Combatting Sexual Violence Starts with Education

APAHM Leaders come together to provide safe spaces to talk

Women often find themselves in a vulnerable situation after a sexual assault, there are resources out there to help. (Getty Images)

You’ve probably learned about the idea of consent in middle school or high school, memorizing the phrase “no means no” as the catch-all takeaway in an effort to combat sexual violence. While the statement rings true – it is hardly the full scope of consent and what it looks like. Most young people don’t have a comprehensive understanding of what consent is. Leaders like Maya Siegel are hoping to change that.

Maya Siegel is a 22-year-old advocate from Colorado, who pushes for sexual violence awareness and safety. With an online audience of over 10,000 followers and countless awards, Siegel has garnered recognition as a young, APAHM (Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month) trailblazer. Beyond the accolades, she is a vocal, resilient survivor who uses her experience to help others.

“Space to Speak” Allows A Place to Talk about Sexual Violent

At 18 years old, Siegel joined her friend Emily Bach to create “Space to Speak,” a prevention organization for young people who have experienced sexual violence. While the organization was successful, Siegel eventually realized a shift was needed.

“We had an international team of young people, and I think we got burnt out honestly. Talking about violence and trauma all the time really affected our mental health,” recounted Siegel. “So, we transitioned to Stories of Consent. We wanted to work towards the same goal of creating consent culture, but in a way that we were, and we felt could be more sustainable.”

In February 2022, Siegel and Bach launched Stories of Consent. Stories of Consent is a digital forum that shares real, community-sourced stories of affirmative consent that are left out in popular consent education. Users submit their positive consent stories, which are then translated into Instagram posts. Since its launch, Stories of Consent has received almost 100 stories submitted from an age range of 15-35 and 8 countries, quickly reaching over 600,000 accounts on its Instagram.

Affirmative Consent Taught in Sex Education

Only 10 U.S. states require comprehensive sex education, which teaches affirmative consent instead of the “no means no” approach most of us are familiar with. Affirmative consent is a “knowing, voluntary, and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity.” Instead of “no” as the keyword, affirmative consent places power within the word “yes.” These are the only experiences Stories of Consent shares, hoping to show examples of this different approach to consent.

While there are many ways to advocate for sexual violence prevention, Siegel believes in community-based work. By incorporating many different voices to show what consent looks like, the information is more accessible and inclusive to all audiences. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s Spectrum of Prevention, fostering coalitions/networks and promoting community education are vital aspects of prevention. This is why approaching the issue through multiple viewpoints is one of the most important ways to make change.

Beyond calling on individuals to submit stories, Siegel also finds it important to partner with other organizations, especially one’s representative of her identity. “The component of intersectionality makes it necessary to partner with a lot of different types of organizations. And we do like to generally focus on POC-led organizations because that's our background,” Siegel said.

As a Chinese-American raised in Colorado, Siegel rarely saw another person of color in the spaces she occupied. However, as she began to work in advocacy she realized that being a part of teams with people who have similar values and identities can be a valuable experience. More specifically, an experience that results in immense growth and inspiration.

Asian Mental Health Project Helps APAHM Community

This is why Siegel was excited to recently partner with the Asian Mental Health Project, a non-profit organization that provides community care and educational resources for the Pan-Asian community. “We wanted this partnership to pair real-life examples of healthy, affirmative consent with clinical expertise from mental health professionals on our team,” said Carrie Zhang, founder of AMPH.

Through the partnership, both organizations created content that highlighted consent stories specifically from Asian and Pacific Islander team members, and words from Dr. Cheryl Tien, PsyD. The importance of this partnership goes beyond just the idea of community support and emphasizes the specific nuances of the issue within the AAPI community.

“When we talk and think about sexual violence, it's really important to think about those unique barriers, which are language barriers, cultural barriers, identity barriers that the APAHM community faces, in getting support and the lack of resources,” said Siegel. These barriers often negatively impact APAHM survivors, as 21-55% of Asian women experience sexual violence in the United States.

Western culture has a long-standing role in perpetuating stereotypes about Asian women, which hypersexualize and fetishize them. The stereotypes often translate into racially-motivated acts of violence against Asian women, such as the tragic Atlanta spa shooting. Events like these reveal the need for APAHM leaders in sexual violence prevention advocacy.

“We all have a responsibility in this conversation and in tackling [rape culture] and in challenging it,” said Soma Sara, founder of Everyone’s Invited at a recent MAKERS event. Similar to Stories of Consent, Everyone’s Invited is a digital space for survivors of sexual violence to share their stories.

Sara founded the now-charity after speaking out about her experience with rape culture on Instagram and receiving hundreds of stories from girls with similiar experiences. Since then, Sara has become a leader in prevention advocacy, growing her organization to impact millions. Being half-Chinese, Sara has pointed out how her Asian ethnicity contributed to the violence she faced, and the need to understand race and violence as interconnected issues.

“Cultural specificity and uplifting voices of the AAPI community is always crucial to discussing mental health and violence prevention,” Carrie Zhang explained. “It is important to discuss these issues directly from those who experience them. For many AAPI people, stereotypes and patriarchal expectations often perpetuate cycles of violence and it is important to unpack these issues with depth and specificity.”

Digital Mental Health Platforms on the Rise

Both Zhang and Siegel point out that they recognize access to physical organizations — especially for those in the AAPI/APAHM community — is hard to find. This is why digital platforms can increase accessibility for those most affected. “Technology and digital projects to me can be tools for fostering empathy as well as sharing necessary information. Stories of Consent provide important models of consent that many of us don't see in our day-to-day lives - when we see healthy, consensual relationships modeled, we are more likely to be able to emulate and empathize in our day-to-day lives,” said Zhang. Creating digital communities through website forums and social media can make taboo subjects such as consent or sexual violence more accessible, normal, and actionable.

While Siegel is an inspiring leader in her own right, she credits her success to the women that she witnessed in positions of power. It was only in college that she first saw an Asian woman in a leadership position which opened her mind to her own potential.

She encourages young people not only to seek out leaders that inspire them but to also create leadership when they don’t see anyone like them within the spaces they care about. “Don't be afraid to create your own opportunities,” Siegel said. “Find something super personal to you, something that you're willing to fight for any day and you'll never get tired of.”

As Siegel continues to combat sexual violence with Stories of Consent, her passion for advocacy remains a reminder of the change young people can make when they call on their community to get involved and share their stories.