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What I learned from a UBC Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office workshop

Content Warning: sexual violence

Writer: Vedanshi

Some time back, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop hosted by the University of British Columbia’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office (SVPRO). After obtaining permission from the SVPRO, I’m sharing some of the things I learned, as well as my own thoughts and reflections arising from the workshop. To learn more about the SVPRO and their services, visit their website at

Sexual violence is a systemic issue

One of the first things addressed in the workshop was how sexual violence is often treated in isolation without the understanding that it is part of a larger societal problem around the respect and autonomy of both individuals and groups. Take the example of colonization and how this land was taken without consent, thereby denying the wellbeing, autonomy, and self-determination of the Nations and communities who lived here. Before the workshop, I didn’t understand how colonial views on cultural commodification had anything to do with sexual violence. The reality is that until both individual and group autonomy is wholly respected, there will continue to be issues stemming from this mindset, including, but not limited to, sexual violence. It is a culture within which individuals make choices that harm others, meaning both people and institutions must be held accountable.

Holding perpetrators accountable

In addition to dismantling the systems that permit harm to occur, how we respond to sexual violence says a lot about us as a society. We need to hold those who do harm to others to a greater degree of accountability. This starts by us, as individuals, groups, organizations, and institutions, showing up to have someone’s back after an incident, and to truly practice not letting anyone get away with causing harm. Research shows that the first person a survivor discloses their experience to has a huge impact on their long-term recovery from the trauma. On that note, the SVPRO presenter shared how there are endless ways to name experiences, and all of them are valid. For the purposes of this article, I will be using the terms ‘perpetrator’ and ‘those who do harm’ interchangeably, and referring to those who have had harm done unto them as survivors.

Anyone can do harm, but everyone can also contribute towards improving safety.

This brings me to the next point: what does a perpetrator of sexual violence look like? As the SVPRO educator illustrated, not all perpetrators are strangers who attack at night, as we've often been taught and have characterized as "monsters" outside our communities. Rather, these individuals are often known, loved, and cared about in our social circles. All and any of us are capable of causing harm. That also means all of us are capable of asking for consent, and being a ‘safe person’ that can help change systems by normalizing respect for others’ autonomy. This applies to non-sexual, day-to-day situations as well, wherein we can learn that it’s OK to be told no by someone. It becomes easier to respect boundaries people set for themselves if we do not put our own needs above theirs.

Consent applies to all areas of life.

This discussion reminded me of an example shared by one of our guest interviewees on a Backyards with Bolt episode (watch our content on our YouTube channel). You know when Christmas season rolls around, and malls host ‘photos-with-Santa’ booths? There’s always a child that is wailing because they don’t want to sit on Santa’s lap to have their photo taken. Parents: please stop forcing your kids to interact with people they’re not comfortable with. This teaches them that they have the right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to anything pertaining to their own body. Even from, or rather especially from, a young age, children’s bodily autonomy must be respected, and they must know they can consent or not to any activities. This also iterates the need to respect the boundaries other people set for themselves.

How should you respond to a disclosure?

The next portion of the workshop delved into responding to a disclosure of sexual assault, or in other words, what do you do if someone you know comes up to you and tells you they’ve been harmed? The key points are to first recognize that you are getting a disclosure, remember to respond with empathy, and then refer the survivor to further resources. Receiving a disclosure does not mean a survivor of sexual violence is broken, but rather, it is an opportunity to support their choices going forward. I know firsthand that it’s often challenging to know how to be supportive, and we are often afraid of saying the wrong things. The SVPRO educator emphasized that it's not about being perfect, but rather its about showing the survivor that you care about them, and doing your best to connect them to more professional support. Another important note here is that it is important to not name the survivor’s experience for them, but rather mirror the wording and language they are using to describe it themselves. Going back to the point on responding with empathy: it is not up to us as individuals receiving disclosures to determine the severity of the assault based on how the survivor is presenting the issue, nor should we judge the survivor in any manner. For instance, a survivor could be quite composed and put-together while explaining their experience, but that doesn’t mean they are feeling okay. For the third and final point on referring the survivor to support, remember that sexual assault takes away autonomy and choice. Supporting the choices a survivor is ready to make for themselves puts autonomy and self-determination back into their hands, and as allies, it is not our place to force a survivor to take action they don’t want to take.

Formal report vs Disclosure

Moreover, a disclosure is not the same thing as a formal report. Should the survivor want to explore the option of filing a report, the SVPRO can help them understand the processes better. In fact, the SVPRO can help anyone who has been affected either directly or indirectly by sexual violence, be they survivors, their allies who are helping them, or individuals who have witnessed sexual assault. Every conversation with the SVPRO is strictly confidential. Their office offers many options for support, including accompaniment for a survivor to the Investigations Office at UBC if they choose to file a report.


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