The complex reality of preventing, responding to sexual violence

By Natalie Feulner, Special to the BDN
Posted April 09, 2013, at 12:19 p.m.

Polished. Thin. A good cook. Strong. Chivalrous. Able to provide for his family. Always wanting sex. My classmates, one at a time, called out these stereotypes of women and men.

Instructor Brianna Bryant, a community outreach educator for Rape Response Services in Bangor, wrote the words on a white board last Thursday. As I watched the board fill, I realized how easy it was to come up with stereotypes and began to see the point Bryant was making. These ideas of what makes us men or women are often taught from birth. It’s no wonder then, that when these stereotypes are encouraged, it can make it easier for abusers to dehumanize their victims.

I am taking a class, along with BDN Editorial Page Editor Erin Rhoda, in an effort to educate myself, as well as the community, and ultimately volunteer as one of Rape Response Services’ newest advocates. It’s 40 hours of training that will include presentations from survivors, nurses, law enforcement and other advocates.

In the end, I should feel comfortable and confident enough to meet with a victim and discuss his or her options. But first, there’s a lot to learn.

Such as like what it really means to give consent. Bryant said she tries to stay away from describing it as “permission” and instead prefers “agreement.” But more important than the semantics, she said, is that consent clearly means “yes” and is given when both parties are capable of making clear decisions.

Just because someone is dressed a certain way, acting a certain way or is intoxicated, does not give anyone else the right to abuse him or her. Consent is about respect — both for our own bodies and those of others.

But what happens when that line is crossed? Why are so few incidents of sexual violence reported, and what can be done to shed light on the issue?

Most victims know the offender. He or she may be a relative, friend, acquaintance or co-worker. And suddenly, there’s a slew of reasons not to report a crime.

Maybe it’s a fear of not being believed or of losing a job. Or perhaps it’s just fear of being “found out” and subsequently judged.

Often, victims’ fear of someone finding out they sought help is debilitating, and reporting the crime could put them in even more danger. The need for privacy is so real, in fact, that even though the majority of medical records are now electronic, records of sexual violence treatments are handwritten and locked away, so they are not easily accessed by someone who should not see them.

Fortunately, in Maine, victims have 90 days after receiving help to decide if they will report a sexual violence crime to law enforcement. Even then, they aren’t the ones who press charges; that is left up to the district attorney.

Another point made clear in class is the importance of realizing that sexual violence isn’t just rape. It takes many shapes, including intimidation, harassment and stalking, the last of which I hadn’t considered before.

Stalking happens in a variety of ways, but, by definition, it is a pattern of behavior that would make any normal person uncomfortable. According to advocate Alex Turallo, Rape Response Services is finding that more and more victims are stalked before reporting an incident.

According to a 2009 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, about 30 percent of male victims are stalked by former partners, and those men make up a portion of the 3.4 million people who are stalked annually in the United States. In addition. nearly 75 percent of victims know their stalker in some way.

When working with victims of harassment, advocates will often ask them to fill out a stalking journal. It’s a simple form that tracks when the victim spots the perpetrator, what he or she does to make the victim feel uncomfortable and, if the incident is reported to police, the name and badge number of the responding officer.

Another thing I learned in class last week was the importance of faith in the survivor. Especially with stalking cases, victims may begin to think they are going “crazy,” when in reality, offenders are making a concerted effort to make them feel that way. Sometimes they use hidden cameras to spy on victims or they go through their mail or trash to track what their victims are doing and later use it against them.

It is important for us to remember that this work is not about us as advocates. It’s about supporting victims and honoring their choices. Above all, what victims need to hear when they pick up the phone is, “I believe you.”

For me, I believe in the work the advocates are doing and am coming to understand how difficult and complex coping with this issue can be. I believe we all have much to learn.

Natalie Feulner of Bangor is the BDN newsroom administrator.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/04/09/opinion/the-complex-reality-of-preventing-responding-to-sexual-violence/ printed on December 27, 2014