Sexual Assault Awareness Month: ‘Most rape victims continue to suffer the painful isolation’
During April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we support survivors of sexual violence, reflect on events of the year as our understanding of the impact of sexual assault continues to grow, and look forward to meeting the challenges ahead.
We are indebted to the survivors who allow us to care for them in the aftermath of sexual attacks. Last year, 190 rape victims over the age of 18 reached out for advocacy and forensic/medical support — nearly doubling the number of those who sought assistance just four years earlier.
Young adults continue to experience and report sexual assault at high numbers. Last year, 127 survivors (67%) were between the ages of 18 and 29, many of them students. The number of African American survivors seeking help tripled in the last year years — which we attribute to survivors increasingly feeling that services are accessible, useful and empowering. Twelve survivors were men.
Still, we know that most rape victims continue to suffer the painful isolation that can shape a survivor’s life for many years after an attack. Of the 500 callers to our hotline with sexual assault concerns in 2017 and 2018, more than half were over 30 years old, most dealing with the impact of sexual attacks that occurred years earlier. We hope that the #MeToo movement is giving survivors confidence that personal healing is possible at any time — and that each survivor’s truth breaks the silence for many.
We have witnessed public tragedies this year. The murders and woundings of the victims at the Hot Yoga studio, found to have been motivated by misogyny, were perpetrated by a person with a history of sexual aggression. We are grateful to the Tallahassee Police Department for its thorough investigation of these links, and to Maura’s Voice for its commitment to researching the origins of hate-based violence, including violence against women in particular. We hope that we continue to explore how best to identify and respond to similar patterns of sexual aggression in the future. We need to know, too, how hate group networks fuel such aggression and hostility toward women in our community.
This year, we also saw the homicides of two other women, Alexandria Reschard and Shawnez Williams. The suspect in both killings has been described as a sex buyer. Among the most vulnerable targets of sexual aggression and misogynistic murder are prostituted women, whose lives offer the fewest options and pose the constant risk of violence at the hands of strangers. TPD again did commendable work investigating the deaths of these women, and Refuge House continues to support the safety and healing of prostituted survivors in all of our programs.
At our SAAM Survivor Speak-Out Thursday, our keynote speaker, Heather Sewell, a survivor mentor for people who have experienced prostitution and trafficking, will guide us with her insight.
Refuge House will also present our Community Partner Award to TPD, for its constant support of sexual assault victims, and exemplary investigations of the Hot Yoga attacks, and of the homicides of Alexandria Reschard and Shawnez Williams.
Meg Baldwin is the executive director of Refuge House.