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Claire Johnson Allen Talks Supporting Sexual Assault Survivors, CARE Week

This article contains sensitive content on sexual violence and sexual assault.

No one is immune to sexual violence, accoridng to Claire Johnson Allen, associate director of the Boston College Women’s Center.

“Sexual violence and interpersonal violence is something that people are not immune to,” she said. “It doesn’t care how you identify, it doesn’t care what your resources are.”

Allen led a workshop on March 21 titled “Supporting Survivors of Sexual Assault” as part of the Women’s Center’s annual C.A.R.E. (Concerned About Rape Education) Week.

CARE week provides students with the opportunity to learn about sexual assault, sexual harrassment, and intimate partner violence, Allen said. The week also aims to teach students how to best support survivors of sexual assault.

“For C.A.R.E. week, we really work to make sure the events are really focused on supporting survivors, empowering survivors, [and] sharing information that’s really important,” Allen said.

According to Allen, students in the Women’s Center planned the week’s events themselves.

“We have an amazing staff here in the Women’s Center that are [BC students], and they are the ones who are doing all of the ground work—all of the leg work for coming up with the ideas, coming up with what each event is going to be, [and] who they want to have involved,” she said.

To start the week, Allen led students through interactive exercises and a series of slides created by clinical psychologist Johanna Malaga to equip students with the tools needed to engage with sexual assault survivors looking for support.

“I’m hoping that we can take some time and start to understand some of the impacts that sexual violence [and] sexual misconduct has on survivors,” Allen said.

Allen said she hopes participants will have a better understanding of how best to respond in situations where a survivor is seeking their support.

To help participants better respond to survivors, Allen explained that sexual violence is an umbrella term defined in multiple ways and that it is truly up to the survivor on how they will go about defining it based on their own experiences.

“Survivors have had very challenging experiences,” Allen said. “If and when they are comfortable to share with us, we want to be very mindful of how you’re supporting them, and one of the ways that we can do that is with the language that we use.”

According to Allen, it is important to remember that sexual violence is not primarily about sex, but about power dynamics.

“Power dynamics … [and] a lot of the beliefs and ideas that govern our interactions are the things that really drive this kind of behavior,” she said. “It’s why it can hide in plain sight.”

Most survivors, Allen said, do not report their experience. Those who do disclose their experiences are often forced to fight against feelings of depression, which can masquerade as anger, shock, or fear.

“When we receive disclosures, our reactions are so important,” Allen said. “The first reaction that someone receives when they disclose sets the tone for their recovery. It sets the tone for their healing.”

Allen then asked participants to discuss with one another how survivors might feel when choosing to disclose their experience to others, how best to respond to them after they do so, and how not to respond. She also reminded participants that the goal is not to fix survivors’ problems.

“We don’t want to make their feelings go away,” Allen said. “We don’t want to assume, [and] we don’t want to press for more detail than was mentioned. We don’t want to be judgemental.”

According to Allen, it is important to create space for students to talk about these difficult topics.

“Between 20 to 25 percent of female-identifying students, 16 percent of male-identifying students, and [in between] 50 to 60 percent of LGBTQ-identifying students will experience some type of sexual misconduct over the course of their collegiate career,” Allen said.

According to Allen, caring for survivors is part of upholding the Jesuit, Catholic commitment to cura personalis—the care of the whole person.

“We’re Eagles,” Allen said. “We’re supposed to be working towards and striving towards caring for the whole person. How can we care for the whole person if we don’t take into mind different avenues of violence that folks can experience?”

Featured Image by Ben Schultz / For the Heights

April 2, 2022