Breaking the silence

lit candle
photo illustration by Florrie Bassingbourn

By Shawna Paul
We are all too aware of the lasting scars that soldiers have long after they leave the battlefield. Nightmares, flashbacks, images and sounds that are burned into their minds can be recalled without a moment’s notice. 
These symptoms are not relegated only to those who have fought during wartime, however.  There are women and men who have never been to war, but who bear the mark of their own private battlefield. In an instant they hear, smell and see what was happening around them at the time they were sexually assaulted.
The statistics are daunting: one in four college women will be sexually assaulted during their time at school, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and nine out of 10 of these victims will know their perpetrators.
Sexual assault has been called a silent crime, with more than half estimated to go unreported for a variety of reasons including shame, fear, and the hope that it can just be forgotten.
At Fitchburg State University, however, steps are being taken to break the silence with programs such as Fitchburg Anti-Violence Education, a campus-wide effort to prevent sexual assault and relationship violence.
“You might ask, ‘How am I supposed to stop it?’”  Erin Travia, assistant director of Counseling Services and FAVE, said about students’ potential to end such violence. “We all play a part, we all can do something.”
One thing the college does each year is hold Take Back the Night, a rally to break the silence for survivors of sexual assault. The idea is to give these survivors a safe and supportive place to tell their stories, in hopes of taking back their own power and voice.
“The object is to break the silence about the issue,” Travia said. “We want people to continue to talk about these issues and to be good bystanders.”
At Fitchburg State’s fifth annual Take Back the Night rally last month, one survivor told a powerful story to the students and faculty who had gathered at dusk on the main quad to take a symbolic stand against sexual violence.
She took the crowd on a journey that involved the details of her experience.  She spoke of how the assaults had left her feeling betrayed, unheard and powerless.  Yet there was hope at the end of her speech. She told the crowd how she had looked forward to sharing her story and that she took solace in doing so. “So don’t worry about me – for the first time in a long time, I feel OK,” she said.
Events like Take Back the Night are not the only places where survivors of sexual assault can find their voices. Fitchburg State’s Counseling Services office is another place where help can be found.
“Violence against men happens all the time; we try to be more inclusive, everyone’s story matters,” Travia said. “Help is available for everyone – for people who are not sure what happened, for people who are sure, for men and women. Help is available for everyone; that is the bottom line. Help is here, it is free and confidential.”
To speak to someone confidentially, stop by Counseling Services in Room 207 in the Recreation Center, or call (978) 665-3152.