Sexual Assault Awareness in the COVID-19 Pandemic

CONTENT WARNING: sexual, domestic, and intimate partner violence

written by Jen England

with contributions from Kristin Bohn, Emma Coppola, Nkau Lor, Logan McGaheran, Anthony Meng, and Hodo Mohamed

Since early 2020, we’ve been told by numerous sources—health officials, government leaders, even university administrators—that staying home is a critical way to keep us safe from COVID-19. But what happens when “safer at home” is not actually safe for everyone?

Sign for Governor Walz’s Stay at Home Executive Order in 2020

Research continually shows that sexual, domestic, and intimate partner violence increase during times of crisis, whether natural or human-made disasters, economic recessions, or global health emergencies. Rates typically spike in the immediate aftermath but continue rising throughout the recovery process, often for years following the initial event. Data collected from crises in the past 40 years reveal a troubling trend that grows more grim with time, as various agencies find ways to collect more and more data:

Given recognizing, reporting, and responding to violence in times of crisis is often severely impacted by the destruction of infrastructure and displacement of entire communities, these rates are likely conservative estimates. While there are complex factors at play, the reality is somewhat simple: as the stress of daily survival increases so do rates of sexual, domestic, and intimate partner violence.

The Pandemic within the Pandemic

Crises not only lead to new acts of violence, but they can also escalate ongoing abuse with current (or former) partners and family members. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception:

This isn’t just an “elsewhere” issue. In fact, during the first stay-at-home order, calls, texts, and chats to Minnesota’s Day One crisis line—a network of domestic violence and sexual assault community programs across the state—increased 21%.

Mental health issues have been triggered or worsened from stress caused by lost jobs, unaffordable housing, and other financial hardships, especially in the first year of the pandemic. Coupled with the grief from loss and the uncertainty of the future, many people have been pushed to their breaking point. For those in already strained relationships or volatile households, domestic and intimate partner violence was—and for many is still—eminent. Although such violence is common during most large-scale crises, the COVID-19 pandemic creates additional challenges for survivors due to the time victim-survivors had/have to spend at home.

[COVID-19] feels almost like a petri dish for the levels of violence
to increase within family relationships

Barbara Paradiso, Director of the Center on Domestic Violence at CU Denver

In short, the very efforts intended to mitigate COVID-19 have, for some, exacerbated sexual violence. One medical research team suggested stay-at-home orders may “create a worst-case scenario for individuals suffering from DV [domestic violence].” When countries began initiating lockdowns early in the pandemic, intimate partner violence rates increased 25 to 35% globally in 2020 alone.

Victim-survivors were essentially trapped at home with their abusers. Travel restrictions limited their ability to seek safety elsewhere, and they had fewer available options for alternate housing, such as shelters or even hotels, as many were operating at reduced capacity (and some continue to do so).

This is the perfect storm for sexual and domestic violence. What a pandemic does is provide all the risk factors for increased violence.

Dr. Ruby Nguyen, UMN School of Public Health

While public health measures may have helped to protect against one pandemic, they left some people vulnerable to another. UN Women calls it the “shadow pandemic.” Harvard Medical School the “second, silent pandemic.” Whatever it goes by, in April 2022, sexual and gender-based violence remains a pandemic within the pandemic.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Given these pandemic realities, advocating for sexual violence awareness, prevention, and response has become increasingly important the past few years.

This April marked the official 21st anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). Coordinated by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), SAAM is a national campaign to raise public awareness about sexual violence. SAAM campaigns focus on a different theme related to sexual assault, harassment, and abuse each year. Although campaigning amidst a global pandemic may be unprecedented, SAAM has been quickly adapted to address sexual violence in our current climate.

For too long, harassment, cyberbullying, sexual abuse, and exploitation have come to be expected as typical and unavoidable behaviors online.

National Sexual Violence Resource Center

In response to the pandemic, the NSVRC launched its first ever virtual SAAM campaign in April 2020. The content itself was also virtual: consent in digital contexts. According to the NSVRC, “This focus on prevention in online spaces continued in 2021 and 2022, reflecting the world’s growing dependence on technology to connect.” The 2022 theme, Building Safe Online Spaces Together, is about creating communities “centered on respect, inclusion, and safety—where harassment, assault, and abuse are taken seriously.”

SAAM 2022 campaign gif showing a laptop with hearts coming off it

Having spent much of the last year and a half learning virtually, Hamline students are no strangers to online communities. However, Spring semester provided one of the first real opportunities to gather together again on campus. Students took up the SAAM call to action to connect the online with the in person. Here are just some of the ways students addressed sexual violence in our Hamline community throughout April.

SAAM Gala: Students Preventing Sexual Violence

Hamline’s revitalized Students Preventing Sexual Violence (SPSV) held the SAAM Gala, a campus-wide event to raise awareness against sexual and domestic violence. This April, the Gala included art displays, a consent workshop, and tabling from local community organizations working in sexual violence prevention and response.

SPSV Instagram post with orange text on a black background announcing the Gala

SPSV President Kristen Bohn and Treasurer Logan McGaheran answered some questions about the event and their vision for a violence-free Hamline community.

What was the purpose or goal of the Gala?

KB: The purpose of the gala (which will be happening annually) is to raise awareness for Sexual Violence Awareness Month. We wanted to highlight some of the amazing resources in the community like SOS of Ramsey County and Tubman who both offer crisis counselor training and emergency services, as well as some organizations on campus that support survivors in various ways. We were also fortunate enough to have a local zine artist, Sam Schmitt, come share their work around sexual violence and healing. By sharing all of these people and resources with the campus, we were able to show survivors that there are people who are here to help, we hear you, we see you, and we support you.

LM: The goal of our gala was to both spread knowledge about our organization and what we do, but to also get members of the community to help share their stories and views through their art and help students recognize the community’s support and desire to act to end sexual violence.

What would a campus free from sexual violence look like to you?

KB: Obviously, I am very grateful to have SPSV and I am so honored to be their president, however, I wish it didn’t have to exist. In an ideal world, sexual violence would not exist on college campuses, but this is not an ideal world and cannot happen without drastic cultural and administrative changes.  The only thing we can do is support survivors fully and educate people in hopes that it reduces instances of violence.

LM: I don’t think of it as how campus would look as much as I like to thinking about how it would feel. I think that a campus free of sexual violence would feel a lot less tense and everybody who walks through campus would feel a lot more safe. It would also be a place where those who have been victims of sexual violence can feel secure and start to heal.

Why did you choose to get involved with SPSV?

KB: I chose to get involved with SPSV after a faculty member [Prof. Kristin Mapel Bloomberg] approached me with the idea of restarting it. At the beginning of the year, there was a series of sexual assaults that happened on campus so we wanted to create something that could give a voice to survivors.

LM: I wanted to join SPSV for two major reasons. The first is that there are people that I care about that have been victims of sexual violence, and I wanted to make Hamline a place where every student, faculty member, and visitor don’t have to worry about sexual violence and go through what other have. The second reason I joined SPSV is that, as a man, I have to recognize that ending sexual violence starts with acknowledging that toxic masculinity plays a huge part in the continuing the cycle of pain, suffering, and trauma, and to show that ending sexual violence isn’t just showing people how to avoid dangerous situations, but also to make sure that those situations don’t exist by stopping the societal influences and ideas that lead to sexual violence.

Awareness Zines: Public Health Sciences Students

Students enrolled in Prof. Susi Keefe’s Health, Justice, and Advocacy class (PBHL 3980) spent part of April learning about sexual violence as a public health concern. To apply what they learned, students created zines that explored the relationship between sexual trauma and arts-based healing. Although all zines share a common goal to raise awareness of sexual violence in our communities, each student took a different approach to crafting their individual zine. Ranging from informative cut-and-paste collage to personal poetry, these zines exemplify the importance of supporting victim-survivors not just during SAAM but every day of the year.

The Impact of Sexual Violence
created by Emma Coppola

Sexual Violence: Let’s Make It Crystal Clear
created by Nkau Lor

The Line
created by Anthony Meng

created by Hodo Mohamed