To start, I am a man — a white heterosexual man to be exact. I am probably not the first image that comes to mind when talking about an advocate at a rape crisis center. But here I am, volunteering with the Orange County Rape Crisis Center as a Companion for survivors of sexual violence. In sharing my story of how I got here, I hope that other men will read this and consider getting involved, either within our community or by taking a firm stand against sexual violence.
When I was finishing my final year of my undergraduate career, I began to take an interest in women’s issues. To this day I cannot pinpoint what started it, but I do remember reading more blog posts and articles through Facebook about women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted, as well as more generic commentary about the everyday discrimination women encounter. By the time I was in graduate school, my awareness of the frequency of sexual assault, particularly on college campuses, led me to change my academic focus toward women’s rights and gender equality. Although my studies focus on the global stage, my conviction that women’s issues needed to be addressed only grew.
I volunteered as a Companion to learn more about sexual violence and how to combat it from a third party perspective. Reading about instances of rape left me feeling angry that such actions occurred with stunning regularity, and frustrated that people could either brush it off or treat it as “just the way things are.” While I am grateful for the training provided by the Center and have enjoyed my experience so far, I cannot deny that it has been emotionally trying. Exposing myself to a subject that I could not personally relate to was difficult. I certainly cared about what happened, but I understood very quickly that I could never fully comprehend the harassment, the violence, or the subtle discrimination because I was born a man.
I was born a heterosexual male into a world where my very status automatically conferred privileges to me. I have walked down city streets and college campuses at night alone and never had to worry about being assaulted. I have never been subjected to catcalling or verbal harassment because of my gender. I have never had my race or ethnicity used against me as a means of putting me down. I have never been groped in public, faced scrutiny for the way I dress, or endured lewd comments about my sex life. And as I write this, it makes me feel terrible because no woman or man should have to endure any of this.
That is why I chose to become a Companion. As emotionally difficult as it was learning about the different forms of sexual violence and how to handle crisis situations, I knew it was the right thing to do. I wanted to channel my frustrations into action. Even if I cannot stop rape from happening, I want a survivor to know that there is someone out there who will stand by them and support them. I may be a man, but I know my privilege and I cannot bear to think that too many people suffer such horrific violence. When I think of all the amazing, beautiful, intelligent, strong women in my life, it pains me to realize that some of them may be survivors and I don’t know it. For their sake, and for every woman, I chose to educate myself about sexual violence and what can be done to help survivors.
As a final note, one observation I made during Companion training was that I was the only male in the room. All the other volunteers were women or female-identified and the staff were female or did not outright identify as male. Being the only cisgender male in the room drove home how disproportionately women bear the brunt of sexual violence and crisis work. It made me realize that my presence, my willingness to expose myself to this difficult but necessary work spoke volumes. But that still aggravates me because there should be more men involved. There should be more men willing to speak out against sexual violence. To any man who reads this, I implore you to do the right thing. If you cannot volunteer as a Companion, at least educate yourself. For me, that has made a world of difference.
William Laney is a Companion with the Orange County Rape Crisis Center. He is currently pursuing his Master’s degree at NC State University, but his heart bleeds Tar Heel blue for his alma mater.