Last fall, I took a class at Brandeis called Sexual Violence in Film and Media. In this class, we learned about the stereotypes and discrimination people face after experiencing sexual violence, especially when encountering social systems such as hospitals, law enforcement, and the courts. We explored how society’s responses to sexual violence—not just the sexual violence itself—deny survivors choice, control, and autonomy. This summer, I’m interning with the Center for Violence Prevention and Recovery (CVPR) at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Much of what CVPR does is respond to and support survivors of sexual violence. The social workers who work in CVPR are often there in the Emergency Department as trauma-informed guides through the immediate aftermath of an assault, which is exactly what we learned in the class is usually missing for survivors.
I am helping to write a book chapter that will teach lawyers how to support their clients who are survivors of sexual assault. The chapter attempts to help lawyers who work with sexual assault survivors (most often in civil rather than criminal matters) understand the facts and science behind the aftermath of sexual assault, including how the brain reacts to trauma. Hopefully, this information could help reduce re-traumatization of sexual assault survivors as they navigate the court system.
In doing some of the research and writing for this project, I have drawn on what I learned in my class at Brandeis, specifically what we discussed about how people of minority and marginalized identities are often both more vulnerable to sexual violence and less able to access services in its aftermath. Much of the research I have done for this project centers on how social marginalization affects survivors’ access to accessible, adequate, and culturally competent care and support in the criminal justice system. The project hopes to increase this access by educating lawyers about the specific challenges their clients may face when navigating the courts.
In researching all the ways in which formal systems fall short and fail survivors, I am reminded of a particularly impactful class period in which we learned about an organization in Israel whose goal is to avoid the re-traumatization of sexual assault survivors by creating a trauma-informed space for healing. I am reminded that we do not know which practices lead to re-traumatization, but we know which practices lead to healing. This reminder, and the reminder that the work I am doing is to help improve the experiences of survivors after an assault, helps to mitigate some of the inevitable negativity that comes from doing this research.
At Brandeis, I’ve also learned how to do effective research. The skills I’ve acquired from doing research projects for classes—such as searching the database, reviewing literature for relevant content, and compiling references—have allowed me to be able to work on this project. Despite the heavy topic, I’ve greatly enjoyed working with CVPR in this endeavor. I’ve come to better understand some of the psychology and neurobiology that underscore our experiences—something that I haven’t (yet) had the chance to study at Brandeis. I’m excited to return to campus and to take courses which will enhance my knowledge and understanding of these topics.