Survivors of sexual violence are often encouraged to tell their story. Many of us know from personal experience or the research on sexual violence that talking about the experience can often be intimidating but healing for survivors. A survivor telling their story for the first time can be described as having a weight lifted from their shoulders, as therapeutic, and a source of empowerment when they are disclosing to a supportive person. A Voice for the Innocent (AVFTI) is a great resource for this: Every day, survivors tell their stories and receive supportive, validating responses from volunteers and community members that can help them in their healing journey. In this way, storytelling can be powerful. Yet, we often don’t consider the power of storytelling as moments of growth for those who are there to listen.
My name is Katherine. I’m a professor and researcher at California State University-Northridge and my area of expertise is sexual violence. One of my goals as a professor is to educate folks on sexual violence and how to support someone who’s been assaulted. As I tell my students: with the current statistics on sexual violence, you are likely to be on the receiving end of a survivor’s story personally or in your professional career as a criminal justice practitioner. When this happens, I want them to be prepared. Every semester I teach a course where students volunteer as part of their learning experience and I partnered with AVFTI because I saw it as a perfect opportunity for students’ growth.
With my students volunteering with AVFTI, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to observe the power of storytelling. At the start of each semester, I have students come to my class with little prior knowledge about sexual violence, beyond the fact that it happens frequently. I have students who adhere to misconceptions about sexual violence, feel uncomfortable discussing the topic, and feel unprepared to provide support. Some have unresolved trauma in their own lives, but want to understand their experiences better. At first they’re nervous, worried they won’t know what to say; concerned they’ll say something wrong. This is where the power of storytelling comes in. After just a semester of reading and responding to stories, students leave my classroom with a new understanding of sexual violence from the survivor’s perspective; they feel confident and prepared to provide support; Students whom I later learn are survivors themselves have made progress with their own healing by connecting with other survivors in the AVFTI community. I’ve come to learn that storytelling is not just for those telling the story, but also an opportunity for education and growth for those who are there to listen.
My name is Amanda, and I began volunteering for AVFTI when I was one of Katherine’s students. Prior to her class, I had very little knowledge about sexual assault and the best methods of supporting survivors. Upon first reading and responding to stories, I felt guilty of imposter syndrome; I doubted my ability to relate to survivors and felt uncertain about whether I was contributing to this community in a meaningful way. I was perplexed regarding what to include in my responses and felt like there were constantly eggshells beneath me, waiting to crack when I said something “wrong”. After just a few weeks of reading stories, my comfort level and knowledge increased tremendously. With each story that I read, I learn about how survivors are resilient and always will be. They teach me how sexual assault affects people physically, mentally, and emotionally which helps to expand my knowledge base regarding sexual assault. Their stories show me that anyone can offer valuable support to a survivor and that shared experiences can be incredible mechanisms for healing across a community of individuals. As time progressed, I started to feel like I belonged at AVFTI and that I had a purpose as a volunteer. I began to feel more empathy towards others; I realized that everyone’s life circumstances are different and therefore made a greater effort to approach people in my daily life with more compassion. Without reading the stories of these survivors and volunteering, I never would have had these moments of growth or discovered this new found purpose. Because of how powerful this experience has been for me, I continue to volunteer for AVFTI and am eager to grow each week as I read more stories.
I’m Mary Ella, and I was one of Katherine’s students. When I enrolled in her course, I chose AVFTI as my volunteer site to gain an understanding of the effects of sexual abuse and sexual violence on survivors. This was the perfect choice for me because of my interest in becoming a sexual assault advocate in the future, and also because of my own experience as a survivor. The most difficult aspect for me in the beginning was the fact that I was a survivor too. I knew that I wanted to provide support to people like me, but it felt like I didn’t deserve to do that because I was dealing with my own trauma; I did not want my trauma to be reflected on my responses because I wanted to provide the best care possible. Crafting a response was difficult at first, but I used my own experiences to my advantage by putting myself in the storyteller’s shoes. After all, I was in a similar position and I knew what I wanted to hear if someone were to provide me support. Because many of the stories I read were similar to my own, providing support to our storytellers encouraged me to forge my own path towards healing. I found myself encouraged to seek therapy and practice self-care, especially when reading certain stories that made me feel the effects of vicarious trauma. I also learned that community and support is important for the growth and healing of survivors. My experience volunteering with AVFTI has truly encouraged me to grow as a survivor by finding a community of individuals who genuinely want survivors to feel heard and supported. This experience also solidified my passion towards victims’ advocacy because I gained skills that prepared me to provide the necessary support – listening, believing, and validating. After finishing Katherine’s course, I decided to be more involved with AVFTI by being a regular volunteer and a mentor for new volunteers. These opportunities have been wonderful experiences for learning and growth, and I’m looking forward to supporting more survivors in the future.
Across all of our experiences volunteering, we have experienced first-hand just how powerful stories can be for the listener. Even though we come from different backgrounds, in our time as AVFTI volunteers, we’ve found new knowledge, personal growth, healing, and the power of community. But our three experiences are likely just a few examples of the many who have learned and grown because a survivor shared their story. This growth does not just occur in communities such as AVFTI, but anytime a survivor shares. In writing this piece, we wanted to show storytellers that they aren’t only helping themselves; their stories are powerful and much more important to others than survivors may ever realize.
About the Authors:
Katherine (she/her) is a professor of Criminology and researcher specializing in sexual violence. She volunteers and serves on the Strategies & Insights board at AVFTI. Outside of this work, Katherine enjoys traveling, reading, paddle boarding, and spending time with her pug Tugboat.
Amanda (she/her) just graduated with her Bachelor’s degree, double majoring in Criminology and Justice Studies and Psychology, and is planning to pursue her Master’s degree. She has been volunteering for AVFTI for over a year and in her free time enjoys reading, photography, traveling and sports.
Mary Ella (she/her) is a volunteer and mentor with A Voice for the Innocent. She recently graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminology and Justice Studies and is volunteering as a hotline advocate for a local domestic violence organization in Los Angeles, CA. Besides volunteering, Mary Ella enjoys creating coffee drinks as an at-home barista, traveling, and singing.