Voices in the wilderness

“It’s not your fault; you’re not alone. … In the long run, if more of us speak out, we can put these people behind bars.”

— local rape victim “Annie Jones” (not her real name)

Take a walk down any street in any town in America: Haywood Street in Asheville, for example. Chances are, many of the people you see — women and men alike — have been or will be victims of sexual assault.

Nationally, one out of every three women becomes a rape victim at some point. What’s more, one out of every three females and one out of every six males will be sexually assaulted before reaching age 18. (Those statistics come from the 2001 National Crime Victimization Survey, reported by the U.S. Department of Justice, among other sources.)

As horrifying as those figures are, they’re still only numbers on a page. Behind them, however, lie the sufferings of real, flesh-and-blood human beings.

A waitress at a restaurant in downtown Asheville became one of those statistics last fall. Her misfortune spurred a group of young women to organize meetings, share their stories, get the facts from law enforcement, and seek advice from Our Voice, a local nonprofit (formerly the Rape Crisis Center).

A local college student became one of those numbers in 1999, when she was raped by an acquaintance’s boyfriend.

“It happened in my dorm [suite] … during fall break when nobody was around. [He] took me into the next room and said, ‘I’m going to have sex with you.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not,’ and he said, “Oh yes you are,'” “Annie Jones” (not her real name) recalls. The rapist told “Jones” it was all her fault, adding that if she said anything to anybody about what happened, “he’d kill everyone I love.”

So, like many sexual-assault victims, Jones didn’t report the incident. Instead, as often happens, she turned her anger inward — attempting suicide, suffering from depression and anxiety, and struggling to tell people about her experiences (only to hear such responses as, “It’s time you got over it”).

That, however, is easier said than done. I should know: Nearly 20 years ago, a man raped my college roommate and tried to rape me. He went to jail for some time, but my roommate and I suffered the aftereffects for many years. For a long time, I tortured myself because I’d been unable to keep that man from hurting my roommate. At the same time, I was troubled by her mother’s response: “Fighting back could have gotten you both killed!”

The aftereffects of rape, says Jones, “multiply into every aspect of your life.” Like me, she’s experienced a lingering sense of always being on guard, a difficulty in trusting herself or others, as well as fear and anger. “But I’m finally getting back to the … functioning human being I was before,” she says with a touch of humor, declaring, “I’m not going to let [the rapist] ruin my life.”

And as Our Voice gears up for Sexual Assault Awareness Month (a national event), Jones offers this encouragement to rape victims: “It’s not your fault; you’re not alone. … It’ll take awhile, but you’ll be all right. In the long run, if more of us speak out, we can put these people behind bars.”

Myth-busting

One of the many myths about sexual assault, says Our Voice Executive Director Sandi Rice, is that victims can just “get over it” and move on. Another is that rapists are generally strangers. In fact, most rapists are known to their victims, whether they’re casual acquaintances or are more closely related, Rice reports, citing national statistics from such sources as Robin Warshal’s book I Never Called it Rape (HarperPerrenial, 1994).

Another myth is that women “ask” for sexual violence by what they say, do or wear. “No one,” Rice emphasizes, “asks to be sexually abused.”

To underscore this point, Rice quotes U.S. Justice Department statistics showing that roughly 63 percent of all sexual-assault victims are under age 18. About one-third of those child-and-adolescent victims are ages 10 and under. Our Voice has worked with victims as young as 3 months and as old as 92, Rice reports, noting, “It’s a myth that [sexual assault] only happens to attractive young women.”

Our Voice board member/volunteer Laura Thomas emphasizes that rape is not about sex. “It’s a crime about power, control and dominance. Sex is the weapon.”

The nonprofit, says Thomas, tries “to teach young women about the realities [of sexual assault], because if they understand that myths are just that — myths — they’ll be better prepared and will have the power to say ‘no.'”

Thomas notes the 30 hours of training Our Voice volunteers receive before they begin staffing the group’s 24-hour crisis line, accompanying victims to the hospital and to court, or offering initial counseling. That training, she says, educated her about the facts and myths.

Here’s another myth-buster: Between 5 and 7 percent of all sexual assaults are perpetrated by women. The U.S. Department of Justice didn’t break down this statistic to indicate whether these assaults are woman-on-woman or woman-on-man. In general, however, there are few statistics on same-sex sexual assaults; perhaps because of the added social stigma attached to homosexuality, these crimes are even less likely to be reported than other forms of sexual violence, says Thomas.

In any case, the idea that only women are victims of sexual assault is a misconception. About 10 percent of Our Voice’s clients in Buncombe and Madison counties are men, says Rice. “In the last few years, we’ve seen the numbers of men reporting sexual assault go up. … More men are willing to talk about the issue and about their victimization.” And many men, she adds, may opt not to report sexual assault because of yet another persistent myth — that all male rape victims are gay.

Community Outreach Educator Bob Carpenter says the simple fact that he’s on staff at Our Voice may make it easier for men to come forward. His involvement may also spur more men to take part in the group’s petition campaign: To date, more than 300 men have signed the Men’s Pledge to End Sexual Violence. Eventually, Our Voice hopes to obtain at least 1,000 signatures.

The pledge reads: “I understand that rape is a crime of violence, power and control. I am outraged that a rape occurs every two minutes in this country. I am distressed that last year over 375 adult women who reside in Buncombe or Madison counties needed the services offered through Our Voice (the local rape crisis center). I am saddened by the fact that only 16 percent of rape cases are reported to Law Enforcement and therefore the amount of sexual violence that exists in our community is even higher than reported. I know that the overwhelming majority of sexual perpetrators are men. I believe that men must become an integral part of the solution in order to end sexual violence. Therefore, I PLEDGE: To never commit, condone or remain silent about sexual violence; to challenge other men to recognize they can have power without making others powerless; and to encourage all men to work together with women using their collective voices and resources to END sexual violence — not only in our community, but throughout North Carolina and our Nation.”

“Men are really starting to realize we have a role to play in ending sexual violence,” says Carpenter.

He got involved with Our Voice after hearing the stories of many female friends and realizing that he could either stay silent (“which is part of the problem”) or take an active role in the solution. “I chose to not remain silent,” says Carpenter. Sexual assault “is not only a women’s issue, though women are disproportionately affected.” Sexual violence, he continues, “happens all around us, and it always has,” but about one-third of all cases are never reported to the police.”

The Asheville Police Department cites 37 reported sexual assaults in the city limits for the year 2001, and a five-year high in 1999 of 50 incidents.

The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department indicates that last year, 11 sexual assaults were reported in the county; there were 14 in 2000 and 8 in 1999.

Our Voice, on the other hand, sees nearly 300 new clients in Buncombe County every year.

As part of this year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month, victims will be encouraged to share their stories — and, thus, begin to heal — says Rice. Victims have a better chance of recovering physically, mentally and emotionally if they get help within the first 24 hours after the assault, she emphasizes.

To that end, Our Voice volunteers staff a crisis line 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They offer both a sympathetic voice and practical assistance, such as information about the organization’s free counseling services, where to go to get tested for STDs, what happens at the hospital, and how to deal with the criminal-justice system (such as working with law enforcement and prosecutors). “Just knowing that strong action has [or will be] taken against the perpetrator can help the healing,” says Thomas. “Or telling the child [victim] that there are bad people in the world and they look like the good people.”

Rape is about “predators preying on the vulnerable,” notes Thomas.

There are three main types of rapists, Rice explains. By far the largest group (80 percent) is the power rapists. “They do it for the sense of control and power,” she says. About 17 percent are anger rapists: “They act out of anger and hostility, especially toward women.” The remaining 3 percent — such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Richard A. Jackson (who killed Karen Styles here in Buncombe County in 1994) — are the sadistic rapists, says Rice. This type, she says, “derive a lot of pleasure from inflicting torture and pain; they’re the real sickos” and the most likely to kill their victims.

And even though they account for such a small percentage of all rapes, these sadistic perpetrators are also the ones most often reported in the media, due to the sensationalistic nature of their crimes.

The long road to recovery

For rape survivors, recovery is a long-term — perhaps a lifelong — process, says Rice.

And for victims who wish to pursue prosecution, gathering forensic evidence within 24 hours of the rape is crucial, says Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Laura Beacham of Mission St. Joseph’s Health System. The process “is a tough thing to go through, and I wanted to use my skills as a nurse to make it easier,” says Beacham, explaining why she chose to pursue the SANE certification.

The first step is making sure the victim is OK and dealing with his/her injuries in the emergency room, Beacham explains. SANE nurses — a relatively new field in the U.S. — are trained to collect and maintain the integrity of evidence after ensuring that the victim’s physical injuries have been treated. Mission St. Joseph’s has received a $124,492 grant from The Duke Endowment to develop a domestic-violence program with an emphasis on sexual assault. A portion of those funds will also be used to train SANE nurses.

Beacham remarks: “When you’re open about talking about [sexual assault], it’s amazing how [it opens] other people to talking about their own experiences. … I’m not going to just ignore the subject.”

Rice echoes those sentiments, noting, “The only person that secrecy protects is the perpetrator.”

And Counselor Kelly Moser of Our Voice adds these suggestions for family and friends of sexual-assault victims: Read about the issue and gain a deeper understanding. Believe what victims say about sexual assault, “because the thing about sexual assault is that we go around pretending it doesn’t happen.” And finally, listen. “If someone comes to you and discloses that they’ve been sexually assaulted, just listening is helpful. [Victims] just want to be heard.”

Sexual Assault Awareness Month events

Our Voice is co-sponsoring the following events during Sexual Assault Awareness Month:

• Friday April 5: “Take Back the Night” rally, beginning at 5:30 p.m. on the UNCA campus with entertainment by Womansong. The rally moves downtown for a march, leaving City/County Plaza at 7 p.m., followed by a candlelight vigil and speakout (7:45-9:30 p.m.).

• Tuesday April 9: Video featuring survivors’ experiences and panel discussion (Fellowship Hall, Montreat College, 11 a.m.).

• Sunday April 14: Benefit for Our Voice (Tressa’s Downtown Jazz & Blues, 28 Broadway, 7-11 p.m.). The evening will include live music, a raffle and tables sponsored by local businesses.

• Monday April 15: Panel discussion focusing on male roles in ending violence against women (Cannon Lounge, Warren Wilson College, 7 p.m.).

Our Voice will also place emery boards bearing the organization’s slogan and crisis number in salons, beauty shops, nail shops, etc., and will pass them out at every event. The group will also distribute teal ribbons to be worn throughout the month of April to signify the commitment to ending sexual violence.

In addition, Our Voice aims to collect 1,000 signatures by the end of April from males committed to stopping sexual violence against women.

For more information about Sexual Assault Awareness Month, call Our Voice at 252-0562. In case of emergency, call Our Voice’s 24-hour crisis line (255-7576).

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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