Guest Blog: Empowerment Changes our Stories

Dear Engaged Bystander: This is the last of 3 postings by Meg Stone.  Thank you Meg for the guest blog postings! 
 
About five years ago I was in a meeting with a group of sexual assault and domestic violence advocates. The focus was defining and implementing primary prevention, or interventions that stop acts of abuse before they are perpetrated. As a group with extensive experience running well-regarded crisis intervention, medical advocacy and survivor healing programs we struggled to conceptualize what our work would look like if abuse were stopped before any of those interventions were needed. 
 
“How can I measure a sexual assault that didn’t happen?” one of my colleagues asked. Many of us nodded.
 
Sexual violence almost always happens in private, and it’s marbled so tightly with the most intimate and mundane parts of our lives that it’s hard to measure. Even harder to measure is the number of people who would have perpetrated abuse but didn’t.
 
This question stayed with   me for a couple years. Can we as advocates and activists do something to change to course of abuse? A couple years later, while teaching an IMPACT Women’s Self-Defense class, I got my answer.
 
I began the class the way I usually did, by asking people to share anything that had come up since the previous class. One student, a mother, shared a story about a family event she’d attended. At a family gathering she found an acquaintance interacting with her young daughters in what she felt was a highly sexualized way. He tried to get them to go into the woods with him and encouraged them to ignore their parents’ rules. In response she was able to express her concerns to other family members she trusted and ensure that the girls were not left alone.
 
She later wrote me an email, a reflection on what happened that day:“What I learned from IMPACT is the importance of following my gut and not being afraid to say "NO!!!" or in this case, to say something quieter, but to LISTEN to my inner voice and to feel comfortable setting boundaries.   As a mother, I needed to feel comfortable being bolder to protect my kids and not worry so much if I offended anyone. IMPACT did that for me. The class did not make me more suspicious, just more aware. I will never know if he had harmful intentions, but I'm glad I didn't take a risk with my children's safety. I am so glad that I was aware and picked up on this early.” 
 
By trusting her gut, facing rather than ignoring the problem and acting this woman took what could have been a traumatic event in her daughters' lives and made it into a mostly unremarkable afternoon. This is what we do as bystanders.