Alumna’s Coasters for Sexual Assault Awareness Month Underscore Consent is Non-Negotiable

April 27, 2017 at 12:52 pm Leave a comment

Photo via Kristine Irwin

Throughout the month of April, seven Pittsburgh restaurants have been serving drinks on a special set of coasters designed and donated by Kristine Irwin ’09, a rape survivor and founder of the nonprofit Voices of Hope. The coasters are colorful—they’re fun and playful, even. But on the back, each one carries the dictionary definition of consent, and Irwin hopes the Consent Coaster Campaign will help spread the critical message that consent is a non-negotiable.

Irwin was 19 when she raped by a man she’d worked for the summer before she began college. She had had a few drinks with him, but recalled nothing else when she woke up in a hospital bed the next morning. Still, she considers herself lucky, because on that morning in 2004 when she was thrown out of a car onto an unknown street with no idea of how she got there or that she had been raped, a woman happened to be looking out of her window and called 911.

“The police came, my parents were notified, and I was taken to the hospital,” Irwin says. “I owe my life, and the initial support I got, to a complete stranger.”

Irwin banked on this support to get through those early days and it helped her immensely when she came to the Altoona campus and then to University Park. During her college years, she found solace and strength in organizations like RAINN and PHREE, a Penn State peer education and support group. She became comfortable with speaking publicly about her experience.

“Everyone has to find their own way to heal and speaking is something that became very comfortable for me,” Irwin says. “Advocacy really helped me heal and led me to eventually set up Voices of Hope.”

Photo via Kristine Irwin

She founded the nonprofit in 2014 to encourage and empower both victims of sexual assault and their families to come forward and speak about their experiences. The lingering effects of sexual assault stretch beyond the victim, Irwin says, but the more people communicate with each other, the greater the awareness. Penn State, along with other university campuses around the country, marked Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April with a series of lectures, events, and round tables.

Education and awareness programs take place throughout the year, says Jennifer Pencek, programming coordinator of the Center for Women Students, “but having an entire month dedicated to sexual assault awareness is a good thing because people are more focused on the issue and we can really get their attention.”

Recently, the outreach and education programs have been moving more toward emphasizing the importance of consent and the resources available at Penn State that can help victims of sexual assault in terms of both prevention and after an incident. The shift is good, Pencek says, and shows that the conversation around rape and sexual assault is moving away, as it should, from “victim blame.”

More sexual assault cases are also being reported, but still, Pencek says, “In our office, we see between 100 and 130 sexual assault cases per year, including males. Those are not always reported, so though we are definitely at a point where education around consent is of a higher quality, I would say that sexual assault is happening all the time.”

Irwin, who works in human resources for Pittsburgh Mercy, hopes to take the Consent Coaster Campaign forward and extend its reach by partnering with more restaurants, bars and even breweries. She has a two year-old son who keeps her busy and in general, “I have filled my life with positives that outweigh a lot of the negatives so it’s harder for my triggers to stick around.”

That said, the triggers will never completely disappear for Irwin, or for any other survivor of sexual assault.

Savita Iyer, senior editor

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Entry filed under: Alumni. Tags: , , .

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