April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month

“Me too.”

Two words that, when put together in recent months, have opened up a dialogue many have argued has been closed for far too long.

That phrase is being used by women across the world who are calling out those who have sexually assaulted them and fighting back to regain a sense of control.

For generations the topic of sexual assault has been kept under wraps just because it is a topic no one wants to talk about, but for the victims simply knowing there are people who will listen provides them with the courage to speak up – some for the first time in their lives after years of perpetrated violence.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and the theme for 2018 is “Embrace Your Voice.”

“Every victim of sexual violence must be believed, supported and heard,” states an official proclamation signed by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton.

So, what is sexual assault.

According to Caroline Palmer, public and legal affairs manager for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCSA), sexual violence is “any sexual activity in which a person is forced, coerced or manipulated without her/his consent.”

That, added Palmer, can include rape, assault, child sexual abuse, prostitution, sexual exploitation, stalking and harassment.

While any act that meets the definition of sexual violence in Minnesota is a criminal activity, the legal name for that crime is different. In Minnesota, it is called criminal sexual conduct, and there are five different levels, or degrees, of criminal sexual conduct that vary based on the seriousness of the crime as well as the age of the victim.

MNCASA is one of a number of organizations in Minnesota that is dedicated to providing resources and education regarding sexual violence, as well as serving as an advocate for victims, helping them speak out about what has happened to them.

“It can still be very difficult to report sexual assault for a variety of reasons – fear of not being believed by the justice system and the public, feelings of shame and embarrassment, fear of the perpetrator, concern about getting in trouble for engaging in illegal activity at the time of the assault (i.e. underage drinking, drug use, engaging in prostitution),” said Palmer.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in six women and one in 33 men reported experiencing sexual violence in the form of rape at some time in their lives. In Minnesota, there are, onaverage, 60,000 plus children and adults who experience sexual violence each year, reports the Minnesota Department of Health.

The Minnesota Center on Health Statistics conducts what is known as the Minnesota Student Survey every three years, which it has been doing since 1989, asking students in Grades 5, 8, 9 and 11 a variety of questions. According to its data, by the time they graduate one in four girls reported they have been touched, grabbed or pinched in a sexual way.

The Minnesota Department of Safety crime survey indicates that 33 percent of women have experienced some form of rape crime in their lives.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that approximately 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to the police, which means two-thirds of the sexual assaults taking place in the United States go unreported each year.

According to Palmer, one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the United States is happening to Native American women and girls, adding that is also the case in Minnesota.

In his proclamation, Dayton recognizes that fact, as well. “Minnesota’s Native American populations are among the communities most heavily affected by sexual violence,” states the proclamation.

Palmer said MNCASA is extensively engaged at the state and federal level in legislation, adding it is closely watching the progress of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Palmer encouraged others to talk with their legislators at the state and federal level as well to ensure the issues related to sexual violence remain at the top of their agenda.

She added it is also important for the public to show its support for victims of sexual violence, because they are in all of our lives.

The CDC has offered a variety of fact sheets that offer information and guidance related to a number of issues surrounding sexual violence. One can find them on the CDC Web site at www.cdc.org.

While the emotional and mental impact of sexual violence is dramatic,the National Sexual Violence Resources Center has put the issue in an economic perspective. According to its statistics about sexual violence, annually rape costs the United States more than any other crime ($127 billion each year), and each rape costs approximately $151,423 over the lifetime of the victim.

While many would argue the bigger issue is false reporting, Palmer stated the issue of false reporting is one of the most significant myths that has to be overcome. Research has shown a 2 percent rate of false reports.

The impact of an incident of sexual violence can be devastating, but, according to MNCASA, help, information and reassurance can aid a victim/survivor to heal. Naturally, it takes time for that process to unfold, and no two victims will have the same experience. What is important is for those who are victims to admit they are changed because of the experience, but that it won’t defeat them.

Learn more about sexual violence on the MNCASA Web site at www.mncasa.org.