A Voice for the Innocent, a non-profit organization founded in 2012, gives a voice to victims of sexual abuse, offers support, and raises awareness.
We talked to founder Jamie Sivrais about his journey, bands who have supported the cause, the organization’s run on the 2016 Vans Warped Tour, how to combat victim blaming, and more.
Take a read below.
Trigger warning: discussion of abuse
When Jamie Sivrais opened up to his mother about how his father had sexually abused him, he wasn’t sure how she would respond. He’s glad he said something: the response he received from her, he says, “would shape the literal rest of my life… She built a support system of family and friends around me.”
This support system, he realized, was invaluable, but not necessarily available to all who might need it. In 2012, the Administration for Children and Families estimated that in the United States, nearly 63,000 children were victims of sexual abuse.
It was in October of that year that Sivrais was able to realize a project he’d been envisioning for two years. He wanted to extend that support system to victims of abuse nationwide.
That organization, A Voice for the Innocent (AVFTI), provides several paths that victims can take to help with the healing process. The primary tools are their anonymous, online platform where they can reach out to users throughout the country and a strong network within a DIY music scene rooted in positive social action.
When asked if any bands had been particularly supportive to AVFTI, Sivrais has a laundry list of names: Senses Fail, MC Lars, Silverstein, Handguns, Mirror Eyes, Wage War, Masked Intruder, Silent Planet, Old Wounds, Ice Nine Kills, and Mega Ran.
Additionally, Knuckle Puck, Assuming We Survive, The Color Morale, and Real Friends were some of the groups which supported the crew on their first nationwide venture: a stint on the summer music festival Warped Tour.
Traveling on Warped allowed a new level of personal connection for the team, as they worked to educate a considerable number of festival attendees and coordinated workshops to teach bands how to be allies to fans who have suffered sexual victimization.
The team found the experience reinforced just how many victims need someone to listen to them. Sivrais recalled one particularly moving conversation that he had with a boy named Chris (whose name is changed in this article for the purpose of anonymity). Sivrais noticed that after giving Chris the rundown of what the organization was about, he looked “both distant and impacted” by it.
After a moment, he explained: having been a victim of rape as a child, as well as being autistic, Chris was grappling with his desire to one day be a father, despite feeling unworthy. “I got to remind him that he was a valuable person. I got to see him smile after that whole conversation,” Sivrais recounts. “Maybe I didn’t change the course of Chris’ life, but I got to share a beautiful moment with him and remind him of his worth. I loved that discussion.”
The crew also put out a small notebook in which fans could express their thoughts on AVFTI’s Warped presence to its founder, Kevin Lyman. By the end of the tour, it was almost entirely filled with positive notes and appreciation. It was clear that the organization’s presence on Warped opened doors for much-needed conversations that managed to surprise everyone involved.
These tours themselves, however, can sometimes provide a platform where abusers can act with impunity. Warped Tour has come under fire in past years for hosting alleged predators such as Blood on the Dance Floor, as well as groups who have been frequently criticized for misogynistic lyrics and merchandise, like Emmure. Sivrais acknowledges that there are plenty of differences between his beliefs and those of the various bands and tents featured on Warped.
He thinks it’s important to note that AVFTI isn’t a political or religious group, as victims come from all walks of life: “We want to support all people who have been impacted by sexual violence, and our own personal stances have no bearing on that.” When asked how he envisioned his role in the climate of Warped tour, he said, “I see myself as having a job to do, and I try to remain focused on that rather than trying to drastically influence how someone else does their job.”
While Sivrais believes that Warped Tour, the largest music festival in America, is more actively engaged in certain aspects of fan safety than other fests, he’s hopeful that they can continue expanding those protections, as they did when they introduced their policy of free admission for parents*.
He’d particularly like to see them require training for their crews and touring groups on how to prevent fan and musician victimization. “I’d love to have all people on the same page as far as red flags that they might see,” he commented. “There can always be more improvements.”
Sivrais believes that teaching people how to speak up is a vital part of the process. One thing that can help people speak out is through organizations like AVFTI providing a space for victims to talk about their abuse that they might not otherwise have, or even know that they need. In addition to giving victims an outlet, he says, “it’s going to take more bystanders getting involved.” This includes learning how to deal with victim blaming.
Victim blaming, the criticism of abuse victims for how they received or have responded to that abuse, is common with these types of cases. Often, a victim needs considerable time to come to terms with being abused, particularly if the abuser is someone that they know (which is overwhelmingly often the case).
As a result, this is met with criticisms such as “why didn’t you say something sooner?” That rebuttal is particularly common against those in the public spotlight, such as the women who came forward with accusations regarding Bill Cosby.
It’s a question that may seem reasonable on the surface, but Sivrais argues it actually carries with it unfair expectations. Instead of support, victims hear: “you should have processed your trauma more quickly” and “you shouldn’t have been scared that people wouldn’t believe you.”
Sivrais thinks the key to stopping victim blaming is to help a skeptic imagine that the victim were someone closer to them – people whom they love and want to help and protect – to chip away at those unfair expectations.
But even those who care can say things that place blame on the victim. The questions can vary: what were they wearing, how much did they have to drink, or why weren’t they with a friend. They all serve to dissect the behavior of the person in need of comfort and can lead them to retreat further inward.
This line of reasoning removes all focus from the perpetrator and zeroes in on the victim, which is harmful coming from even the most well-meaning friend. “The person who was assaulted is probably asking themselves those very questions, and when someone else asks them, it inadvertently places blame.” Sivrais says, “I don’t think the people who do these things are trying to victim blame, but they just may not have a comprehensive understanding of how it can feel to be going through this.”
Sivrais remains optimistic that people can be educated about how to stop conscious and unconscious victim blaming and better help victims. “I try to remember that I didn’t always know what I know now,” he notes. “I had to learn.” Now that he knows, he wants to spread the word to explain it to others.
Of course, there remain those who are malicious and couldn’t care less about a victim’s well-being. In those cases, Sivrais believes, it’s important not to let it slide. “Come to the defense of the victim they are blaming,” he argues. “The more people speak up in favor of supporting victims, the more inhospitable our culture will be toward people who want to blame them.”
Throughout the festival, Sivrais kept coming back to one idea: fostering a community of caring and communication. It’s what he hopes to promote with A Voice for the Innocent – whether in a booth at a summer festival, on their website where users can share their experiences, or on their new podcast, More to the Story.
Outreach and education can require significant time and effort, and the results aren’t always immediate or obvious, but AVFTI believes that people will be surprised by how much of a difference caring and invested people can make in the lives of victims if they make the effort to reach out.
AVFTI isn’t alone. Sivrais notes many other non-profit groups running off the support of donations and volunteers, such as HeartSupport, To Write Love on Her Arms, and Hope for the Day, promote similar messages of self-care, support, and solidarity.
*Recently, Warped Tour announced that they will no longer offer free tickets for parents. We reached out to Jamie for comment. His response: “I think it’s unfortunate. It’s a perk they tried out for a year or two, and I personally saw the value in it. However I can’t even imagine all the decisions that go into booking a tour of this size. If they took free parent entry away this year, I am confident that they have their reasons and I won’t question it. The Reverse Daycare tent, as I understand it, will still be there, and I know the Warped staff works hard every year to make sure free water is also available. Plus, they are shooting for even higher numbers of nonprofits out than ever before. The tour ran for 20 years without letting parents in free, and while it was a great perk, I don’t personally feel removing that perk diminishes the overall charitable and philanthropic efforts the tour makes.”