Finding The Strength To Heal: Local Exhibit Focuses On Survivors Of Sexual Violence

“Finding The Strength to Heal—An interactive photography exhibit to understand healing after campus sexual violence” will be held April 11, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens at 1800 North Dixboro Road in Ann Arbor.

It is perfect timing because April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM).

Laura Sinko (main photo) is the organizer of the event and is a psychiatric/mental health nurse at Mott Children’s Hospital as well as a recent PhD graduate from the University of Michigan School of Nursing.

“Our event is an interactive photography special exhibit highlighting survivors’ healing journeys after experiencing sexual violence on college campuses,” according to Sinko. “The exhibit will feature interviews, advice, and photographs taken by 24 female survivors of undergraduate unwanted-sexual experiences, along with stations to highlight the sexual assault response services available at University of Michigan’s campus.”

The event is free and open to the public.

“This exhibit is for anyone interested in learning more about survivor healing,” explained Sinko. “Survivors, supporters of survivors, allies, service providers, and others are welcome to attend. Our goal is to teach students and service providers about healing after sexual violence while fostering a dialogue surrounding how universities and service organizations can best support survivor healing and decision-making. We hope this exhibit empowers survivors to actively engage in their healing process and encourages service providers to help survivors reach their healing goals.”

The exhibit also details the photographs of 16 survivors of unwanted-sexual experiences.

“Women do not often tell their stories for a variety of reasons,” explained Sinko about the context of such a show. “Mainly 1) the perception that their experience was not ‘bad enough’ to talk about; 2) feeling overwhelmed by their symptoms; 3) feelings of shame and self-blame due to the societal messages that they internalize telling them it is their fault that they were in the situation in the first place; 4) fear of vulnerability and believing they should ‘deal with it alone’ in order to not be weak or burden people; 5) fears of their safety or security being compromised by speaking out.

“Internalized barriers such as previously mentioned can cause an increased symptom burden, inhibiting the survivor from seeking help and disclosing their experiences, challenging their road to healing and recovery.”

According to Sinko, who also cited her sources, in 2015, more than 150,000 students from 27 universities participated in one of the largest studies ever on sexual assault and sexual misconduct. Results indicate that 23 percent of female undergraduate and graduate students across the 27 schools experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact—from kissing to touching to rape—carried out by force or threat (Cantor et al., 2015).

She also detailed some of the trauma caused by such experiences.

“The physical and emotional distress caused by GBV (gender-based violence) (i.e. intimate partner violence, sexual violence, harassment, stalking) lasts well beyond the traumatic experience.For example, adverse social and psychological effects related to intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and child abuse have been well documented in scientific literature (e.g. post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, substance use, suicidality, depression, eating disorders, and anxiety), impacting survivors’ relationships with family, friends, and co-workers, as well as leading to health risk behaviors and high utilization of health care services (See Heise, Ellsberg, & Gottmoeller, 2002 for review).”

Processed with VSCO with jm1 preset

Sinko continued to details the effects and also gave sources for further research.

“The injuries, fear, and stress associated with GBV (e.g. intimate partner abuse, sexual assault, child abuse) can additionally result in chronic health problems such as chronic pain syndromes, gastrointestinal disorders, somatic complaints, and fibromyalgia as well as reproductive health issues such as unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, gynecological disorders, pelvic inflammatory disease, and pregnancy complications (See Heise, Ellsberg, & Gottmoeller, 2002 for review). Unfortunately, many survivors do not disclose or seek help for their trauma experiences, creating barriers to their healing process (Fugate, Landis, Riordan, Naureckas, & Engel, 2005; Saint Arnault & O’Halloran, 2016). Suffering in silence can cause an increased symptom burden, further disconnecting the survivor from society and challenging their road to healing and recovery.”

This will not be a one-time event. Further research and exhibits are in the works.

“We hope to conduct the same research study we just did with undergraduate females with a community sample of college-aged women who do not attend universities as this population has been estimated in other studies to have even higher rates of sexual violence and may have differing healing supports compared to university women within their communities (Department of Justice, 2014),” stated Sinko. “We hope to put on an event similar to this afterwards, to educate about this population’s unique healing needs.”

Blue Bus transportation to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens will be leaving from the Michigan League at 5 p.m. and again at 6 p.m. on the date of the exhibit. Free parking will also be available onsite. Buses will leave the gardens at 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. to return students back to the Michigan League upon conclusion of the exhibit.