UConn's VAWPP Coordinator discusses everyday ways to eliminate gender-based violence

Lauren Donais recently celebrated her third anniversary as UConn’s Violence Against Women Prevention Program Coordinator. Donais took the job in April of 2013 after working at Trinity College's Women & Gender Resource Action Center for 5 years. After getting an undergraduate degree from UConn, Donais earned a Masters in Public Policy and Law at Trinity College.

Photo courtesy of Donais.

Donais says her “feminist awakening” was a process. “The most transformative part of my college experience was really my trip abroad to Cape Town, [South Africa.]”

In Cape Town, Donais worked with a Non-Governmental Organization that lobbied parliament in legislation related to gender-based violence.

Donais says her experience in Cape Town motivated her to “have a hand in prevention education.”

Considering April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Donais offered some advice to UConn students on ways they can work to eliminate gender-based violence.

Donais says students should be aware of “how some of the attitudes they subscribe to serve to normalize and condone gender-based violence.”

According to the Women’s Center, students need to “challenge language that silences or denies women access to their sexuality.” In addition, people need to stop using degrading language that “reinforces problematic notions of masculinity.” Words such as bitch, slut, whore, fag and pussy should no longer be tolerated. Similarly, people must challenge sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic and xenophobic jokes, attitudes and norms.

Donais says UConn students can also work to eliminate gender-based violence by challenging victim blaming beliefs and statements. The Women’s Center strives to shift the conversation away from, “How’d they let that happen?” and “Why don’t they just leave?” and instead ask questions like “Why did the perpetrator think it was okay to be violent?”

It’s also important to believe victims/survivors when they share their story. There are various obstacles to reporting for victims/survivors, and they should not have to worry about being believed or fear being discredited.

Donais says students need to be aware of “how they’re responding to friends and family that may disclose to them.”

There is a need for “more robust education around what trauma informed and survivor-centered support looks like,” she said.

The Women’s Center has outlined ways to support a friend or family member who has experienced gender-based violence. For instance, when victims/survivors share their experience with gender-based violence, people need to listen, show support and honor their agency. This means not telling them that they “need” to make a report, seek therapy, tell their parents, or anything else they think is in their best interest. Telling a survivor they “need” to do something takes away their power, just as their abuser/assailant did. While it’s helpful to offer resources as options, victims/survivors need to make their own decisions.

Donais also discussed the importance of practicing affirmative consent on a daily basis. Students need to communicate with their partner(s). We know to obtain consent when making everyday requests like “Can I borrow your pencil?” and sex should not be any different.

Furthermore, Donais stresses that people must not pressure others, regardless of their intent. “Many of us are desensitized to applying and receiving pressure,” a brochure for the Women’s Center notes. For instance, people are often pressured into doing everyday things that they don’t want to do. This kind of pressure normalizes the act and as a result, perpetuates gender-based violence.

In addition, Donais noted the impact of internalized sexism. “There is a tendency to think that women are going to be more sensitive to these issues or have less acceptance of rape myths because they are women,” she said. “We’ve all grown up in a sexist culture and we internalize that as women.”

The Women’s Center says people need to realize that no one is born sexist, and it’s through observing and learning from society that we are socialized to accept common attitudes and beliefs, including sexist beliefs and rape myths.

Donais says internalized sexism “impacts the way we interact with others and not only the way we see the world, but also the way we see ourselves.”

The Women’s Center urges members of the UConn community to continue to educate themselves about the sexist culture we live in and spread awareness about gender-based violence. Society desensitized to the rape culture or normalized to accept rape myths that condone gender-based violence. It takes time to unlearn sexist attitudes and norms that have been socially ingrained in society, but people must hold themselves accountable.

“We certainly hope that students are talking to one another about their role in prevention and challenging themselves to think critically about dismantling rape culture,” Donais said.