Sexual Violence Researcher Talks About Supporting Loved Ones

Each month, RAINN highlights a member of its National Leadership Council. The NLC is a group of dedicated individuals who have shown their commitment to RAINN’s mission of supporting survivors and ending sexual violence. This month we checked in with Dr. Sarah Peitzmeier, a researcher, advocate and RAINN volunteer.

How can we all be better supporters and advocates for survivors in our lives?

Listen to, sit with, and believe the survivors in your life. Believe what they tell you about what happened, and believe what they tell you about what they need. They need to know that what happened was not their fault, and that you are there to support them, not to tell them what to do.

Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by sadness or anger about what happened to someone we love, and it becomes uncomfortable to sit with those feelings. We want to "fix the problem" or "make everything better," right away, and we think we know the best way to do it. In reality, healing is a process. You can't make it happen right now, but you have the privilege of walking beside your loved one as they work to heal themselves.

Provide them with resources and options when they are ready. And if you're feeling overwhelmed or unsure what to do, remember that as a loved one, you can also call the hotline (800.656.HOPE or It can be hard to sit with these feelings, and sometimes you may need support, too. The amazing folks on the hotline will talk through those feelings and help you make a plan for how to help your loved one and take care of yourself in the process.

What is your message to survivors?

What happened was not your fault. You deserved better. You are more than what happened to you. Things can and will get better. You are not alone. And the hotline is always here for you, 24/7, 365 days a year, whenever you need it.

What do we need to do as a country to prevent sexual violence?

I look back at the arc of what we have accomplished collectively since the ‘60s and ‘70s when violence came to the fore of public consciousness as more than just a "private family matter," and I feel so hopeful for how that trajectory is going to continue into the future. #MeToo continues to push that arc closer toward justice. Stay passionate, stay angry, stay whatever motivates you to continue speaking up and demanding that society does better by survivors and works harder to change our culture until violence becomes unthinkable.

Specifically, we still haven't renewed the Violence Against Women Act, partly over disagreements about protections for indigenous and transgender survivors. Our representatives need to come together to pass this bill and make sure that service providers across the country are adequately funded.

As a sexual violence researcher, we are at an exciting time in violence prevention science. There are an increasing number of interventions that have been shown to be effective at preventing and reducing violence, so we already have a toolkit of successful strategies. But we need more investment in actually implementing these programs. For instance, there's a group empowerment program with college women called Flip the Script that was actually shown to prevent 50% of all attempted or completed rapes for these women, compared to women who did not take the program—yet only seven U.S. universities implement it due to the cost and complexity of delivering this intervention. If you're an undergraduate or the parent of an undergraduate, call up your college and ask why they haven't done everything they can to prevent sexual assault. We need to get the tools we already have out into the community, now. For that we need the political will, advocacy, and investment to make it happen.

We also need to invest more in research that continues to develop and improve violence prevention programs. When 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men will experience sexual violence during their lifetime, we should have a National Institute on Violence the same way we have a National Cancer Institute that invests in and directs research on this important topic that profoundly affects the nation's health and wellbeing.

What inspired you to become part of RAINN’s National Leadership Council and a Volunteer Liaison at RAINN?

I became a hotline volunteer over 10 years ago when I was an undergraduate student. A few friends had disclosed that they were survivors, and some of them had gone years before they had told anyone what happened. I was humbled that they had opened up to me, and I thought, what about the survivors out there who don't have a trusted person they can go to? Maybe I could be that person for them. I'm grateful to RAINN for training me with the skills I needed to be that person. Working with survivors on the hotline has been one of the greatest privileges of my life. I am still humbled each and every time a hotline visitor trusts me enough to tell me a little bit about what they are going through. I also love being a voice for my fellow volunteers and working closely with management to help grow and develop the volunteer program as a Volunteer Liaison. I was excited this year to be able to continue to deepen my work with RAINN by joining the National Leadership Council.

Much of your research focuses on sexual violence and sexual health in marginalized populations. What direction would you like to see this research go in the future?

While violence can and does affect everyone in society, in my research I focus on marginalized populations who may disproportionately experience even more violence due to discrimination against them. We are currently enrolling for a study working with transgender and nonbinary undergraduates that would adapt that Flip the Script program to work for trans students, too. We know that trans students face even more sexual violence than cisgender students on campus, but there aren't any violence prevention programs that have been proven by research to actually reduce violence against them. We want to develop that program and make campuses safer for trans and nonbinary students. If you're a trans/nonbinary student who experienced campus sexual assault and you're willing to share your story, please take our confidential survey so that we can make sure the program we develop prevents assaults like the one you went through from happening again.

How has your passion for ending sexual violence influenced other areas of your life?

I majored in cell biology and molecular genetics as an undergrad and was planning to become a lab scientist. After I received those disclosures from loved ones and started volunteering with RAINN, I realized I had a passion for this work. I discovered that as a public health researcher focusing on violence prevention, I could combine my love of conducting health research with my desire to do what I could to prevent sexual violence. So volunteering with RAINN changed my whole career trajectory and what I am doing with my life.

Volunteering on the hotline teaches you how to be a deeper listener and how to do a better job of supporting others. Those are actually teachable skills that you learn and then can integrate into how you live your life. I think it's enriched my relationships and helped me be a better friend, daughter, and partner.

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