Activism at AU: Amanda Gould, Advocate for Survivors

Name: Amanda Gould

Major: Double major in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and International Studies

The issue that’s important to you: Fighting for survivors of sexual assault to make sure they get the support they need and can live in a society free from shame and stigma, and fighting against sexual assault and rape culture.

Her Campus American University: How did you get started?

Amanda Gould: I first got involved with this issue in high school when a friend of mine attempted to take her life after being sexually assaulted. This was a huge wakeup call for me in terms of seeing the realities of rape culture in our society; my friend was taught to believe that what had happened to her was her fault, and she blamed herself so deeply that it caused her to think that she didn’t deserve to live. From there on out I’ve been deeply involved in the movement. I started becoming a campus activist and was working for a sexual assault crisis hotline by sophomore year. The more friends who disclosed their assaults and the more survivors I worked with on the hotline, the more passionate I became about this issue and the more I realized how deep this issue ran.

HCAU: Why is it so important to you?

AG: I’ve talked with so many survivors who have had their lives deeply altered by their assaults, who struggle to get out of bed in the morning, who have trouble building trust in their other relationships, who hate and blame themselves, who struggle with debilitating flashbacks and dissociation, and more. It’s impossible to be immersed in this issue and not be furious at the injustices countless people have endured, especially when you take into consideration that this is an entirely preventable issue. Sexual assault is all too often excused and normalized in our society, which leads to high rates of sexual assault because perpetrators believe their actions are normal and that they can get away with it. We can challenge this culture by working to end victim blaming, calling out misogynistic attitudes and attitudes that perpetuate the normalization of sexual violence and abuse, and believing and respecting survivors. 

HCAU: What have you done in your time at AU to combat this issue?

AG: The bulk of my work combatting sexual assault at AU has been through my activism with Students Against Sexual Violence. In spring, 2014 (my freshman year) there was a series of e-mails released from Epsilon Iota (EI) at AU detailing conspiracies to rape freshman women, jokes about roofies and general misogyny. I started a Facebook group, which quickly became a movement, called No More Silence in response to these e-mails with the intention of breaking the silence and acceptance of EI’s behaviors. We set out with the goal of getting the administration to condemn EI and to implement mandatory sexual assault prevention education for all incoming freshman. From the No More Silence Movement, Students Against Sexual Violence was born, and we campaigned for both of these goals over the next year. We wrote letters, spoke to the administration, created a petition and got hundreds of student signatures, and rallied to campaign for mandatory education, and in the summer of 2015 Empower AU was formed in response to SASV’s demands.

Empower AU is the new mandatory education program for all incoming freshman that covers consent, bystander intervention and resources for survivors. I got the chance to be an Empower AU educator as well, so I got to take part in teaching workshops to hundreds of freshman. As the Executive Director of SASV I continue to help put programming and events on campus aimed at raising awareness about sexual assault, fighting rape culture on campus and creating safe and healing spaces for survivors.

Additionally, on campus I used to be a PEERS educator (Peer Educators for the Elimination of Relationship and Sexual Violence) where I taught workshops to student groups on issues related to sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking. I also taught Step Up workshops on bystander intervention to Greek organizations for a semester. Currently I am also the Student Government Director of Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness where I work with the administration on creating better policy on sexual assault at our school, and I also created a program called Greek Leaders Against Sexual Assault which trains greek members to lead dialogues/workshops with their organization on how to combat sexual assault specifically in the context of their organization.

HCAU: What have you done in the DC community to combat this issue? 

AG: I worked at a sexual assault crisis response line in DC for a year from 2014-2015 where I talked with hundreds of survivors to give them a chance to speak with someone about their experiences, develop coping and healing strategies that work best for them, and get connected to next steps in their healing process. Then, last semester, I worked as a domestic violence advocate with DCSAFE where I helped survivors of domestic violence safety plan, get connected to resources in their community, find housing, learn about and access legal support and access critical parts of their recovery.

HCAU: What are some successes you’ve had?

AG: The most major success in my activist career was finally winning the battle for mandatory sexual assault prevention education, and getting to take part in being an educator after campaigning so hard for a year to make it happen. I feel like these workshops are going to create a major shift in our campus climate by bringing consent, victim blaming and bystander intervention into the consciousness and cultural ethics of our campus.

In terms of my advocacy for survivors, I’ve had countless, individual, beautiful successes working survivors. I’ve had the privilege of getting to take part in the amazing experience of helping survivors finally recognizing that their assault was not their fault. That is huge; living with guilt and shame related to such a huge violation of one’s body and personhood is debilitating to survivor’s mental health, and helping people transcend that is one of the best successes an advocate can experience.

HCAU: What’s something you wish more people knew about this issue?

AG: That sexual violence is highly intertwined with other systems of oppression. For example, women of color in particular have extremely high rates of sexual violence. This has to do with a number of factors including, for black women, the legacy of white male sexual violence towards black women that dates back to the slavery era, the lack of resources available for survivors in black communities, and the inability of black women to report to the police because of racism endemic in law enforcement. Sexual assault is a huge problem on college campuses, but all too often the needs of white, heterosexual, cisgender middle/upper-class college students are being heard over the needs of people of color, people living in poverty, and LGBTQ people, and often these demographics are at higher risk for sexual assault and have less resources available to them in terms of recovery and justice.

HCAU: Being an advocate dedicating to preventing sexual violence and working alongside survivors can certainly be draining; do you practice self-care methods and if so, what do you do?

AG: I DO! Self care is SO important. In DC and in activist communities especially we have a culture of pushing yourself to the brink in squeezing every last ounce of our energy into our work and pursuits. This is how people burn out. If you aren’t taking care of yourself you cant help and take care of others. One thing I do is put definitive boundaries up so I’m not compromising on my emotional well-being. For example, Monday nights are mandatory self care time. That means no homework, nothing that has to do with sexual violence, and no activism. If people try and message me or reach me for any of these things I either don’t respond or tell them I’m unavailable till the next day. It gives me a really necessary time slot to breathe. 

HCAU: Where do you hope to see yourself one day?

AG: I'm hoping to go into a career in survivor advocacy at a center for survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence.

HCAU: What would you say to budding activists?

AG: Don't doubt yourself: you can and deserve to be a part of this movement. But also take responsibility for your actions. We all mess up and none of us are perfect, but if your words or actions unintentionally hurt someone or perpetuate oppression and oppressive attitudes and someone calls you out on it then you have to own up to it, take responsibility for it, and improve. In that vein, educate yourself on the experiences of marginalized and oppressed communities and make sure your activism is coming from a place that is informed and actively concerned with differences in privilege, opportunities and life experiences.

HCAU: How would you advise a friend to a sexual assault survivor to help them become a support system and an advocate?

AG: The number one thing you can do is believe a survivor and reinforce the message that what happened to them is not their fault. Survivors face a lot of shame and stigma in our society, and having someone who unequivocally stands by them and believes in their experience is incredibly powerful. The second most important thing you can do is point them to resources that are better equipped to support them, such as OASIS at AU, the national RAINN hotline, or the Network for Victim Recovery in in DC.

You can support your friends and the survivors in your life, but you aren’t a trained professional, and taking on someone’s mental health needs all on your own can do you both more harm than good. Lastly, never take their agency out of their recovery process. Sexual violence is a crime of taking power and control away from someone, and it is critically important for survivors to have power and control over their recovery process. This means you can inform your friend about resources in your community, but avoid saying they “should” or “need to” use these resources. More importantly, never pressure a survivor into reporting, confronting their perpetrator, or telling other friends/family. It’s important for survivors to know what options they have to heal and get justice, but they ultimately know their life and experiences best and need to have the ability to chose what path they want to take in order to recover.

 

All photos submitted by Amanda Gould.