Local dialogue needed on sexual harassment

When the New York Times broke a story in early October about a history of sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, our media exploded with women and men coming forward with their own accounts of sexual assault/harassment against other famous and powerful persons.

A social media campaign, #METOO, suddenly appeared and thousands of people have used social media to express that they also have been subjects of sexual assault/harassment, often at very young ages.

Most of them confess that this is their first time telling anyone about something that may have happened 10, 20, or more years ago. And what about the countless others who are afraid to acknowledge similar crimes or, at the very least, degrading behavior that happened to them?

Over the past several weeks we have heard the allegations against the current Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Roy Moore, currently a candidate for Alabama’s vacant Senate seat. The women’s allegations against him are that he sexually assaulted them when they were in their teens, many years ago.

Unfortunately, so many people not familiar with sexual assault survivors and the trauma that they experience often express, “But why did they wait so long to tell anybody? That was almost 40 years ago, how can we believe them?”

At the Women’s Center, we deal with sexual assault survivors every day and one of our roles is to educate the general public on sexual assault. Men, women, and children are all affected by sexual violence. Typically, women are more likely to be victims and the majority of people now discussing past incidents are women. Millions of women in the United States have experienced rape and younger people are at the highest risk for sexual violence according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey.

We know that the average sexual assault survivor does not come forward for assistance for at least three years or more after the incident, if at all. There are a multitude of reasons that people who have been sexually assaulted do not reveal their ordeal.

Survivors who do come forward and press charges are often blamed for the behavior that happened to them. They undergo character assassinations and public scrutiny when standing up for their rights. In many survivors’ minds, why go through all this if not to be believed and protected? How would you, or any of us, feel?

Most sexual assault incidents are committed by perpetrators who know the victim; seven out of 10 rapes are committed by acquaintances. Think of being a 14-year-old and your mother’s boyfriend approached you, touched you inappropriately, and then threatened you if you told anyone. How would you feel?

The reality of a sexual assault survivor is that they feel shamed, violated, and often blame themselves. Children and teenagers often do not know that the touching behavior they experienced was a violation of the law, let alone their human rights.

Eventually, many learn that sexual assault/harassment is not ordinary, it is not lawful, it is not right and they find the courage to come forward. Sometimes, all it takes is someone to say “Me too!” or for others to help give voice to their grievances.

We need compassionate spirits to help survivors overcome the trauma of what they have endured and to help them move on to productive lives. We need advocates to meet them at the hospital emergency room, to go to court with them, to help safeguard them, and to speak out for them when they are afraid.

We need education programs for our youth to stop the cycle of violence. We need people to step forward!

The good news is that such citizens are available at the Women’s Center in Alger and Marquette County. Last year the Women’s Center assisted more than 100 sexual assault survivors, 28 of whom were children and teens, not unlike those we hear about in the news today.

At the Women’s Center, our services are free, confidential and we are available 24/7 with a support line at 800-455-6611.

The sexual violence that occurs in our communities against women, men and children is one of our society’s dirty little secrets. We cover it up. We don’t talk about it. We shove it away and make excuses for the perpetrator. We often ignore it.

But it is time to have a frank community discussion that we don’t want to have, even though we must.

Editor’s note: Beth Casady serves as executive director of the Marquette Women’s Center.


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