MARQUETTE - More than 100 people of all ages gathered Tuesday evening in the Ontario Room of Northern Michigan University's Bottum University Center for the 10th annual Walk-a-Mile in Her Shoes event aimed at raising awareness about sexual assault. It culminated with a one-mile walk to show solidarity for sexual assault victims and survivors.
"April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and ... the community gets together with the Health Promotions Office on campus and the (Marquette) Women's Center and Harbor House to walk a mile," said Amy Kordus, youth advocate for the Women's Center and Harbor House. "We try to have people show up in heels, especially guys, just to kind of show their understanding and willingness to raise awareness about sexual assault.
"It's more symbolic than anything. In the past, when it's been nicer weather, there's been actual heels. We've had guys trying to find size 10, 11, 12 heels, but it's a symbolic representation of consent, meaning it's an active thing - no means no, rape does happen, sexual assault happens - and there (is) a mix of community supporters as well as some survivors, so there (are) people who have been immediately impacted by sexual assault among us."
Members of the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity at Northern Michigan University clown around in high heels outside the Bottum University Center Tuesday before the start of the mile walk to raise awareness for victims of sexual violence. Inset, a close-up photo of the guys wearing the heels is shown. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
In light of recent sexual violence incidents in Steubenville, Ohio - where two high school football players were convicted in March of sexually assaulting a classmate and disseminating pictures and video of the incident on social network sites - and in Richmond, California - where an alleged sexual assault by high school boys of a 16-year-old girl led to the girl taking her own life - Kordus says an event like this is all the more important and necessary.
"We're going to ... talk about current events that have been happening, sexual-assault wise," Kordus said. "It's a real issue and we just want to raise awareness and help our community realize it happens here, it could happen again and really change someone's life dramatically."
During the presentation by Kelly Laakso, the sexual assault victim advocate of the Marquette Women's Center and Harbor House, a less graphic portion of the Steubenville video was played, and Laakso also read the account of a sexual assault survivor who empowered herself years later by speaking up to friends and family about her experience and relying on their support.
Approximately 97 percent of rapes go unpunished, Laakso said. The Walk-a-Mile event, and others like it, seek to dispel the taboos and shame which often surround sexual assaults. The goal is to encourage more people to speak out if they become victims or if they witness something and aren't sure whether or not to stop it.
"Sexual violence thrives in silence," Laakso said.
People need to understand what defines sexual assault, and they need to know that sexual violence will not be tolerated here, she said.
As she wrapped up her presentation, Laakso put a question to the audience for attendees to ponder.
"What if this was your mother, or your daughter, or your sister, or your girlfriend?" she asked.
Zach Jay can be reached at 228-2500, ext. 243.