Taking back the night
Durango tackles 'crimes of silence'

SideStory: Sexual Assault Awareness Month

by Anna Thomas

No one wants to talk about it. No one wants to hear about it. Sexual assault, the “crime of silence,” is a topic best left behind closed doors.

It’s precisely this attitude that has caused domestic violence to become one of the most chronically underreported crimes in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Justice. A staggering 60% of sexual assaults go unreported to the police.

It’s also the attitude that makes it so hard for victims to speak out about their experience.

“Survivors have a feeling of shame, like they’re at fault for what happened to them,” said Britany Schaffer, President of the Feminist Voice, a women’s rights group at Fort Lewis College. “They don’t want people to know.”

To combat this attitude, the Feminist Voice, along with many other sexual assault prevention organizations in Durango, is hosting a “Take Back the Night” event at Fort Lewis College on Saturday April 3. The annual march from the Fort Lewis clock tower to Carver Brewing Co. is one of the first events to take place during April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

As a movement, Take Back the Night has its roots in Europe in 1976. Following a brutal series of rapes and murders of women in Leeds, England, The International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women was held in Brussels. What followed made history. The nighttime streets of Brussels were lit up by a candlelight procession of 2000 women from 40 different countries. In the past 30 years, the march has evolved into a worldwide protest of sexual violence.

The Durango event begins at 6:30 p.m. with a “Speak-Out” at the Fort Lewis College Union Ballroom, where survivors of sexual abuse, their friends, and families have the opportunity to tell their stories in a supportive environment.

Following the Speak-Out, marchers are then invited to gather at the clock tower at 8 p.m. The procession will lead down the hill to 8th Street, and eventually onto Main Avenue. It will end with an open mic at Carvers, in which marchers and the public are welcome to recite poetry, music and short stories.

Sexual Assault Services Organization of Durango, or SASO, is one of the event’s supporters, and will be hosting several of this month’s events. SASO’s website has a large red button labeled “ESCAPE” that, when clicked, instantly reloads the page to the google homepage, underscoring the chilling reality of life for victims of sexual abuse.

SASO offers many services, including a 24-hour hotline, both in English and Spanish, advocacy through medical and legal proceedings, and bystander intervention training for middle school through college students. This summer, SASO will begin the first-ever male support group.

“Men get sexually assaulted as well,” said Michael Rendon, executive director of SASO. “Most perpetrators are men, so they have a responsibility also.”

Rendon became SASO’s first male executive director in October of 2008. He is one of the first male directors of a sexual assault prevention organization in the country.

Rendon sees several issues as specific to or heightened in Durango. “The college contributes somewhat, because there’s a lot of young people with not a lot of experience with alcohol,” said Rendon.

His organization also sees a number of domestic violence cases in rural locales, in which the situation is complicated by isolation. A 2006 report by the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) cites a lack of access to domestic violence services due to poor weather or road conditions as a prohibitive factor in a victim seeking assistance.

“The people with the least amount of power are the most vulnerable,” Rendon pointed out.

The lack of affordable housing in Colorado is also a factor. Also according to the CDHS, victims of abuse often return to an abusive situation after seeking help in a shelter because they cannot find affordable long-term housing.

In a country where women are over five times more likely to experience sexual assault, and where 15% of sexual assault victims are under the age of 12, sexual assault is seen by social justice workers as a means for power and control by the strong over the weak.

“Sexual assault is a tool of oppression,” said Rendon. “We see ourselves as an anti-oppression group.”

Rendon cited a recent study that found that gay women who portray stereotypically male roles are more often targeted for sexual assault. Battling sexism, racism, and other forms of prejudice, said Rendon, is part of the overall fight against sexual assault.

In addition to support groups, which some might find uncomfortable, SASO has paired with the Mancos-based Medicine Horse Center to offer equine therapy specifically geared towards victims of sexual assault. The program aims to use the work participants do with the horses as a metaphor for behavior in all situations, and to eventually lead to confidence and empowerment.

According to data compiled by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, witnessing violence as a child is the strongest risk factor of transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next. Men are twice as likely to abuse their partners as adults if they’ve witnessed abuse as children.

Rendon points out the media’s tendency to combine sex and violence compounds the issue. “It’s normalizing that sort of behavior,” he said.

In 2002, SASO implemented the Bystander Intervention Program, after determining that a third of the organization’s hotline calls involved teenage victims. Mediated dialogues held in the students’ classrooms teach teenagers how to intervene as bystanders to prevent potentially dangerous situations.

Ninety-four percent of students in last year’s program said that they want to influence others to be less accepting of sexual violence.

A series of workshops and fundraising events are planned for April, including an April 21 talk by Nobel Peace prize nominee Andrea Smith, on the relationship between sexual assault and oppression.

In addition, Schaffer said, the public is welcome to participate in the Clothesline Project on Friday, April 2, the day before the Take Back the Night event.

“Survivors and friends and families of survivors come and design a t-shirt in relation to their experience,” said Schaffer. The shirts will then be displayed on campus.

Hoping for an even bigger turnout than last year’s march, Schaffer said, “So many people have come to me and said so many good things about last year’s event.”

While the Take Back the Night March through darkened downtown streets is meant bring awareness to a public that is used to turning a blind eye, it’s also meant to generate an atmosphere of support for victims.

“You don’t have to say anything, you can just listen,” said Rendon. “It’s a great way to recognize that you’re not alone.”

In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “It takes two people to speak the truth: one to speak and another to hear.”

The Take Back the Night event is supported by the following organizations and businesses: Leadership Center, Alternative Horizons, Anthropology Club, Durango SASO, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, Dance CoMotion, Women’s Resource Center, Carvers Brewing Company, Fort Lewis College Gender/Women Studies Faculty. If you are in need of help, please call SASO’s 24-hour hotline at (970) 247-5400.