Over the years, the acronym "SAAM" or Sexual Assault Awareness Month has become very important to me. So important that I plan each year around the month of April, and all of the events that it has in store for us. Whether as a participant in undergrad, or in my professional capacities, I have been a part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) for the last ten years.
My commitment and passion around SAAM started as something that seemed obligatory and burdensome after I joined a men"s dialogue group with the encouragement of a good friend at Syracuse University. The group, I realized was not what I thought it would be, rather it was an extremely rare space for college men to conceptualize and explore their own masculinities. What I now realize that I had not then, is that this space is conceivably one of the most valuable places that we can create. Masculinity -- a privileged identity by definition- is invisible and rarely spoken about or recognized. Backed by both experiential and empirical data, we know that in order to end men's violence against women (including sexual assault), we must first encourage men to realize privilege, redefine or rethink masculinity and leadership, and join women in the work they have been doing to raise awareness all along.
The following is an account of the moment that made me reconsider everything. It was the moment when I realized that I would commit myself to this work.
The disclosure: It's Freshman Year and a close friend asked me to meet up at the dining hall for lunch as we often did. What was different this time is that she called me to make sure I could meet her rather than just a quick text message. I didn't think too much of it.
The words I'll remember forever: "What I'm about to tell you ... is something that I haven't told anyone before. "
I was shocked to hear: "You're the one guy I can trust right now." She continued,"Sacchi, I was raped last week."
Immediately, I started crying. Then I remember that she started crying, and we couldn't stop until hours after we were done talking. Next, I started asking questions. She told me it was someone I knew and that it happened in her bedroom.
I was crushed. Honestly, I was filled with rage.
Moving Forward: I had more questions than answers: "How do I interact with her? How do I view her, knowing she trusted me with this personal information? Do the things I say and do around her change? How do I act? Can I make jokes around her? How do I support her in dealing with something with such a significant life impact in the next weeks and months?" I felt wildly unprepared (particularly as a man) to comfort, support, and respond to her. I thought, "What can I do to make this better?"
My feelings: Inadequacy. Wanting to fix the problem. Feeling defeated. Feeling helpless and angry. I struggled with knowing that nothing that I could say could change what happened. I desperately wanted to say that it was not her fault, that she will be okay. I wanted to make it better. But I knew that I couldn't. I took a step back and realized that it's extremely difficult for me to truly relate. I have not had to fear sexual assault daily or ever. I am not being disenfranchised by sexism.
Guilt: Knowing that a man did this to her and that I'm a man made me feel extremely guilty. This was perhaps the very first time I ever uttered to myself, "I'm a man." Little did I know that those words would be the very first steps to acknowledging my privileged identity. Furthermore, I realized that meant that I was part of the problem since gender-based violence (rape in this case) exists.
So why does this matter? Why is it important for men to be involved?
Men need to be more than involved -- they must be leaders in ending men's violence against women. It's the type of leadership that is completely foreign to most men. It's a leadership that requires stepping aside yet being active, learning from and listen to women, and recognizing one's own privileges as a man. It's feasibly the most challenging thing that I've faced in my life. I certainly make my mistakes along the way, and perhaps I will never "get there." The most important element that I keep in the forefront of my mind daily is that as a man, I must be actively involved in ending sexual assault.
As men, we must recognize the centuries of work that women have done on an issue that we are accountable for. We must recognize our agency and work with women to end all forms of gender-based violence. We must do so with humility, sensitivity, and a fierce sense of urgency. The time to act is now.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Take Back the Night in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about Take Back the Night and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.
Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit theNational Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.