Alas, it’s April — the month of beautiful spring weather. But more importantly, and sometimes forgotten, April is the start of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM).
I’m Jenna Ryu, a Life and Wellness editorial intern, and you’re reading “This Is America,” a newsletter about race, identity and how they shape our lives.
If we look back in time, movements against sexual assault and harassment have changed immensely over the years. As someone covering entertainment, I can’t help but notice the changes in Hollywood. It was only three years ago that Bill Cosby was finally convicted after publicly dismissing his victims, and it took almost a decade for some powerful celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow to speak out against the disgraced Harvey Weinstein.
This isn’t to say that the fight for change is over, because it’s far from that. But compared to previous years, there’s an encouragement and culture to believe victims, to not stay silent.
Not surprisingly, survivors have faced unprecedented challenges in staying empowered and seeking help. Isolation and social distancing have limited in-person support systems, and the dire state of the world has taken a mental health toll for many.
Coping is looking a little different this year, especially for Gen Z. And surprisingly, it includes humor.
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So what is Sexual Assault Awareness Month? And how did it start?
It wasn’t easy to get to where we are today. Calls for social change started as early as the civil rights era, but April became the official month for sexual assault awareness month only recently, in 2001. And it wasn’t until four years ago that then-President Donald Trump officially declared April as National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, the original goal of SAAM was simply awareness. Years later, however, SAAM evolved to focus on prevention, whether it’s in the form of bystander intervention or informational sessions about consent.
Though we’re now fortunate enough to engage in open discussions to challenge the status quo — a stark contrast to previous years — there is still much to be done. Every 73 seconds, an American experiences sexual assault, which is defined by the Justice Department as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”
Times have changed
Lucky for my generation, the negative stigma that was once attached to talking about sexual assault is changing.
Now more than ever, more women are speaking out and telling their stories. Take a look at FKA Twigs’ emotional confession about her domestic abuse story with ex-boyfriend Shia LaBeouf. Or the numerous women speaking out about sexual harassment claims against the powerful New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
It’s slowly becoming more acceptable to speak up and less acceptable to victim-blame. But it wasn’t always like this.
According to Jean Twenge, author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood,” intergenerational differences between various age groups contribute to today’s changing stigma. Baby Boomers (ages 57-75) and early Gen X women (ages 41-56) were starting their careers “when hardly anybody was talking about sexual harassment or assault.”
This changed with the millennials (ages 25-40), when Anita Hill garnered national attention for powerful testimony against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, whom she accused of sexual harassment, in 1991.
“After Anita Hill, people slowly recognized the legitimacy and frequency of sexual harassment and assault, and this idea that sexual assault was totally unacceptable began with millennials,” Twenge says.
Thus, it was with my generation, Gen Z (ages 6-24), that we were fortunate enough to have grown up with the standards that sexual assault happens, it’s real and it’s a problem. Survivors of this age demographic were further encouraged to speak up and not stay silent thanks to the rise of social media. With platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, we’re in control of what we post online, and it can be empowering to take back our narrative and open up about our experiences — even if it is something as dark as sexual assault.
TikTok is more than an app for goofy videos
This year, survivors are battling yet another obstacle to feeling liberated — this pandemic.
Social distancing mandates have exposed all of us to unprecedented isolation. But for survivors, this also means limited in-person support, a crucial component to healing. It’s been more difficult to turn to friends or even therapists, but many Gen Z’ers have found solace and empowerment in a different type of community. Specifically, an online one: TikTok.
Before you ask, yes: it is where 16-year-olds have achieved fame and fortune for dancing on camera. However, it’s more than just another social media platform. It’s a community for Gen Z. Unlike Instagram or Facebook, anyone on TikTok has the potential to go viral, whether you have 10 million or 10 followers. This allows us to engage with ordinary creators, not celebrities, and truly feel as if we can relate to these strangers on the internet. As a result, many users are more open, willing to get personal and vulnerable — even if that’s in the form of a 15-second dance video.
Jokes are a normal, even liberating, form of coping
You might be wondering: It’s the internet. Why would someone willingly share private matters, let alone sexual assault stories? And why would someone joke about it on a platform designed to be goofy? For survivors like Lainey Heller (@lonnylarz), this form of coping isn’t just normal. It’s also empowering.
Heller, who has a TikTok following of over 400K followers, often resorts to dark humor in order to spread awareness about her own sexual assault story. Rather than taking a serious tone, she’ll joke about her experience or use lighthearted audios to poke fun. Either way, she just wants her followers to laugh with her.
“It’s so nice when people come to my account and joke about their experiences in the comments, and we can laugh together,” Heller says.
“That’s why I poke fun at it. Not that it’s ever funny, but it’s reassuring, healthy and safe when I know other people can relate. Especially because not everyone has a great support system in real life.”
Heller isn’t the only one. The hashtag #sexualassault has over 120 million views on TikTok, and users who have used the hashtag similarly use dark humor to bring attention to how normalized topics like sexual assault are — to the extent that it’s almost laughable.
It might not make sense for many, especially those who haven’t grown up with social media. But there’s something therapeutic about sharing deeply personal thoughts and taking control of a traumatic event and turning it into a source of smiles for others.
Marni Amsellem, a licensed psychologist, explains that humor is in fact an extremely useful and common coping strategy that can help some process such a heavy and traumatic event. For others, it can lighten the emotional severity of the trauma as well.
So why does Gen Z use dark humor more than other age groups? Twenge says Gen Z is more pessimistic than millennials, which might explain their inclination towards dark humor — a “type of humor you have when you’re feeling negative emotions.”
What might seem dark to one person can be extremely empowering and liberating for others: You feel seen when your videos about your story garner thousands of views. You feel heard when the comments are flooded with love and support. Laughing together with a community (even an online one) can build a sense of solidarity and unity, a sense that you’re really not alone — even in a pandemic.
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