Jess Leslie’s life and career show just how powerful women are as advocates for themselves and others — especially victims of sexual assault. As the director of the National Sexual Assault Hotline at RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), Leslie oversees a staff of more than 100 people and 400 volunteers and ensures that the 24/7 crisis hotline is up and running to serve those who need support.
One in six women in the United States has been the victim of sexual violence. Through her work with the hotline, Leslie and her staff provide a safe space for victims to share their experiences and help them take the next step toward healing.
Leslie explains how growing up in an immigrant family made her aware of suffering at a young age, why women are uniquely equipped for this line of work and what people can do in their everyday lives to be advocates for victims of sexual violence.
How has being a part of an immigrant family informed how you approach your work?
Growing up in an immigrant family really informed the way that I viewed the world. I was keenly aware at a very young age about human suffering. My family came from a pretty poor background in Peru and they really struggled in a lot of ways. They faced a lot of adversity and discrimination—that was something that we often talked about growing up. It was common to talk about what it’s like to not have food on the table or what it’s like not to have a toothbrush. It really informed the way that I interacted with those around me.
I was very sensitive to those realities and knowing that…while there’s a lot of joy in life, there’s also a lot of pain and suffering.
How are women uniquely equipped to do this work and support survivors?
Women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence. Whether you’re talking about girls, cis-gendered women or transgendered women, it disproportionately affects women. And, as such, it is a cause that women have taken up to address across the board, to [also] address sexual violence against men and boys, against transgender individuals, against folks who don’t even identify with a gender. And I think that because it affects women disproportionately that we are in a position to really think deeply about the issue, think about how it affects our lives and how it affects our children’s lives. …It’s an issue that affects everyone.
Any group that has an individual who has experienced adversity is in a unique position to be a transformative leader because they understand what it means to be overlooked, what it means to be passed over, what it means to be pushed down. …Because sexual violence disproportionately affects women, it is something that women are able to uniquely address from their own perspective, from their own lived experiences. And that doesn’t mean that men can’t and aren’t also uniquely positioned—many of them are, particularly when they are survivors—but it definitely gives a unique perspective.
To assist those who want to be allies and advocates, what are some signs of abuse to look out for?
Because sexual violence is under reported, it’s really important to know that victims and survivors handle and manage violence in different ways. Some may exhibit signs of having been abused or having been hurt, but some may not.
It’s important to be aware of that so if a friend or a family member ever comes to us and they want to share their story or share something that happened to them, we can be there for them, that we can understand that everyone handles it differently and we can support them.
Find out more about RAINN and the National Sexual Assault Hotline.
If you need help, call 800-656-HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.