“I Asked Him for My Clothes and My Phone”

No one expects to be sexually assaulted. Then it happens.

 

It happens here. Sexual assault may not be talked about at soccer games and cocktail parties, but it is more prevalent than we think. “One in 3 women and 1 in 7 men will experience sexual assault or intimate partner violence in their lifetime,” Jones says. “Those numbers may go up as people start to feel empowered and not ashamed to talk about it.”

In 2017, Arlington had 88 reported incidents of “forcible rape, sodomy or sexual assault with an object,” and 97 reported incidents of “forcible fondling,” according to Virginia Uniform Crime Reporting from the Dept. of State Police. But crisis advocates note that sexual violence is largely underreported, so crime data does not paint a full picture.

Attitudes that lead to sexual violence also take root earlier than some may realize. In a 2017 survey conducted by the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth & Families, almost half of female students in grades 8, 10 and 12 said that they had been sexually harassed at school, and 8 percent of high school seniors said they had been forced or coerced to have sex.

Teens are often reluctant to go forward with a forensic exam because they don’t want their parents to know. “We want to reach teens where they’re at [both geographically and emotionally] to ensure that they’re safe, that they know it’s not their fault and what resources are [available to them],” Jones says. “We can be the nonjudgmental, trusted adult who can get them the support they need.”

In the best scenario, support starts with prevention. And it focuses on everyone, not just girls. “If our prevention is all about what girls should and shouldn’t do to keep themselves safe, how victim-blaming is that? We work with boys and girls to talk about how we can work together as allies to stop this epidemic in its tracks,” Jones says. “Boys and young men are not the bad guys. More than ever, we really need them working on this issue. We need them to be upstanders and not bystanders, to have the tools they need to say something.”

 

Sexual assault is broadly defined by Arlington County as “any act of a sexual nature committed against someone without that person’s freely given consent.” And the consent of the #metoo era is not the same as the so-called “consent” dramatized in 1980s John Hughes movies or Rat Pack-era songs like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”—reflections of a bygone time when men were expected to steer the sexual pace of the relationship and culture dictated that women coyly say “no” before giving in to “yes.”

“Consent,” says Mariana Velazquez, a youth therapist at Doorways’ Revive Counseling Center, “is sober and enthusiastic. Silence doesn’t mean yes. Yes means yes. Consent is about being informed so that when it comes time to make those decisions, they align with your desires and your comfort level.”

Velazquez works directly with teens in Arlington high schools—including the choice schools and career centers—and supports Arlington’s Healthy Relationships Task Force, the student-led group that Caroline Raphael worked with to eliminate the culture of sexual aggression.

Schools are also stepping up to help enact a cultural shift. “Two years ago, APS [Arlington Public Schools] adopted a new policy that spells out what sexual harassment looks like—whether that’s snapping a girl’s bra strap in a crowded hallway, sending unwelcome messages through social media, or exhibiting controlling behavior, like monitoring your partner’s phone usage and isolating them from their friends,” says Abby Raphael (mom of Caroline), who continues to co-chair the Prevention Committee at Project PEACE.

That effort includes training teachers and administrators to identify and address such behaviors, and engaging all students—including boys—in conversations about respect and consent. Project PEACE works with health and P.E. teachers to coordinate guest speakers, video presentations and interactive discussions on the topic.

“Whereas in the past teachers might have dismissed certain behavior as boys will be boys, now they’re recognizing it as harassment,” Abby Raphael says. “The reality is that most girls and women who are assaulted—it’s someone they know. We have to shift the focus to changing men’s attitudes so they’re not perpetrating crimes against women. All of these attitudes that boys can develop about women—the ones that could lead them to commit sexual assault later—we have to address those at an early age.”

Parents have a role to play, too, says Michael Swisher, the other co-chair of the Project PEACE prevention committee and a parent educator for Arlington’s Department of Human Services. For example, parents can help their kids practice what to say in a critical situation—whether it’s an intimate moment or one rife with peer pressure—even if the drill feels awkward.

“It’s up to us as parents to create a space where our kids feel comfortable coming to us,” Swisher says. “Generally that’s not our natural response. We hear our kid talk about a difficult issue and think, Oh my god, I need to teach him this thing! But that’s less effective than being able to listen without judgment. If you go into lecture mode, you may have just closed the door forever on the topic.”

Instead, he says, ask questions like, How does that make you feel? or What do you think about that? “If you’re not lecturing them or correcting them or freaking out, they’ll come to you and share, and you can make smart decisions together.”

 


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