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Preventing sexual violence systemically: The Sexual Violence Prevention Association

A day with Omny Miranda Martone, the Founder and CEO of the Sexual Violence Prevention Association (SVPA), and an interview with Reid Pinckard, President of the first Campus Chapter of the SVPA at the University of Arkansas.

Location: Washington DC with Martone and Zoom with Pinckard in Fayetteville, Arkansas, United States (USA)

Omny and Camille smiling in Omny's home. Camille is wearing a multicoloured jumpsuit and Omny is wearing a green tank top.
Left to Right: Omny Miranda Martone and Camille Schloeffel
“I didn't set out to be an activist. I set out to prevent sexual violence and I became an activist.”

– Omny Miranda Martone

The Sexual Violence Prevention Association (SVPA) is an abolitionist, anti-professional and anti-hierarchical organisation dedicated to preventing sexual violence systemically. I first met the Founder and CEO of the SVPA, Omny Miranda Martone, a few years ago through our involvement in Students Rise International - an international collective of activists and organisations focussed on ending sexual violence in tertiary education. Martone is a sexual violence prevention expert and survivor. They have worked in a range of organisations previous to creating the SVPA, including Sexual Assault Response Coalition (co-founder), YWCA, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Centre, RAINN, as well as in partnership with Jane Doe Inc. and the Every Voice Coalition

Reid Pinckard is a student at the University of Arkansas who established the first campus chapter of the SVPA. He is a passionate activist for the systemic prevention of sexual violence in southern communities and seeks to address the stigma associated with the activist community in the USA (that southern activists aren't “real” activists). Pinckard has been involved in activism and advocacy roles on sexual violence and related issues for many years. He told me how the SVPA has created a much more diverse and supportive environment to do this work than elsewhere. For example, the SVPA rejects hierarchical and capitalist structures that other organisations use and treats everyone in the organisation equally.

Institutional tactics 

“Universities exploit survivors and collude with perpetrators to protect their reputation.”

– Reid Pinckard

Universities in the USA must report cases of sexual violence as crime data under the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (Clery Act). There is a lack of oversight and accountability for universities’ compliance with the Clery Act. This means that universities can pressure people who experience sexual violence not to report, thereby minimising the recorded rates of violence on their campuses (avoiding the risk of data reflecting poorly on the institution). Universities will often claim that they have had zero reported instances of sexual violence, suggesting that sexual violence isn’t happening on their campus and that it is safe to attend. 

This tactic by universities to cover up sexual violence reflects a broader problem with the data collected and used in the USA and Australia. Data released by government sources is inherently biassed in how it tends to only reflect the experiences of certain groups, such as cisgender white women. Further, universities and other institutions are able to strategically report to avoid reputational risks. This is something Martone and their team are trying to address by representing key issues for people who experience systemic disempowerment and are disproportionately impacted by sexual violence, such as undocumented immigrants and Black trans women.

Preventing sexual violence systemically

“I want to prevent this from happening to other people.”

– Omny Miranda Martone

When I asked Martone why they founded the SVPA, they reflected on the fact that a lot of organisations claim to do prevention work when, in fact, they are not focused on primary prevention. In fact, many organisations in Martone's experience have focused their efforts on increasing pathways for victim-survivors to report to the police, such as through information, awareness, education and crisis support. Martone explained two fatal flaws with this approach:

  • There is an assumption that reporting to police will always lead to conviction and justice for the victim-survivor (which this is not the case).

  • The focus on criminalisation and incarceration of perpetrators, without support for behaviour change, results in higher rates of sexual violence within prison environments (the victims of which are already disenfranchised). 

Police and prisons are not the solution to sexual violence, yet so many organisations continue to pressure victim-survivors to report to the police without offering more holistic support and options.

The SVPA plays a huge role in filling the gap in existing prevention work, with a focus on systemic primary prevention, rather than response. Primary prevention involves identifying and addressing long term risk factors of sexual violence. The SVPA's specific focus is on perpetrator prevention. They seek to change sexually violent attitudes and behaviours before they start. They do this by working on developing policies for prevention through research and collecting and aggregating data on effective primary prevention within institutions (workplaces, schools and colleges).

Collaboration and movement building

“Partnership and coalition building is so vital.”

– Omny Miranda Martone

Martone and I spoke for a while about how fostering communities of care and collaboration across the sexual violence prevention sector is essential to bring about substantial change. However, a key barrier is that once organisations receive funding and (relative) power, they start to cut other organisations and grassroots student activists out of the prevention space. This gatekeeping only leads to disjointed initiatives that cannot bring about large-scale systemic prevention - which is exactly what Martone seeks to change.

It's important to recognise that the change you make does not have to be immediate, and that working towards positive sociocultural change requires sustainable efforts with a view to the future. However, this is easier said than done when so much sexual violence prevention work is being led by survivors, usually unpaid and with limited resources.

“The actual resources people need are not where people are.”

– Reid Pinckard

It is essential that governments and large organisations fund grassroots survivor-led organisations, like the SVPA, to do the work that will genuinely prevent sexual violence on a systemic level and at scale. If the work of Martone and their team was resourced properly, they could support themselves with a living wage. The ability for passionate activists and those with lived experience to do primary prevention work without worrying about how to earn money or balancing other essential commitments would mean that ending sexual violence would not rely on survivor unpaid labour.

Doing the work

“My role now is to empower people to have the platform to share and do activism.”

– Omny Miranda Martone

There is a difference between the people who go and talk about change and those who go out and do what needs to be done for change to actually happen.

Martone is a personal inspiration to me in how they approach their work and lead their team. Something I value about Martone's leadership style is how they don't seek to speak on behalf of all survivors or on all sexual violence issues. It's important to centre survivors in their own experiences. This is really relevant to the Australian sexual violence survivor-activist context, in which a few voices talk about all sexual violence issues, about all survivors and claiming to represent all survivors. This supports the problematic narrative of the 'perfect victim' which reinforces rape myths and perpetuates harmful stereotypes that only certain types of people can experience sexual violence.

Intersectional Activism

“Sexual violence cannot end until all oppression ends.”

– Reid Pinckard

When doing systemic prevention work, there is power in numbers. The more collective action we can build, the greater the outcome we will have. Doing this requires organisations to build infrastructure so that activists can work in environments that are not capitalist and exploitative. Sometimes we forget that the not-for-profit sector reproduces harmful structures similar to what they are seeking to change.

Pinckard and Martone spoke about how to be truly intersectional we need to think beyond intersecting identities of individuals and start looking towards systems and environments. It is common for institutions and individuals to create misleading messaging about their organisations being safe for people from diverse backgrounds in order to make themselves look intersectional. This is why the SVPA is anti-hierarchical considering that the way organisations enforce hierarchies is inherently reinforcing patriarchal and colonial norms. 

Martone and Pinckard argue that embedding sexual violence prevention within institutions requires the rejection of patriarchal ideas of 'professionalism' that seek to further oppress the oppressed. Professionalism is ableist, racist, classist and unnecessarily constraining. Why do we define professionalism in the way we do? In how people present themselves, what they wear and how they speak. Professionalism only values some people's experiences and this should not inhibit someone's ability to do the work. In the eyes of maintaining privilege, organisations can make people who do not meet their professional standards uncomfortable. Martone rejects the idea of professionalism and specifically runs their organisation through an anti-professional lens.

“I empower others to be activists.”

– Omny Miranda Martone

Martone is someone I look up to and someone who I aspire to be more like in my activism journey. Their activism is probably the most intersectional I have ever witnessed in practice - with genuine care and love for everyone and with a focus on uplifting others. They embody intersectionality in a way I have never seen before and have helped me in figuring out who I want to be and how I will conduct myself in my activism and daily life. In the words of activist Angela Davis, I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.

Reid, Camille and Omny smiling on zoom.
Reid Pinckard (Top), Camille Schloeffel (Left) and Omny Miranda Martone (Right)

Activism in the South

“There are a lot of people outside the south that don’t perceive southern activists as real activists.”

– Reid Pinckard

Pinckard's role with the SVPA focuses on creating connections and working to develop more campus chapters based on his leadership in developing the University of Arkansas team. Pinckard spoke about how the university sector in Southern states operates differently to the rest of the USA. For example, Southern universities have been found to pay perpetrators large sums of money in order to keep them silent for the sake of the reputation of the university. There is zero accountability for the actions of perpetrators and zero consequences for universities covering up. There is also large turnover of staff in universities because of toxic bullying cultures that ripples throughout university workplaces. 

Pinckard has had to work twice as hard as a Southern activist to be taken as seriously as other activists. This is reflective of a broader problem across the USA about who is legitimised and who isn’t. People associate the South with bigotry and slavery, and even when people are working on the ground to create positive change, like Pinckard, they can be treated as less legitimate by activists and organisations in other parts of the country. 

Community-led activism

“It is important to ensure that activism and advocacy groups in tertiary education continue to be led by students.”

– Omny Miranda Martone

Martone made an important point that activism and advocacy must be led by current students, with leaders who graduate continuing to help as a mentor to the incoming student leaders. This transition helps to mitigate the risk of activist organisations discontinuing due to inactive membership. This is particularly important in the tertiary education context, where universities often use delay tactics to wait until student activists graduate and the activism fizzles out. This means the institutional knowledge and institutional connections (that are essential to change) are lost because students become active for a year or so and then leave - without any transition period to support the incoming leaders.

“Good activists move with the movement.”

– Omny Miranda Martone

My conversation with Martone encouraged me to make my final decision to formally step down at the end of my term on The STOP Campaign in 2023. I had been speaking with STOP’s inaugural Board Members about whether I should transition to the Board, or how and when I should step away from STOP. My conversation with Martone made me pick up the phone and communicate my firm decision to them that I would leave STOP altogether, but of course continue to lead projects and mentor others into leadership over a longer transition period. 

A message to all activists out there - there are other places in the movement for you, you just have to find them.

In solidarity,  

Camille Schloeffel

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