March 2, 2017
On Feb. 23, Lecturer in Communication Dr. Penelope Dane led a workshop sponsored by Hamilton’s Sexual Misconduct and Assault Reform Taskforce (SMART) on how students could best support their peers who are survivors of sexual assault. The main purpose of her talk was to promote the practice of validation in supporting survivors.
Dane’s research has focused on issues of gender and diversity. Her expertise in discussing these and other sensitive topics brought up in her workshop was displayed as she started right off by teaching participants a grounding technique they could use to calm themselves down. She encouraged the group to leave the room and employ this new method if they found anything about the conversation triggering.
She explained how peer validation is especially important to survivors of sexual assault because she believes most institutional systems are lacking in emotional support. According to Dane, institutional systems tend not to believe survivors’ stories, which can be really painful. Validation is especially important to assure survivors that their individual experience is legitimate, since many survivors have a tendency to perceive themselves as not having normal reactions. That self-doubt can often lead to a diversity of mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. For this reason, no matter what avenue a survivor takes in response to their assault, it is important to have the foundation of peers, friends and family that believe and encourage them.
The instructional portion of the workshop began with individual self-administered pre-assessments of what traits made the participants good friends, as well as exploring what they worried would get in the way of adequately supporting survivors. Dane acknowledged that many times, telling a peer can lead to a strained relationship between said peer and the survivor due to their peers’ inability to react appropriately to the information. After anonymously sharing responses to the pre-assessments with the group, each student filled out a worksheet for themselves, listing their current skills used to support others as well as what more they wanted to learn. Dane then broke down her multi-step method for validating survivors while emphasizing that no matter what, peers should let the survivors feel their emotions and not try to make them not upset, as nobody can change the events that have happened. This kind of over-caring for the survivor can make them feel they are wrong for having a certain reaction and cause inadvertent victim blaming.
She spoke about how validation is not about lying to somebody to make them feel better or agreeing with everything they say. It is instead about accepting or authenticating some part of that person’s internal experience. Most survivors are prone to experiencing some level of self-blame and self-invalidation, and validation can be an antidote to these tendencies. Dane concluded that by letting survivors have their own emotional experience instead of trying to calm them down or direct their feelings, peers can encourage people to make the best call for them that they can make in reaction to their assault.
SMART will continue to provide student- and community-targeted programming throughout the semester.