A Vigil for Survivors


Event photography by Heather Willins.

Trigger warning: Sexual assault and self-harm are referenced throughout this article.

“One story should be enough,” said Grace Cunningham, founder of Students for Survivors, as she stood to welcome a few dozen folks who attended the student group’s Vigil for Survivors last month at Rohs Street Cafe. Students for Survivors is a student-led movement at the University of Cincinnati dedicated to supporting survivors of sexual assault regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, or ability.

I felt the challenge in her words as she continued. In the short time I’ve known her, Grace has always been one to make me think harder about my worldview.


“One person sharing what they’ve been through should be enough,” she said. “Sexual assault is always happening in our society, and for people to just now wake up to the reality – it’s good, but also, it’s setting this expectation that survivors should be the ones to expose what they’ve been through for people to care.

“This work has to be intersectional. We can’t just center cis white women’s voices in this movement, and it’s super crucial that we acknowledge that sexual assault doesn’t just happen to women. It happens to all genders and gender nonconforming individuals.”

The group has launched a social media campaign, adding their voices to the typically celebratory hashtag #thisisUC, pointing out shortcomings they’ve seen in the university’s handling of sexual violence.

Cunningham’s words were bookended by poetry readings from Roxanne van Dams:


Everyone says it's easy... "Just throw away the razor. Just smile. Do something fun."
Just, Just, JUST.
It's not that easy.
They don't see your real accomplishments.

You got out of bed today!
You came here tonight!
You took a breath of fresh air, not in your locked bathroom.
You did as much as you could today and tomorrow you CAN do it again.

It will be hard. It will take your whole being. DO NOT do it for others.

Open your eyes in bed.     STRETCH.
Place your feet on the ground.     BREATHE.
Everyday, breathe. Soon that becomes easy.
Next take some steps. Once that gets easy sit outside.      BREATHE.
You don't need to be great everyday.



Validity and Truth

As I lay here awake each night in bed I am surprisingly comfortable. I am not comfortable.
I lay here in bed covered in damaged skin.

Skin: an external barrier keratinized to protect my body

My body has been scarred by and because of those who have touched it (me) with no respect or love.
How can my skin protect me when they refuse to listen?

Society makes assumptions-

  • They drank "too" much

  • They dressed like they are "asking" for it

  • They don't remember everything

Society puts the blame on me and says I'm lying

I do not need to prove myself, to prove my truth to society. But for those that refuse my validity and truth

Do you know what it's like to have your thighs squeezed so hard you feel like contracting them will cause them to burst?
Do you know what it's like to pee the following days after because your skin is so raw?
Do you know what it's like to be in broad daylight have a flashback or that horrendous event, you try to sleep it off but it comes back as a nightmare?
Do you know what it's like to not be able to wear you favorite shirt, skirt, dress or jeans ever again?

I know what happened to my body.
Some narcissistic, self-serving human inflicted torture on my body. They scarred my mental, emotional, and physical being.

My skin can tell stories you cannot begin to fathom. So society, enough silencing us.
No more questioning my story because it is engraved in my body.


SFS leaders then took turns reading aloud messages in support of survivors that they’d collected around campus and online. As Cunningham said, “We’re here tonight because of survivors. … We know that there’s power in community and there’s power in knowing that you’re not alone.”