What’s in a name? Sometimes, not enough.
Executives at the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center feared their organization’s name didn’t properly convey the variety of services it provides to survivors of sexual violence in 17 central Kentucky counties.
So now, the organization is known as the Ampersand Sexual Violence Resource Center of the Bluegrass. Community Engagement Director Taryn Henning says they chose ampersand, meaning the & symbol, as a way to connect all the individuals and communities they want to assist.
“We’ll provide services to anyone who has experienced anything on the full spectrum of sexual violence, which can range from rape…to verbal sexual harassment,” Henning says. “We also provide resources to families and friends of survivors.”
Henning, along with the center’s director of advocacy, Jennifer Johnson, appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss the work of the organization, the Me Too movement, and other issues.
Ampersand will continue to provide crisis assistance to victims of sexual violence, such as helping them get medical care, or seek protective orders or other criminal justice remedies, according to Johnson. The group has regional coordinators in Ampersand offices in Lexington, Danville, Georgetown, and Richmond who oversee the services they provide to survivors and their families.
The organization also offers professional training to counselors and others who interact with survivors, and they teach classes for middle, high school, and college students about sexual violence awareness and prevention.
Henning says the name change is also meant to remind the organization’s staff and volunteers that it’s not just white women who can be victims of sexual assault or rape. She says Ampersand also helps survivors who are women of color, men, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ individuals.
“Sexual violence does not discriminate,” Henning says. “Anyone, regardless of whatever identities they hold, is susceptible or open to experiencing sexual violence.”
“We’re really looking at who has felt excluded,” says Johnson about serving clients from diverse backgrounds. “Part of what we have to look at is what kinds of stigmas are already associated with counseling or therapy, and what communities does that already resonate with and what communities does that really fall short with.”
A Culture of Sexual Violence
The allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein last year brought a new era of public awareness to issues of sexual harassment and assault, especially in the workplace. But Henning says few people may know that the Me Too moniker actually dates back to 2006 and the work of African American civil rights activist Tarana Burke.
“She started that movement to have a platform for specifically women of color from low-wealth areas to be able to have these discussions around sexual violence and their experience of sexual violence, and try to figure out how to empower their communities to deal with that issue,” says Henning.
She says Me Too has inspired important public dialog about harassment and assault, and made it possible for people to discuss these issues with family and friends in ways they wouldn’t have five or 10 years ago. She says that’s an important first step to addressing the broader issues of sexual violence in American society.
“If we are going to get to a point where we can truly prevent sexual violence before it starts, we have to start by having conversations about it,” Henning says. “We can’t do anything if we aren’t talking about it.”
And unfortunately, there’s a lot to talk about.
“We live in a culture where sexual violence is normalized, in some cases even encouraged,” Johnson says.
That goes all the way back to the earliest days of American history. Henning says European Americans used rape as a way to dominate Native Indians and, later, enslaved individuals.
“Rape was a tool of power and control,” Henning says. “Throughout slavery… you had masters raping slaves to keep them afraid and in their place. You had forced intercourse, which was essentially rape, between slaves for breeding purposes.”
Henning is quick to point out that not all rapists are white. But she says the historic legacy of rape as a way to enforce white supremacy does impact how people of color today think about sexual violence. And that means organizations like Ampersand need to bring those cultural sensitivities to the work that they do with survivors.
Starting Early to Change Mindsets
Advocacy groups like Ampersand are employing a range of strategies to help drive a shift in attitudes about sexual violence and ultimately prevent it from occurring. Johnson says children as young as two or three years old can be taught that they control their own bodies, and that it’s okay for them to decline a hug from a relative or family friend.
“For most of us, we have such a mental block around seeing that as malicious,” Johnson says. “The truth is the vast majority of the time, it’s not… It’s just affection. But then when we back up a few steps and think about, what are the underlying messages that our kids receive when they are mandated, essentially, to submit to that?”
Johnson acknowledges it can be tricky to balance the feelings of a well-meaning family member and a young child. But she says it’s also important for children to learn to say no in case they do encounter someone later in life who has illicit intentions.
On another front, Henning says there are opportunities to teach young boys and men healthier ways of expressing their masculinity that eschew the rigid gender roles of the past.
“For example men can’t show emotion unless it’s anger,” Henning says. “That becomes toxic because men are people too. It’s natural to be able to show joy, to express love, to express caring.”
She says that research indicates that strict adherence to stereotypical gender roles for men, such as not showing emotions or sharing power in the home, can become a risk factor for sexual violence.