For the past 28 years, I have been at the helm of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services, one of Maine’s agencies providing services to people affected by sexual violence. And sometimes, in the midst of assisting survivors, trying to improve system response to victims, educating the community and trying to change the world, we feel overwhelmed by this work, by what still needs to happen, by all that must change to stop sexual violence.
We don’t stop long enough to see how far we have come and how much has been accomplished for victims and survivors of sexual violence. But almost 30 years is a huge milestone and a good time to review what has changed and, maybe more importantly, what hasn’t.
We began with a 24-hour hotline and a group of dedicated volunteers. That first year, our center handled 135 calls and provided services to 53 people.
Presently, in addition to our hotline, we provide support groups, individual support meetings and drop-in programs in local high schools to meet the needs of adolescent survivors. We have an advocate who helps people when their case is being investigated and when it is moving through the criminal justice system. We have an advocate who helps survivors get protection orders and assists them with safety planning.
Another advocate connects our services to people who have been previously underserved, and we have specific programs that address services for people who are elderly, people who have a developmental disability, people who are gay or transgender, people who are homeless and people who are or were serving in the military.
And we work closely with cultural groups to make sure that sexual assault services are provided in a culturally meaningful and safe way. Last year we had 1,384 contacts with 240 individuals.
We have also expanded our school and community education and prevention programs to include sexual assault, sexual harassment, drug-facilitated rape, healthy relationships and media representations of gender. We begin teaching children these concepts in kindergarten by talking to them about personal body safety and continue talking with them into their college years. Last year, more than 4,000 people benefited from those programs.
Much remains to be done. First and foremost, we must do a better job of reaching out to and supporting males who are victims of sexual violence. It is difficult for many males to acknowledge that they were sexually abused or sexually assaulted, and we need to have programming specifically designed to meet their needs and help them recover from trauma.
We are only beginning to understand human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation and acknowledge that it happens here. That will require the integration of that knowledge into our services, and it may demand that we develop additional services to meet those needs. We will also need to weave our knowledge of this crime into our educational presentations and help raise awareness in the community.
We must continue to find ways to bring our services to people who need them. A couple of our centers provide drop-in services at homeless shelters, acknowledging that people who are homeless are incredibly vulnerable to sexual assault.
Other centers provide services to people who are incarcerated and experience sexual assault. Those are victims who cannot call our hotline or come to a support group, so it is imperative that we bring our services to them. Those services can and should be replicated in other areas of the state.
And the attitudes and perceptions in our culture that allow sexual assault to happen are still very much alive. Movies and entertainment are increasingly violent. Thanks to the Internet, increasingly violent pornography has become easier to access for all age groups, and cellphones have created a mechanism for easily sharing inappropriate pictures, videos and messages. Victims are still blamed for causing sexual assault, making it hard for people to come forward when they have been victimized.
Sexual violence will continue to exist until we can mobilize community outrage against sexual violence. Get in touch with your own outrage (or borrow some of mine), and then communicate it to others. Confront people about language and jokes that minimize sexual violence. Write letters to the editor when you read outrageous things concerning sexual violence. Get other people involved. Do whatever you can think of. And when it doesn’t seem to be working, try harder and don’t give up.
When complacency and acceptance no longer exist, perhaps sexual violence won’t either. Even after 28 years, I want to keep working on it. Do you?