SURVIVAL Techniques: Protectors, Healers, and the Lessons of Leslie Simon
by Trey Bundy
"I have a really strong sex drive," says the young man in the second-to-last row. Somewhere in his twenties, he's trying to reconcile the myths he grew up hearing with the truth he's now learning. "I've never raped anybody."
"That's right," explains Leslie Simon. "Because it's a myth that rapes are caused by uncontrollable sex drives."
In a City College of San Francisco health class, Simon is giving a Project SURVIVE presentation. She's a professor and Women's Studies chair at City College and Project SURVIVE is the peer education program she created to teach students to teach each other about preventing rape and domestic violence. Active since 1993, Project SURVIVE will visit 200 classrooms this year. Debunking myths about rape is a high priority and Simon corroborates her assertion about sex drives with a scenario that goes something like this:
Imagine you're on a secluded road in the back seat of a car. You're naked because you're having sex with someone you're really excited to be having sex with. Suddenly you hear, TAP! TAP! TAP! It's a cop knocking on the window with his flashlight, which he shines in your eyes. What do you do? Do you say "So sorry officer? I have this uncontrollable sex drive, and you're going to have to wait for me to finish up?" No, you don't. What you do is reach for your pants-quickly. You're able to do this because sex drives are controllable.
This scenario is from the presentation script that Simon created more than a dozen years ago. Each year, students working in teams of two use the script in college and high school classrooms, teaching their peers how to protect themselves from violence, and navigate the complex terrain of intimacy. Their job is to get classes talking about something most people don't want to discuss at all, much less with strangers.
The presentation starts with a chalkboard diagram of what makes a healthy relationship. Students aren't asked to raise their hands, but to shout their ideas out at will. Next, the SURVIVE educators reveal the truth about sexual violence, and the message is this: rape and domestic abuse are far more prevalent than you think, and they don't just destroy relationships-they destroy people.
"People withdraw and suffer from depression and other mental illnesses related to trauma," says peer educator Mica Chavez-Larimer. "The trauma teaches them that unhealthy relationships are the norm."
Before the peer educators can present this information, there's training. They learn the facts regarding sexual violence, and the lies and myths that contradict them. They learn how to talk to students who might experience emotional triggers as a reaction to the material. They learn the causes of sexual violence and how it affects its victims. And they learn to be direct; euphemisms don't exactly abound in a Project SURVIVE presentation.
"When you teach people about sex, you can teach them about when sex can go wrong," says Simon. "You teach them how to have safer sex, nonviolent sex, fun sex, and no-babies-unless-you-want-them sex. All of that can and should happen together."
To accomplish this Simon designed two classes: The Politics of Sexual Violence and Ending Sexual Violence. After completing both, students are eligible to become peer educators. Brenda Molina, a four-semester SURVIVE educator says Simons's classes are very interactive. "She always had us doing group activities. If she was lecturing it was for a couple minutes, but then she wanted our opinions."
"Leslie recognizes people's attributes and what they're good at," says Jessi Ross, a peer educator who also works at an STD clinic and moonlights as a dancer. "I do sex work myself and she knew that. So when we were talking about porn and sexual assault she asked me to talk to the class. Leslie enables her students to become leaders."
After a year of training, the real work begins: educating people and changing the way we deal with sexual violence. A look back through history gives us an idea of what they're up against.
In Greek mythology there's Europa, the Phoenician woman who was raped by Zeus. He stalked her, deceived her by changing his appearance, and abducted her. Once captive, she had sex with him, and her acquiescence was rewarded when she was crowned the first queen of Crete. Of course, Zeus was more than just a ladies man; he was a god, and Europa's mere mortality presents an obvious imbalance of power in their relationship. She was raped, and Zeus faced no consequences for the choice he made to rape her.
During the Middle Ages, many cultures condemned the act of rape, not for the devastating impact it had on women, but because it was considered an affront to the fathers or husbands of the victims. Typically, the perpetrator could pay the victim's husband or father a fine to compensate him for tainting his "property." It might not shock people that women belonged to men in the Middle Ages, but it took humanity about five centuries to begin questioning that mindset.
It was 1978 before the first U.S. state (Oregon) passed legislation forbidding a husband to rape his wife. Legislators in other parts of the country spent the next fifteen years debating the wisdom of Oregon's decision, and did not universally outlaw marital rape until 1993. Essentially, until fourteen years ago women in some states were still legally considered property.
According to Project SURVIVE, one out of four females in the U.S. is sexually assaulted by age eighteen, and males aren't far behind. SURVIVE educator Felicia Tafoya believes we're just starting to cope with the problem. "I don't think society knows how to deal with this issue. How often do you turn the news on and see it? And you don't hear about men being raped. Women are scared to report it, but men might be more scared."
Fear of reporting likely stems from the scrutiny and humiliation to which we subject victims of sexual violence. "When you're blaming the victim," says Simon, "you're not doing anything about the perpetrator. We're doing really well at healing people who have been victimized, but not at stopping abuse at the beginning stages. We know that most people who have been abused don't go on to abuse others. But of those who do, I would argue that virtually all were abused physically, sexually, or emotionally because very few people are born needing to hurt others."
Project SURVIVE also maintains that roughly 80% of rapes are acquaintance rapes, but Simon doesn't distinguish between one kind of rape and another. "It's always forced, it's about consent, and sometimes you get beat up and sometimes you don't."
* * *
Leslie Simon says that getting involved in rape prevention was "accidental, but not exactly accidental." In the eighties, at the request of some colleagues, she taught a class at City College called Women and Violence and eventually created a full-time Women's Studies position that included a peer-education program.
"What's interesting is that I'm not a rape survivor," she says. "But as I got into this field I realized that it affected me. It affects all of us. Then what drew me to it were social justice issues because it's all connected: You fight sexism, you fight racism, you fight homophobia, you fight them all together. You don't fight them separately."
Indeed Simon's concern for victims is fueled by her politics as well as her compassion. "I would offer that child abuse supports a patriarchal, hierarchal society," she says, "that if you teach children to obey, and to be afraid, and to hate themselves, they will be less likely to question authority. When you're put down as a child, you're taught, 'If I speak up I'm going to get hurt. I'll just shut up. The boss is exploiting me? Oh well.'"
"We spend a lot of time talking about how the personal is also political," says Emily Thompson, a peer educator who works full time in the SURVIVE office. "A lot of stuff comes up in her class. We all have our own histories. I'm a survivor of domestic violence. A lot of students are survivors of domestic violence or rape, and they're going through it now. There are people in Leslie's classes who are living in shelters."
Simon says the classes aren't designed for students to work on their own therapy but, because of the nature of the discussions, she has individual conferences with each of them to see how they're handling the material.
"Part of the classes is, not to work on your own stuff," says Thompson, "but to know what your stuff is. Sometimes things come up in presentations that might put you in a vulnerable place."
Last fall, Brenda Molina lost a friend to violence and took a break from giving presentations. "She was murdered," says Molina, "and I had a presentation the day after I found out she was dead. I told Leslie, 'I'm not going to be able to do it.' And she said, 'Take all the time you need. I completely understand.' But reviewing the material for this new semester helped me to heal over my friend's death."
"You stop when you need to stop," says Tafoya, "and Leslie encourages that, too. You stop if you get burned out because it's not healthy."
"Leslie knows how to take care of herself," says Ross. "She's such an activist and her commitment to the struggle is awesome. It's inspiring and it proves that activism can be a lifelong pursuit."
The admiration goes both ways. Ask Simon what keeps her going on her worst day and the answer comes quickly: "The students that I work with, absolutely. I feel honored and privileged to work with them. The diversity, the wisdom, the survival skills of the people who take classes at City College are an inspiration, and that's what keeps me going."
To learn more about Project SURVIVE please visit: www.ccsf.edu/Departments/Women_Studies/Project_SURVIVE/
Leslie Simon grew up on the Southeast side of Chicago and holds degrees in English, American History, and African Studies. She is also the author of several books including Collisions and Transformations and A Music I No Longer Heard: the Early Death of a Parent.
Copyright © 2007 Trey Bundy. All rights reserved. Appears here by permission of the author.