Graduate Student’s Efforts in the Complex Fabric of Sexual Violence Prevention

As the University of Oregon pilots a task force to address sexual violence and survivor support, UO graduate students are also taking action.

Jessica Sarontay, master’s student in couples and family therapy, researches the complexities of sexual violence prevention, asking questions about why sexual violence occurs and how it can be prevented. We had a chance to sit down with Jessica and learned that her interest in sexual violence prevention began in her undergraduate studies and led into her work at Sexual Assault Support Services and the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Here she found her voice as an activist and discovered that “this [was where her] life’s work truly lies.”

We asked Jessica what she thought needed to change in order to educate UO students and students on other campuses and prevent further sexual violence.

“This is a big question and it deserves a big answer. There is no quick or even semi-quick fix. Education is important, but it is going to take more than a class, it requires a shift in the cultural norms that allow sexual violence to exist,” Jessica said. “We are taught to believe that acts of sexual violence are perpetrated by weapon-wielding strangers in ski masks. We are seldom taught that sexual violence is typically committed by individuals known to, and trusted by, survivors.”

Another issue, Jessica explains, comes from inadequate response systems that often hold the victim accountable for the choices she or he made before, during and after the assault, rather than holding the offender accountable.

 So what can be done about this?

 Jessica believes that “the UO has the ability to shift the cultural norms that allow sexual violence to continue on our campus, but the investment in this work must be long-term and far-reaching. And, while we work to prevent future violence, we must also ensure that those who have already survived assault and abuse receive the support services and respectful treatment they need and deserve.”

Her goal is to work as a licensed couples and family therapist with a focus on providing trauma-informed, social-justice minded therapy services. She will work with individuals, couples, and families to reestablish safety and trust in their lives.

Jessica left us with one last thought: “In all my work, I am driven by two guiding forces: rage and hope. I cannot help but feel rage at the onslaught of injustices we face in our dominant culture, but that rage also fuels my work for change. The hope lives in the belief that we can and do change. This core hopefulness and focus on change allows me to continue this work.”

Jessica would like to thank Dr. Tiffany Brown, her advisor in the Couples and Family Therapy Program and Brandy Teel, the Engagement and Opportunities Manager at the Graduate School for their mentorship, support, and guidance at the University of Oregon. Jessica would also like to thank Maria Paladino and Terrie Quinteros, two fearless community activists in the field of sexual violence response and prevention who have supported and inspired her work with survivors.


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