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Ohio State sexual assault victims find catharsis through art

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When Blaire Teaford, a first-year in psychology, was sexually assaulted, she said she couldn’t go through basic life functions for a month — she couldn’t even get out of bed to eat.

Looking back on her traumatic experience now, Teaford is proud of the progress she has made in her healing process.

Teaford and dozens of other sexual assault victims have been able to measure their progress through art, which they created to showcase and perform at the Survivor Gala held at the Ohio Union on Thursday.

“We wanted to work with Sexual Violence Education and Support in Student Life to bring more attention and light to survivors in a positive way, and to allow for some (artistic) expression for survivors,” said Molly Hegarty, managing director at Student Legal Services at Ohio State.

The idea for the gala came about when Michelle Bangen, wellness coordinator for SVES, discovered interesting responses to a group activity she conducted during her sexual assault prevention presentations.

Bangen would divide participants into two groups, asking one half to answer why they are afraid of asking for consent prior to sexual activity, and the other half, why they would want to be asked for consent. Participants wrote their answers down on sticky notes.

“Very consistently, there are three fears of why people don’t want to ask for consent: because they think it’s awkward, it’s gonna kill the mood and they’re afraid to be told no,” she said. “On the flip side, you see really good themes around: ‘It shows respect,’ ‘It shows that they’re interested in knowing what I want to do,’ ‘It’s sexy.’”

Natalie Spiert, sexual violence coordinator for Student Life, decided to collect all of the sticky notes, creating an art installation with answers to both questions. She made glazed ceramic tiles of each of the sticky notes, and placed a mirror finish on the back of them.

“On the back, you are to see your reflection, and to me this really is to facilitate cognitive thought about, ‘What does consent mean to me?’ ‘How am I going to apply it in my next relationship or sexual interaction?’” she said. “I think by understanding that each person is feeling the same anxiety and wanting the same, (anxiety) will eliminate once we expose this to everyone.”

The submitted art pieces at the gala varied in form and included T-shirts, photography, poems and paintings. Each piece portrayed a different stage of the healing process the artist is in, which Spiert said is an essential key to recovery.

“Art is an amazing outlet to allow you to work through whatever it is you are trying to process,” Spiert said. “It allows the ability to critically think, and not be fearful of how (you) will be perceived by others.”

“The whole purpose is that survivors can recover, survivors can heal and they’re whole people,” Bangen said. “This is one means of helping to get them there.”

In Teaford’s case, she said the art helped her embrace her emotions and take control.

“I felt like I could do whatever I wanted,” she said. “It gave me the power and control in the situation, and I could just express how I felt without using words.”

Teaford submitted three photos, two of which captured her wearing the crop top she wore when was sexually assaulted. Written on the shirt are the words the assaulter said to her: “You want me and you know it, you’re just scared.”

“He actually blamed me for the assault because of what I was wearing,” Teaford said. “I wanted to take back my power and my control in the situation, and put the shirt on and show that he doesn’t control me anymore and it’s not consuming me. It’s a part of who I am now.”

The third picture was a close-up of Teaford’s eye. The word “Stop” was written above her eye, “No” below it, and in the pupil of her eye, “Why.”

“That was showing the internalized and externalized thoughts going through my head,” Teaford said. “Externally I was saying ‘no’ and ‘stop,’ but on the inside I was asking ‘why?’”

The gala had over 200 RSVPs, and attendees included Ohio State President Michael Drake and Javaune Adams-Gaston, vice president for Student Life.

“When we think about all of the work that is done on behalf of those who are survivors, what we know is it’s a journey, and that journey takes multiple forms,” Adams-Gaston said, tears streaming down her cheeks. “It’s critical work to be done. Here at the Ohio State University our goal is to ensure everyone has an experience that makes the best of you.”

Bangen said the gala was important for the SVES community to bring a more positive light to the issues of sexual assault.

“We want to reduce the stigma around being a survivor, being a victim of sexual violence, and make it an issue that we as a community feel empowered to address,” she said. “We don’t see sexual violence as a women’s issue, not only because people of other genders are impacted as well, but because it takes an entire community to really prevent it from happening.”

Spiert echoed Bangens goals, saying she hopes the Gala will become an annual event.

“This event for me was about honoring survivors, honoring everyone’s effort for moving forward in a positive way,” she said.

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