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I recently attended the annual SpeakOut at my college. The purpose of the SpeakOut Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence is to offer a space for safe acknowledgment, reflection, and support for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. The event is about an hour and a half long. Everyone sits together quietly in a room and anyone can, if she wishes, get up to tell her story. There are often long stretches of time when everyone just sits quietly. There is no pressure to speak.

The responsive reading that takes place in the beginning of the SpeakOut conveys well its purpose and spirit. At the beginning of the SpeakOut, a "Leader," usually one of the SpeakOut organizers, leads in the reading and everyone attending responds, reading from the program that's handed out. This is the responsive reading from the SpeakOut I attended.

Leader: We gather together to speak and to listen.
People: To tell our own stories and to listen to the words of others.
L: In speaking we take back our lives.
P: In listening, we help one another heal.
L: Pain, fear and rage can consume us.
P: Empowerment and strength are ours to gain and share.
L: When we tell our stories we are no longer alone.
P: When we hear the pain of others, we become a community of care and support.
L: Let us attend to those who choose to be silent.
P: We are all on different parts in our journeys.
L: Let us be open to share and to hear.
P: May we allow the spirit of healing to enter into this place and into our hearts.

To speak out is a very important thing, and for the survivors most of all. Many of the survivors talk about how they didn't tell anyone about the violence done to them for a long time because of feelings of guilt and shame or even simply because they could not put a name to what had happened to them. For many of the survivors, much of the anger they feel is directed at themselves. Putting words to these experiences and breaking the silence can be incredibly powerful and empowering because silence isolates the survivor, perpetuates societal ignorance about what constitutes sexual assault, and perpetuates the perceived stigma attached to victims of sexual assault. Survivors can give voice to the fact that they are not wrong, bad, or deserving of shame no matter what the circumstances of their experience.

I once asked a friend if she wanted to go to a SpeakOut with me and she said no, because she felt uncomfortable about doing so since she had never experienced any sexual assault. She thought that she would feel weird and out of place. But what you see at a SpeakOut is that survivors of rape, of incest, of domestic violence, of child abuse are regular people. Regardless of whether someone has a personal experience to tell, each person's presence is supportive and meaningful. At the SpeakOut, survivors can share their stories without fear of judgment. And most importantly, the terms of sexual assault become defined and definable.

The people who choose to share their stories do so bravely, and with the understanding that they're doing it in an environment, a community, of trust and support, where their stories are very much their own and are kept in the room, but the telling of them contributes to their own healing and the healing of others.

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