April kicks off Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and in honor of the month, Voices of Hope has developed a campaign around short candid conversations about consent called Coffee & Consent.
Today is the first episode and it features Cathy Hughes. Catherine Hughes is an innovative storyteller and community strategist, currently employed as a social entrepreneur with Wesley Family Services. Inspired by raising a son with autism, now 20, she has built a career providing comprehensive support and passionate advocacy for children, families and their surrounding communities. She is a servant leader who cultivates relationships with grace and grit to create, enhance, and promote services and programs that transform lives. She also maintains a blog, The Caffeinated Advocate, and is currently working on her first book.
Cathy took the time to answer all of my questions, including those that didn’t make it into the video chat. They are below.
I’m so thankful for the opportunity to participate in the Coffee and Consent campaign. As like many chapters of my unique and roller coaster life story, the #metoo and #timesup movements touch me both personally and professionally in deep ways. Yet again, I find my two worlds wildly colliding. However, this “crash” affords me the space to use my experience to provide help and hope, empowering individuals to find the strength to use their own voice in powerful ways. I recently participated in Kristine Irwin’s Coffee and Consent conversation, but I asked if I could submit a guest blog to provide my answers to all of her potential questions. Who knew that coming across her name and simple participant request on the Global Sisterhood’s Facebook page would give me another opportunity to share powerful little-known statistics, but also allow me to come forward publicly in full for the first time ever about one of the darkest experiences of my life?
I am abundantly grateful for the chance to contribute to positive change in our world. ***
1. What is consent to you?
Consent to me is your willingness to participate in something (an activity, a situation) and your personal grant of permission or “stamp of approval” if you will, to do so.
2. When do you feel consent should be taught?
Consent and teaching someone that their voice matters and is valid should be taught – and repeatedly – as early as possible, when an individual is cognitively able to do so.
This movement touches me far beyond what most people see throughout print and social media. I am deeply appreciative of the fierce commitment for society to stand united and say to the world that we who have been victims, or who have directly witnessed abuse and harassment, have had absolutely enough and we will no longer accept such action or lack thereof.
Both personally and professionally, I myself have been impacted by harassment, belittlement and victimization.
My best friend is a domestic abuse survivor.
I have a son with autism who has been bullied and who struggled during adolescence with understanding his physical and emotional body changes as well as societal norms, expectations, and his human rights. This is something too often missed with people who have diagnoses, disabilities and exceptional challenges and that we as a society are not nearly as aware of as they need be. It is a strong message I wish to send to your readers.
4. What changes do you hope come from #MeToo?
#MeToo should not and cannot be viewed by society as just “the movement for women.” I do not at all nor would I ever wish to downplay that women have been unjustly and cruelly victimized for far too long, however.
I’m one of them.
I was sexually assaulted at the age of 15 by a classmate who thought I “owed him” because he paid $20 for my ticket and $10 for a corsage to a Valentine’s Day dance. I don’t remember everything that happened that evening as there were moments I have blocked completely. I don’t know that I would want to remember. Days later, he became angry after a confrontation, choking me against a locker after our literature class. The principal, who I learned was his father’s best friend, said to me “You must be a tough girl to get over.” My voice didn’t matter to him, so I figured it wouldn’t matter to the police.
In a recent previous job, I was referred to as one of “the girls” frequently by a very chauvinistic male. I found myself retreating to my dark childhood memory of being attacked.
What I feel compelled to stress, especially as the mother of someone with an autism diagnosis as well as a community advocate, is that we cannot stop with women. Victimization is simply not limited to women. There are women and men alike with disabilities, diverse challenges or different sexual preferences and possibly impaired thinking due to a lack of understanding of their bodies and a lack of understanding about consent.
They may not understand or have been taught how to have a healthy relationship. They may be desperate to engage in any relationship, safe or unsafe. They may not understand sexuality. They may not recognize red flags, warning signs and/or be able to accurately interpret the thoughts and feelings of the other person they are interacting with at that time. Specifically with people who have autism or an intellectual disability, it is an absolute myth that they have no interest in relationships and/or sexual intercourse. By assuming that they are asexual beings and not teaching skills and knowledge that do not innately occur, society further sets them up to be victims of crime and assault. That is an unforgivable disservice.
We need to teach and preach to each and every individual walking this planet that all relationships should be healthy and safe. People deserve that. They are worthy of that. In my current role, I have the opportunity to promote a curriculum to schools and organizations to provide education that encourages prevention. Individuals with developmental disabilities are seven times more likely to be victims of an assault. This content is critical.
5. Now that so many people see scope of the problem, how do we deal with how repugnant our beliefs are?
Quite frankly, I don’t believe society sees the full scope of the problem. I believe that we need to continue to push forward and we are nowhere near there yet. We are making progress. But by no means would I say with confidence that “society sees the scope of the problem” and how widespread it is.
6. When someone you know or even love is accused of doing a terrible thing, how will you reconcile your ethics with your affection?
If someone I loved (especially a family member) committed an act of violence or crime, I would love them despite what they say or do and they would be a part of my heart. That wouldn’t change. I believe we would need to examine the root cause not to necessarily excuse but to understand the “why” and ensure justice for both the victim, the perpetrator, and our community at large. We can all contribute to positive change and every situation affords us an opportunity to learn. We can always do better, and we need to do better.
7. If someone came and told you that they have been victimized, in any way, what would you do?
For starters, two words: “I’m here.” First and foremost, I would want to establish trust. If that person did not feel that they could fully trust in me, I would encourage them to reach out to another trusted individual in order to have their voice heard, to recover, and to reach out to the right channels that will enable everyone to move through and past the situation that occurred.
8. One of Voices of Hope’s campaign is called #BeAVoice. How can you be a voice for those that feel they are silenced?
Part of being a voice is being an equally strong and active listener. I encourage people to listen – not just hear – people’s stories. I want people to listen to stories from women and men of many walks of life who face any number of challenges to gain understanding, clarity, and know then how to effectively use their voice for the greater good.
Being a voice means speaking out and fearlessly, and then empowering those who have been silent to use their own voice (verbal and non-verbal) to build a more powerful sound.
Together, let’s teach the need, the value, and the worthiness of healthy and safe relationships in our world, for all. All voices matter.
Cathy, you truly are a strong and amazing individual. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and ideas with Voices of Hope. If you have a moment please check out http://healthyrelationshipscurriculum.org?
Check out the video interview below!