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Free to learn, free to discuss, free to end sexual violence

Puberty is never the most positive experience. But for former Algonquin victimology student, Kelsey Burton, being the first girl to hit puberty at a high school where sexual violence was so normalized that even adults turned a blind eye, was definitely not fun.

“There is name-calling, jokes and commentary that come along with it,” Burton said.

She added that she still has nightmares about hallways because of all her experiences.

Burton shared her survivor story on Tuesday, May 31 at the FREE TO LEARN: Confronting Sexual Violence at School event at the Commons Theatre.

Beginning in the sixth grade right up until her last year at Waterloo University, Burton experienced bullying and sexual violence by both males and females, which left her feeling very isolated.

“When it is so engrained within your school culture,” said Burton, “you know it will happen again.”

She told the crowd that she was both depressed and suicidal.

“My 13-year-old self would talk to my pet rabbit,” she said. “I threw myself into music and I threw myself into writing. It’s amazing what the mind can do to survive.”

When she realized that the consequences of it were not trusting friends in adulthood and still seeing rejection very easily, she decided to get help.

“There is always a tomorrow,” said Burton. “If there is a person you even just think is being bullied, don’t just sit there – talk about it.”

Deputy Chief Jill Skinner, who was staff sergeant of the Sexual Assault and Child Abuse team at the Ottawa Police Service, also spoke at the event about how just last week the OPP launched a new program to effectively handle survivors of sexual assault from the beginning of the case until the end. It was a project she had been working on since 2001.

“It’s taken a long time,” Skinner said, “but we’ve finally got it up and running.”

She says that as this program continues it will provide better service for survivors and she hopes that at next year’s conference some of the police who are working within the new program can come speak to share what they have learned through it and how it has helped them to better serve victims.

Janet Heffernan, creator of Strong Orange, a Canadian organization that teaches self-defense and violence prevention, also presented at the event. She spoke about her own experience as a survivor of sexual assault and how it taught her a valuable lesson — giving people the right tools can help prevent violence.

“I was a black belt in karate and it happened to me,” she said, adding that she didn’t even know that she was a victim of sexual assault right away.

Heffernan believes that non-violent communication is a skill that can be taught.

“The physical work is fine, but it’s not enough,” she said. “It’s the tiniest piece of what we can do to prevent violence.”

Through Strong Orange, she teaches a five-point plan to bring an end to sexual violence. The first thing is to develop an understanding of what violence is.

“We tend to think only about the big things,” said Heffernan. “If a teacher grabs my hiney, we may not think that is sexual assault. We need to understand what violence is, what it means so that we can address it as violence.”

She says it is the first step in the puzzle and it can allow the survivor to make a change.

“There are people I know who consider themselves to be sweet but are capable of violence too,” she said. “Silent treatment and passive aggressive Facebook statuses are also forms of violence.”

The second step is to break down any gender conditioning.

“Think of that person you know who you would just not ever mess with,” Heffernan said. “It’s not a genetic trait. The confidence fairy didn’t sprinkle them with pixie dust. It is a skill that can be taught.”

She gave an example to illustrate her point, telling the audience to imagine a cat put into a pillowcase.

“Now shake him up,” she said. “What does he want to do? This is an eight-pound cat but he wants to get away from you. This is what we need to teach women. If we can break down some of these gendered norms it can be helpful.”

She also believes we need to involve men in the movement.

“We need to build bridges and banish the distrust,” Heffernan said. “We need to banish the things we do violently.”

Then you cultivate what Heffernan calls “purposeful power” and resilience.

“We need to give people permission to be powerful,” she said. “We need to give people permission to be soft.”

She believes that a lot of the problem stems from how women are taught from an early age that they are not powerful. She says that it is not about actually being powerless – it is just a feeling of powerlessness.

“I can sit there all day and tell you that you’re powerful,” Heffernan said. “You may or may not believe it. But if I pick up my shield it gives you a different connection.”

Speaking of her own sexual assault, as someone who had been doing martial arts for years and had a black belt in karate, Heffernan explained that she had all kinds of skills at the time. The problem is that she just didn’t use them.

“I didn’t give myself permission to use these tools,” she said. “The tools like speaking up, trusting my gut feeling about a person, or noticing little red flags.”

Fourth is to know the toolkit at your disposal in case of emergencies. This is where the physical aspect comes in to play.

Heffernan says that graduates of Strong Orange’s self-defense classes report decreased feelings of vulnerability, fear, anxiety and PTSD.

The last step is to come at it at more than one angle.

Heffernan often works alone in her Barrhaven office and the work is hard, especially when isolated in one little room. She made a discovery when she went to the United Nations for the Council of the Status of Women.

There were 10,000 activists, like her, all working separately on the same project of reducing violence against women.

“I thought, ‘Look at how many people are working on this – I’m not the only one,” she said.

Feeling burnt out is common for advocates fighting to end violence against women. It comes from the passion and the dark nature of the subject matter. But since there are a lot of people working on it, Heffernan says it’s important to remember that you can take care of your own needs too. Everything will be fine if you take a break if you need to.

“Celebrate the victories,” she said. “There is no reason that this problem can not be as historical as women fighting for the right to vote.”

We need to understand that it is 100 per cent possible and it can be a change we see in our life times.

“Work at this from all angles until its history will be our legacy,” were Heffernan’s last words in her presentation.

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