, finding means of personal expression, or anything else. I hope that you all remember that yes, you can survive. But I also hope you always remember that you can do so much more than that. You can be survivors AND teachers, friends, runners, lawyers, poets, mothers, doctors, sons, activists, fathers, writers, and more. You can thrive.
Kimya Forouzan is an advocate for gender equality, improved responses to gender-based violence, and reproductive justice. She is currently pursuing a dual Juris Doctor and Master of Public Health at Temple University in Philadelphia. She dreams of the day that all survivors of gender-based violence are treated with dignity and respect, and she plans to work towards that goal for the rest of her career. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, cooking, doing yoga, and reading.