By Anne Hartman
Photo by Kiran Misra
There’s an often-referenced scenario that gets to the heart of sexual violence prevention work: Standing on the banks of a river, a group spots a distressed person being swept downstream. The bystanders pull the individual to shore, provide aid, and send them on. This happens several more times, before it occurs to the bystanders to go upstream and investigate the cause.
“We know that there are people impacted by sexual violence, and however we can support them, bandage them, and put them on the road to good health is very, very important work,” says Vickie Sides, director of Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) at UChicago. “But even more important is asking, ‘What are the things in society that perpetuate this, that cause it to happen, that allow it to happen?’”
RSVP is committed to finding answers to those questions and educating the campus community about sexual violence prevention through awareness activities and prevention workshops run by Peer Educators. A team of 15 undergraduates and graduates, RSVP’s Peer Educators come from different backgrounds and academic programs, but unite in their efforts to help carry out RSVP’s mission to work toward the elimination of sexual violence.
Peer Educators commit 2.5 hours a week to the program, and complete a 20-hour training retreat at the beginning of the year. The training dispels common myths about sexual violence and explores the intersections between sexual violence and rape culture, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and transphobia.
Students wanting to become Peer Educators don’t have to identify as activists, Sides says.
“I look for people who are open minded, people who are compassionate, and people who are committed. They don’t necessarily have to be the most well-versed, because so much of this is learned. It’s really about the willingness of the spirit.”
RSVP began as a half-time program in 1993, at a time when a desire for sexual violence prevention education was growing across the country. In 2011, the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education released a “Dear Colleague” letter that reclarified sexual assault as a Title IX issue, meaning that federally funded institutions that were not responding adequately to individuals who had faced sexual violence were violating those individuals’ rights.
“That was sort of the beginning of this national movement to strengthen not just prevention programs, but the way that institutions respond,” Sides says.
With the release of the letter—and an active campus community that was vocal about the need for more sexual violence prevention programming at UChicago—RSVP evolved into a full-time program.
Peer Educators were added to the program in the late 1990s. Peer Educators are not counselors—although they are trained to be compassionate listeners and connect their peers with resources to help them if needed. Instead, Peer Educators, like RSVP, focus on the “upstream” work and educate audiences about the causes of sexual violence.
Paige Morehead, a graduate student studying social work in the School of Social Service Administration, became a Peer Educator after participating in a similar program as an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she came to recognize how valuable this type of education is on college campuses specifically. Morehead collaborates with other Peer Educators to develop prevention workshops that they give to student groups across campus—from College Houses to Recognized Student Organizations.
Any group can participate in a workshop by contacting Sides and discussing their hopes for the workshop. Workshops can be tailored to the specific audience, and they don’t always have to be lecture-based.
“Having conversations and engaging with people is the best way to help them understand and get involved, and so a lot of them this year are heavily involved in conversations,” Morehead says of the workshop groups.
Peer Educators cover topics such as intimate partner violence, self-care, and bystander intervention in RSVP workshops.
“It’s wonderful because the people presenting the workshop will be the people who developed the workshops,” Sides says. “They weren’t given this scripted thing . . . they actually worked on creating them.”
RSVP’s hallmark workshop explores rape culture. Rape culture, Sides says, “refers to those things in society that make rape seem normal, make it seem inevitable, make it seem sexy, make it seem like a joke.”
During the workshop, Peer Educators teach that through recognizing rape culture, students can learn to combat it. To illustrate rape culture, they pull examples from pop culture and media, like a Belvedere Vodka ad that depicts a man with a woman on his lap, looking as though she is being restrained. The copy reads, “Unlike some people Belvedere always goes down smoothly.”
“When we talk about this in our workshop, we point out that rape culture is produced as part of a machine,” Sides says. “In other words, this ad doesn’t get into a magazine without getting several sets of approval.”
Peer Educators discuss how ads like Belvedere’s affect the way the public understands gender norms and roles and distorts the perception of sexual violence. They also speak about ways to combat rape culture through being a conscious media consumer and compassionately listening to sexual violence survivors.
“Even by standing up in one instance trying to understand more about sexual assault or about gender norms, you’re going to become a better person and impact your community,” Morehead says.