GUEST EDITORIAL

Surviving in SILENCE

As local numbers skyrocket, The Women’s Center of Jacksonville board member decries disturbing prevalence of sexual assault

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One of the greatest threats in America, indeed the world, is the unacceptable prevalence of sexual assault and rape in our society.

Americans protest daily on the many issues important to us all. We protest over “Black Lives Matter,” immigration inequality, gender inequality, pay inequality and social inequality, to name a few. The news is filled with our protests and, yes, all of these issues are important. Yet not enough Americans realize just how many of our mothers and daughters, and fathers and sons, will be sexually assaulted and or raped in their lifetimes.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. So let’s discuss the problem and see what we can do to change the culture.

The statistics are easy to find. Unfortunately, they tend to mask the enormity of the problem. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives. That statistic equates to approximately 25 million women and 1.5 million men in the U.S. In Florida alone, the statistic equates to approximately 1.8 million women and 130,000 men. Here in Northeast Florida in 2016, nearly 3,000 calls were made to the 24 Hour Rape Crisis Hotline run by The Women’s Center of Jacksonville. From those calls, 700 survivors received direct advocacy services, with more than 300 choosing to move forward with forensic exams that could aid the prosecution of their assaulters. But these numbers do not tell the whole story.

The Women’s Center of Jacksonville is the certified Rape Crisis Center for Duval, Nassau and Baker counties. We provide advocacy, counseling and forensic exam services to individuals who have been sexually assaulted. Our 24 Hour Rape Crisis Hotline provides information about and access to those services, simply by calling
904-721-7273.

According to the National Institute of Justice, between 65 percent and 75 percent of victims of sexual assault and rape never report the crime to anyone. If you apply that statistic to the survivors served by The Women’s Center of Jacksonville, our local numbers would more than double. The lack of reporting is highlighted even further when you compare the number of survivors served by The Women’s Center to the 450 cases of sexual assault reported to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office last year. Worse yet, the local numbers for survivors of sexual assault are up 30 percent in the last quarter.

Why is there so much silence on this topic? Why is there so little reporting? A large part of the problem is based on the fact that around 80 percent of sexual assaults and rapes are perpetrated by someone the survivor knows, according to the NSVRC. The offender may be a parent, a sibling, another family member, a current or former significant other, a family friend or a person in a position of trust or authority. Furthermore, accusations of sexual assault are frequently dismissed and not believed, most especially when the person accused is a known member of one’s family or a community leader. The fear and personal shame attached to these horrific crimes are beyond understanding to those who have never experienced the assaults. But can you imagine facing a perpetrator of sexual assault in your home or workplace? Every single day?

The lack of reporting is further exacerbated by society’s attitude toward survivors. The survivor is sometimes re-victimized by comments like they “should have fought harder,” “shouldn’t have been there to begin with,” or “shouldn’t have dressed so provocatively.” These accusations place the blame for the crimes on the survivor instead of the perpetrator, further isolating and shaming the victim. It doesn’t help that society allows certain behavior and speech that demeans women, viewing them as sexual objects existing for the pleasure of others, or objects of sexual comedy, some even going so far as to question whether it was “a legitimate rape.”

In the face of these monumental difficulties for survivors of sexual assault, it’s easy to understand the lack of reporting and the number of women who walk this dark road alone.

But what can we do?

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, please consider contacting The Women’s Center of Jacksonville for assistance; call the Rape Crisis Hotline, 904-721-7273, or go to womenscenterofjax.org.

On a community level, we can all become more involved by raising our awareness of the problem and paying closer attention to those around us. The rule “If you see something, say something,” certainly applies in these situations. Intervening in a potential assault incident can save someone from a lifetime of pain, or even prevent the loss of a life. Intervening does not necessarily entail a physical altercation with a perpetrator. It can mean speaking up to draw attention to the scene, calling the police, or simply walking up and asking the person under threat if they need assistance and walking them away from the situation. The simplest of actions can do wonders.

The best defensive weapon we have against sexual violence is the one we all carry: our minds. Certainly we can all prioritize safety as a part of our lives and our society, and if we see something, say something. As a society, we can all change our attitude toward and awareness of sexual assault by adjusting our behavior and our speech.

Sexual assault is wrong. We will not tolerate it. We will support those brave enough to stand up and be heard! We should all speak with one voice to survivors across the nation—we see you, we hear you, we believe you!

____________________

Clarke, a former federal law enforcement officer, is on the Board of Directors of The Women’s Center of Jacksonville. The Women’s Center of Jacksonville is a community-based, 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of women. Programs include affordable mental health counseling; education, advocacy and health information for breast cancer survivors; adult literacy and tutoring; 24/7 crisis intervention and advocacy for victims of sexual violence; 904-721-7273, a 24-hour rape crisis hotline; rape prevention education for youth; and information and referral.

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