Q&A With Michelle Roland-Schwartz and Meg Foster of the Oregon Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Task Force
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
April Baer: What prevents victims of sexual assault from coming forward?
Michelle Roland-Schwartz: Safety is the primary reason but there’s also a lot of victim blaming that goes along with being a survivor in our culture that keeps survivors from coming forward and seeking help. We see if often.
Baer: What does it mean to create a system that goes beyond what law enforcement can do?
Roland-Schwartz: We have to stop making excuses for perpetrators’ behavior. I think we do that time and time again. All of us are playing a role.
Meg Foster: I think it has a lot to do with making space for survivors to share their stories and start by believing them. Start by acknowledging their experience is real and focusing on was we can support them and hold offenders more accountable. And not just personal accountability. It’s collective accountability.
Baer: What are some examples?
Foster: We live in a culture where sexual violence is pervasive — sexist comments, cat-calling, physically assaulting somebody, or hugging or kissing somebody without their consent.
There are comments I’ve made in my life that I look back on and it’s super embarrassing. I know better. We operate under the assumption that no one we know and love is capable of this, when we’ve honestly been conditioned our whole lives to be capable of sexual violence.
Baer: What best practices should businesses be thinking about when it comes to making safer spaces?
Foster: When you’re taking about prevention, it’s a little different than bystander intervention or risk reduction. Bystander intervention is training people like bartenders or each of us, to, when we see something that’s a red flag, try and do something about it. … I don’t know if banning someone from your establishment is constructive if that’s all you do. I think that creates cultures of defensiveness, versus, “Hey, that’s not OK, let’s figure out a plan so it doesn’t happen again.” That being said, I don’t think keepers of space should be entirely responsible for that.
Roland-Schwartz: I want to add one more thing. I think about the space of social media or the internet in general: unless it’s driven by a personal decision for victims themselves, the internet holds a lot of hostility, especially toward women.
When you’re talking about safe spaces for survivors to come forward and share their stories, it’s really important to allow survivors to make that decision themselves, whether or not they want to come forward and share their story in such a public space. Until we are able to create an environment where they’re safe to do that, it’s difficult to make any headway in prevention.