This year, A Voice For The Innocent was asked to be a part of a long-standing tradition both in Cincinnati as well as in communities around the nation. Take Back The night is a (from takebackthenight.org) “foundation (that) seeks to end sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual abuse and all other forms of sexual violence. We serve to create safe communities and respectful relationships through awareness events and initiatives.Women across the world are taking back their voices by speaking out against these crimes, but there is much to be accomplished in the fight to end sexual violence. Crimes of this nature continue to appear in the news in epidemic proportions. As the history of Take Back The Night continues to be written, its mission to end sexual violence for all remains a beacon of hope for the millions affected by crimes of violence.
We were honored to be a part of this amazing event, and we met some extraordinary people with inspiring stories. I was asked to speak at the event, and I’d like to share the video with you, as well as the transcript for the speech I presented. Thank you so much to TBTN for asking us to be a part, and thank you to the hundreds of men, women and children who attended.
*Please note that due to the live setting of the speech, a few words or phrases may be slightly different than those in the transcript.*
I am honored and humbled to be here with all of you this evening. I started A Voice For The Innocent in 2012 with the help of some amazing and talented people. The entire concept was based on giving victims of sex crimes a place to anonymously tell their story free of shame, guilt and judgement. You see, as a child, I was sexually abused by my father for 3 years. When I told my mother what had been happening, she could not have handled the situation any better than she did. She instantly and constantly told me that it wasn’t my fault. My parents weren’t married and I spent every other weekend at my father’s house. She immediately told me that I didn’t have to go there anymore. She started taking me to see a counselor as soon as possible. Putting me in counseling meant that the proper legal authorities had to be notified, and soon enough, we ended up in a trial. When possible, she would give me the option about going to the hearings and sentencing. And most importantly, she constantly reminded me of my worth.
It is because of my mother’s amazing reaction that I am able to talk to people about my story, and for as long as I can remember, I have done exactly that. Since I learned how to be so open about my story, people started telling me their own stories as well. Stories they hadn’t ever told anyone else. Stories they’d carried around with them for years, buried inside. It wasn’t until I was well into my 20’s that I realized that this was an epidemic. More and more people – primarily females, but some males as well – were telling me their own stories of rape and sexual abuse. It was appalling to me that they felt they had nowhere to turn. So I gathered some close and talented friends, and we began our work on a website where people could come and tell their stories without fear of judgement or shame. We didn’t require they give us any information besides an email address, and even that was for verification purposes alone.
We created avoicefortheinnocent.org and got over 300 users in our first year. Of course, not all of these people told their stories. Many people simply visited and read the dozens of stories that were being posted by other users. Some of the users were telling their story for the first time and therefore treading lightly, and others were quite comfortable with talking about their experiences, and just wanted to share what they had gone through in case any of the silent bystanders needed something relatable to them. We have started a community, and I’d like to invite each of you to join us. If you have a story or experience, we listen without judgement and give compassion without question. And if you don’t have a story, you simply need love and understanding, which your presence at an event such as this one shows that these qualities already exist within your hearts. You don’t have to have a story to have a voice, and we would love for you all to join our community. Signup is quick, easy, anonymous and free at avoicefortheinnocent.org. And if you’d like to learn more, we have a table set up right over there. Please feel free to stop over.
But the website alone wasn’t enough. We started attending various events in the community as well as hosting some of our own. Concerts, festivals, conventions, parades. We wanted to be where there were large groups of people. And the reception to what are doing has been overwhelmingly positive. As anyone who works in the non-profit sector can tell you, it’s a tremendous amount of hard work, but the payoff is beyond belief.
But I am not here to tell you just about A Voice For The Innocent and what we do. Because A Voice For The Innocent can’t solve the problems alone. In fact, I don’t think any one organization or person can solve the problems alone. It has to be a group effort, and it has to start with every person here tonight. We are the ones who care. We are the ones who refuse to turn a blind eye. We are the ones who are speaking up in a culture that tells us to quiet down.
We hear about rape culture day in a day out. It’s hashtagged on all of the social media sites, and it’s a trending topic so often that the term has almost become a charade of itself. But what is it? What is rape culture? I think the best definition I could find is that rape culture is a concept that links rape and sexual violence to the culture of a society in which the prevalent attitudes and behaviors normalize, excuse, tolerate, and even condone rape. Let me say it again. Rape culture is a concept that links rape and sexual violence to the culture of a society in which the prevalent attitudes and behaviors normalize, excuse, tolerate, and even condone rape. Rape culture exists because so many people don’t think it exists.
And it’s all around us. It’s in Steubenville, Ohio where people fret over the wasted talent of football players who have a blemished record for raping and taking pictures of a girl, all the while wondering why she put herself in that situation, or wondered where her parents were. It’s in our military, where more and more stories are coming forward of female veterans who were sexually assaulted by the very people to which they are required to report such an act. And when they go higher in the chain of command, their stories fall on deaf ears. It’s in Dayton, Ohio where just last month a man received a sentence of 15 years to life for raping a 5 year old boy in the bathroom of a church. It’s here in Cincinnati, where just a few months ago a lady was raped by a cab driver and then treated like a criminal by the female police officer to which she reached out for help. Or 2 months ago when further investigation of the murder of Megean Fambry strongly suggested that she was actually killed while being raped by her roommate. Or even last month when a man was arrested for molesting a 6 and an 11 year old girl in a Delhi library. And just yesterday morning, a Hamilton County corrections officer was arrested for soliciting sex from a minor with which he’d set up a meeting after chatting online. And it’s evident in the Cincinnati Police STARS report, which shows that we are seeing less of every single violent crime over the past 3 years with the exception of rape.
When preparing this speech, I was asked how it has been for me as a male survivor of sexual assault. And to be honest, I don’t know. Sexual assault is often thought of as a female problem. We hear victim blaming with every new sexual assault case presented. Why was she there in the first place? She shouldn’t have been drinking so much. Just look at what she was wearing. Yet here I am, a male, and I stand before you as a sexual abuse victim. And the feelings and emotions I have felt in the past 15+ years aren’t distinct to one gender or the other. You don’t have to be a specific gender to feel shame. Or to feel violated. Or to feel the weight of judgement. These aren’t female emotions. They are human emotions. So I suppose I can say in one aspect, being a male survivor of sexual assault is exactly the same as being a female survivor. But on the other hand, I wasn’t subject to the constant objectification of my gender after my assault. So while I know how much of a struggle it was for me, perhaps I don’t even know the half of it. I had other male role models in my life that were able to set positive examples for me. And nobody ever asked me what I was wearing. No one assumed I had been drinking. In fact, the harshest judgement I felt came from myself. Not one single other person has ever made me feel like it was my fault.
But the fact that 99 percent of perpetrators are men, including my own, says to me, very clearly, that sexual assault is a not a women’s issue, but a problem with males. We teach our daughters the best methods we know to prevent sexual assault. We teach them self worth. We teach them how to protect themselves and that they have a right to say no. And this is all important. But with that, we need to teaching our sons how to respect women. Teach them not to rape. Teach them not to abuse, sexually or otherwise. Let them know the damage that it causes. Talk to them openly and honestly. Avoiding the discussion of uncomfortable topics does not make them go away. But along with discussion, let them see examples. Fathers, show your sons what it means to respect women. And mothers, demand that the men in your life respect you. If you’re disrespected in front of your son, correct it. Wouldn’t it be nice if one day we did not have to rely solely on teaching our girls how to protect themselves?
But that’s all only part of the problem. Teaching our children the proper way to respect themselves and one another is only a small portion of the solution. People are still being raped and sexually abused today. This isn’t a solution we can muster up overnight, but a goal. A destination. And it’s going to take many more people than are here tonight to change the mindset that has been ingrained into our society. We are just the catalyst.
I recently learned of a Kentucky project called the Green Dot Project. The title isn’t very telling, but upon reading what they were about, the name of the project is fitting and, in my opinion, brilliant. They say to picture a map. Any map will do…your neighborhood, your state, or even your country. Picture that map, and now picture, like we have all seen before, that each act of violence is a red dot on that map. There’s never just one or two red dots. Instead it’s a shooting in this city. A rape in that town. A sexual abuse case from that county. Countless red dots color in our maps, often times to the point that we can no longer see the cities we know and love. The Green Dot Project’s website says that “a red dot is a rape – a red dot is a hit – a red dot is a threat – it’s an individual choice to do nothing in the face of a potentially high risk situation.” Now what if we could start adding green dots to our maps? According to their site, “A green dot is any behavior‚ choice‚ word‚ or attitude that promotes safety for all our citizens and communicates utter intolerance for violence. A green dot is pulling a friend out of a high risk situation – a green dot is donating a few dollars to your local service provider– a green dot is displaying an awareness poster in your room or office – a green dot is putting a green dot message on your facebook page – a green dot is striking up a conversation with a friend or family member about how much this issue matters to you. A green dot is simply your individual choice at any given moment to make our world safer.”
I hope we can all leave tonight with the inspiration to be catalysts. To be green dots. To be a voice for the innocent. Speak up about injustices in your social circles, even if you feel your comments are unwelcomed. Start conversations with our neighbors and friends, even if it feels uncomfortable. And most importantly, let us teach our children the clear difference between right and wrong, even if it seems like the difference should be obvious. If we expect people to start listening, then we need to start talking.
I’m Jamie Sivrais with A Voice For The Innocent. It’s been a pleasure speaking with all of you tonight. Thank you.