Let’s talk about child abuse

Every Sunday throughout April, Sexual Assault Prevention & Response Services will have a guest column in the SunJournal. Each column will discuss a different aspect of sexual violence, as well as prevention and education efforts.

The second article is about child abuse, which was written by Jennifer King of the Maine State Police.


A large part of my work as a state police detective has been investigating the sexual abuse of children. For the past 13 years, that has been a topic I think about most days, as do the personnel at sheriffs’ departments and local police departments who investigate those types of cases.

We don’t normally talk about our work with members of the public, but April is Child Abuse Awareness Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so it’s a good time to talk.

Law enforcement personnel have joined with Department of Health and Human Services caseworkers, child advocacy centers, medical forensic examiners and advocates for survivors of sexual abuse to inform the public of the scope of child abuse as we are aware of it, and how we are approaching the issue in each of our disciplines.

I have to use the qualifier “as we are aware of it” because the abuse of children is the most secretive of crimes, happening in private, with the perpetrators sometimes manipulating their victims into silence. Only some of these children will tell someone that they are being abused.

Then, we put our training and experience to work, and the child’s disclosure sets into motion a multidisciplinary response with the goal of ensuring the long-term well-being of that child.

Many children never tell anyone. Why? Children keep the secret of being sexually abused for many reasons.

They are afraid to tell because the perpetrator threatened them/their family with violence if they told. They are afraid because the perpetrator said they would be taken away from their family and placed in a foster home if they told. They are afraid because the perpetrator made the child feel complicit in the abuse by accepting gifts, and they feel ashamed.

They are afraid because they suspect they will not be believed. They are afraid because, in spite of the abuse, they love the abuser and don’t want him to be arrested and taken away. They are afraid because the abuser is the only source of income for the family and the child doesn’t know what will happen if he/she is arrested.

They are afraid because they don’t think they can tell a stranger, or a courtroom full of strangers, what happened. They are afraid to tell because they already told one person who did not believe them/got upset at them/accused them of lying.

We understand these reasons.

Child sexual abuse is difficult for adults to think and talk about. Imagine how hard it is for children who don’t understand what is happening to them, and don’t know who to trust.

We cannot rely on children to tell us when they are being abused. It is not their responsibility to protect themselves; it is ours — yours and mine. That is not to say we don’t teach them about abuse, and that disclosing is the right thing to do. However, even children who are told these things may not be able to tell.

So how do we identify child victims of sexual abuse when there is no disclosure?

One of the things we know is that many of the users of child pornography are also perpetrators of child sexual abuse. Recent studies demonstrate a link between people who commit child pornography offenses and people who sexually abuse children.

In law enforcement, we are vigorously investigating that link.

Some men have bravely admitted to sexually abusing children when they are confronted regarding their possession of child pornography, and subsequently questioned about hands-on offenses. There may be no harder offense to confess to, and admitting having done this for some men has been the first time they have ever been honest about this part of their life. Up to that point, their desire to view child pornography and their sexual desire for children has been a secret they have guarded with every fiber of their being.

So, one of the ways detectives try to identify child victims who have not disclosed being abused is to question the identified users of child pornography regarding their having committed any hands on offenses, and then trying to identify those victims.

People in law enforcement have taken on the responsibility to investigate crimes including child sexual abuse. We don’t expect members of the public to think about this crime on a daily basis.

What we would like for the public to do, though, is twofold: report suspected abuse without hesitation, and ensure that the agencies in our community that help victims of these crimes are supported.

Jennifer King is a detective with the Maine State Police.


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Addressing the culture of rape

To End Rape Culture, We Must First Address These 3 Things, via Everyday Feminism:

Source: Our Femifesto

At first glance, we associate rape culture with sexual violence.

Dig a little deeper, and we see the enabling and creation of victim blaming, stigma, and silence.

But as with all other systems of oppression, rape culture is a beast with tentacles and spores across countless other facets of inequality and systems of oppression.

This is why dismantling rape culture must happen from as many different angles as possible in order to be effective. We need an intersectional and inclusive approach to upsetting the culture of rape and building a culture of consent.

The following three things may not appear to be major components of rape culture at first glance, but undoubtedly fuel and are fueled by it.

Dismantling and addressing these things must be part of our movement to end rape culture.

1. Gender Norms

Traditional gender roles and norms sustain inequality, and rape culture thrives on inequality.

Rigid gender norms based in the gender binary and normative expectations of how people should carry themselves through the world restrict the space we have for authentic expression and communication.

The extremely limited range of emotions, thoughts, and actions we’re taught we can have based on our gender can in many ways predetermine the conversations — or lack thereof — that we have about sex and consent.

For example, the social script we’re taught to engage in when it comes to sex casts a cisgender man and woman — effectively erasing queer sex and genders that fall outside or between this limited binary — and prescribes starkly different roles for each of them.

This social script we learn growing up and continue to see played out around us typically features a coy, demure, and sexy (but not slutty!) woman, waiting to be romanced/dominated by a strong, confident, and aggressive man.

Consent is assumed, never discussed. Man orgasms. Sex over. Not a great platform from which to learn and practice consent.

This is just one way that gender norms fuel rape culture.

When gender norms create the social DNA of strong, confident, and aggressive men as the opposite of coy, demure, and sexy women, popular narratives emerge around any and all sorts of experiences, including sexual violence.

The way normative masculinity is structured and performed allows for very little — if any — room for men to claim the identity of being a survivor of rape or sexual abuse.

One in six men is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and one in 33 men is a survivor of rape, but toxic masculinity silences and stigmatizes these stories and experiences because they don’t match neatly with the strong, confident, and aggressive man typecast by gender norms.

While toxic masculinity works to silence the experiences that men have with sexual violence, it simultaneously silences women’s experiences with sexual violence by creating myths around what constitutes consent.

These myths ultimately undermine the way we (fail to) listen to and (do not) believe women’s stories related to rape and abuse.

Some common examples include someone’s outfit being interpreted as “asking for it,” flirting being conflated with consent to have sex, and reporting rape being interpreted as regret for being “slutty.”

These myths, rooted in the traditional understanding of femininity, effectively rob women of their agency before, during, and after rape by always circling blame back onto them and constructing femininity as something inherently “asking for it.”

Another layer we must consider is that the gender binary itself restricts the way we — including advocates and activists — talk about sexual violence and rape culture.

In many ways, the binary makes the experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming people with sexual violence invisible.

While someone in the trans* community is five times more likely to survive sexual assault than a cisgender woman and 21 times more likely than a cisgender man, the trans* community is almost never centered in conversations or campaigns about rape culture.

And if we want to dismantle rape culture, we have to do so from all angles, not just those made accessible to us through the gender binary.

2. Language and Accessibility

In order for the consent movement to overcome rape culture, we have to make our movement accessible to the people who have never even heard of rape culture.

Luckily everyone knows rape culture at some level. We just have to let different communities create and define their own language around sexual violence, as Sesali Bowen explained atFORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture’s panel discussion last month.

We can’t just preach to the choir. That won’t get us very far. For example, the consent is sexymessage isn’t culturally relevant or resonant in all communities.

It’s easy to forget what the majority of people don’t know about sexual violence if we’re well-versed in the ins and outs of rape culture. But we have to make an effort to be nice and welcoming to beginners.

This piece of accessibility also requires patience and faith in the fact that even the most unlikely folks can see the light.

3. The Prison Industrial Complex

It is relatively well-known that police and the criminal “justice” system consistently fail survivors. One of the reasons we consider this to be the case is because only 3% of rapists will ever spend a day in prison.

Missing from this analysis of justice is the fact that prison and the prison industrial complex only perpetuate rape culture.

American prisons are institutions of violence, rooted deeply in racismOne in every tenpeople in prison will experience sexual abuse while incarcerated, commonly at the hands of prison staff.

How can a system of violence and racism be the answer to sexual violence?

It can’t be — and that’s why the movement to end rape culture must reconcile itself with the reality of the prison system.

In various ways, the prison system and its various appendages perpetuate rape culture.

Stop and frisk laws often enable legally sanctioned sexual violence that is fueled by prejudice and racial profiling.

In no way do I intend to criticize survivors whose reports of rape ended in their perpetrator going to prison — or the many survivors that wish that to be the case for their rapists.

Incarceration is the only model we currently have for survivors to seek justice and because of this, on a micro level, it is a valid form of justice that we so desperately seek.

Intersectionality allows us to see that at the macro, systematic level, the criminal justice system as it exists today cannot possibly serve the interests and goals of the movement to end rape culture.


It can be daunting to think that ending rape culture hinges upon dismantling several other norms and systems of oppression, but I find comfort in reminding myself that the only thing bigger than what our movement has to address and dismantle is the need for us to do so.

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Human Trafficking in Maine

Every Sunday throughout April, Sexual Assault Prevention & Response Services will have a guest column in the SunJournal. Each column will discuss a different aspect of sexual violence, as well as prevention and education efforts.

The first article is about Human Trafficking, which was written by Destie Hohman Sprague, Program Director at the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault:

Human trafficking is getting a lot of press in Maine right now — much of it discussing whether enough is being done.

But for those of us who have been working closely on this issue for the past few years, we know that the landscape today is radically different than it was just four years ago. Trafficking is an extremely complex issue, and developing meaningful, Maine-based solutions takes hard work and patience.

Let’s take a moment to celebrate a few of the successes that Maine has achieved using one simple formula: teamwork.

In the past four years, thanks to local, state and national partners, more than a thousand law enforcement officers and direct service providers have had training based on nationally-recognized best practices for response. In addition to this, public awareness events such as the Not Here conference have connected students and citizens with the issue.

Local efforts, such as the Androscoggin County Human Trafficking Task Force, the Greater Portland Coalition Against Sex Trafficking and Exploitation, and the Penobscot-Piscataquis Sex Trafficking Response Team are bringing multidisciplinary teams to the table, and developing a home-grown human trafficking response. Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services, the sexual assault services provider in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties, is a key participant in the local task force.

Maine is now the recipient of its first line of federal funding dedicated to trafficking victims; a two-year grant of $400,000 from the federal Office of Victims of Crime will support collaborative services and protocol development in southern Maine.

A new central resource about sex trafficking exists for the state, with information about state and federal law, model policies and protocols, and links to best practices. The website is www.mainesten.org, and we have the support of the Maine Women’s Fund and many other partners to thank.

As of last fall, the crime of aggravated sex trafficking is on the books, increasing penalties for offenders, expanding the definition of a human trafficking offense, and opening up civil penalties and restitution for survivors.

That bill was the result of careful work for many months with the Office of the Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Work Group, the Criminal Law Advisory Commission, and dedicated prosecutors and providers across the state. It was supported through the session with the leadership of the House and Senate chairs of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Earlier this week, the Legislature passed Rep. Amy Volk’s, R-Scarborough, proposal, in LD 1730, that will offer an affirmative defense for victims of trafficking, as well as increased access to victims’ compensation (and enhanced fines for offenders).

Still, there is so much work to be done.

While awareness of the issue is growing, the needs are growing as well.

Victims of trafficking and commercial sex exploitation experience an almost total loss of financial, educational, physical and emotional autonomy. Individuals engaged in trafficking are treated as a commodity or property, and are often reliant on a pimp, an employer, or an intimate partner to meet their basic needs. They may have limited or no access to the money that they earn; as a result, their ability to forge an independent, safe and self-reliant life is severely undermined.

Maine currently has limited specialized resources to meet these needs.

For that reason, the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MECASA), with help from many partners, is launching the Maine Sex Trafficking Victims Support Fund this month. The fund aims to be a flexible, accessible and timely source of funds to support the immediate needs of victims of trafficking as they seek to increase their safety and start a new life.

Even with the progress we have made in recent years, there are many more steps Maine must take before we have the infrastructure to address the needs effectively.

Human trafficking is a complex issue, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. There is only a multi-disciplinary approach. True progress happens when the process makes room for all of the players at the table to hash out the best solution for Maine: for the nuances of the Maine criminal code, for the realities faced by law enforcement and prosecutors, and for the true needs of victims of this crime.

We at MECASA are excited to be on that team, and we are energized to know that so many people and organizations, and in all parts of the state, have already contributed to this important work, and will continue to partner with us into the future.

Destie Hohman Sprague is the program director at the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. She may be reached at: destie@mecasa.org.

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“Dear Harvard: You might have won, but I still have a voice”

Dear Harvard: You Win (written anonymously), via The Harvard Crimson

Editors’ Note: This is a first-person, present-tense account of the aftermath of a sexual assault that took place in 2013. For reasons of both style and substance, we have left it in present tense.

I’m writing this piece as I’m sitting in my own dining hall, only a few tables away from the guy who pressured me into sexual activity in his bedroom, one night last spring. My hands are trembling as they hover across the keyboard. I’m exhausted from fighting for myself. I’m exhausted from sending emails to my resident dean, to my House Master, to my Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment tutors, to counselors from the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, to my attorney. I’m exhausted from asking for extensions because of “personal issues.” I’m exhausted from avoiding the laundry room, the House library and the mailroom because I’m scared of who I will run into.

More than anything, I’m exhausted from living in the same House as the student who sexually assaulted me nine months ago.

I’ve spent most of 2013 fighting the Harvard administration so that they would move my assailant to a different House, and I have failed miserably. Several weeks ago, in a grey room on the fourth floor of the Holyoke Center, my psychiatrist officially diagnosed me with depression. I did not budge, and I was not surprised. I developed an anxiety disorder shortly after moving back to my House this fall, and running into my assailant up to five times a day certainly did not help my recovery.

“How about we increase your dose from 100 to 150 milligrams a day,” my psychiatrist said in a mechanical, indifferent voice. Sure thing.

This morning, as I swallowed my three blue pills of Sertraline and tried to forget about the nightmares that haunted my night, I finally admitted it to myself: I have lost my battle against this institution. Seven months after I reported what happened, my assailant still lives in my House. I am weeks behind in the three classes I’m taking. I have to take sleeping pills every night to fall and stay asleep, and I routinely get nightmares in which I am sexually assaulted in public. I cannot drink alcohol without starting to cry hysterically. I dropped my favorite extracurriculars because I cannot find the energy to drag myself out of bed. I do not care about my future anymore, because I don’t know who I am or what I care about or whether I will still be alive in a few years. I spend most of my time outside of class curled up in bed, crying, sleeping, or staring at the ceiling, occasionally wondering if I just heard my assailant’s voice in the staircase. Often, the cough syrup sitting in my drawer or the pavement several floors down from my window seem like reasonable options.

Dear Harvard: I am writing to let you know that I give up. I will be moving out of my House next semester, if only—quite literally—to save my life. You will no longer receive emails from me, asking for something to be done, pleading for someone to hear me, explaining how my grades are melting and how I have developed a mental illness as a result of your inaction. My assailant will remain unpunished, and life on this campus will continue its course as if nothing had happened. Today, Harvard, I am writing to let you know that you have won.


He was a friend of mine and I trusted him. It was a freezing Friday night when I stumbled into his dorm room after too many drinks. He took my shirt off and started biting the skin on my neck and breast. I pushed back on his chest and asked him to stop kissing me aggressively. He laughed. He said that I should “just wear a scarf” to cover the marks. He continued to abuse my body, hurting my breast and vagina. He asked me to use my mouth. I said no. I was intoxicated, I was in pain, I was trapped between him and the wall, and I was scared to death that he would continue to ignore what I said. I stopped everything and turned my back to him, praying he would leave me alone. He started getting impatient. “Are you only going to make me hard, or are you going to make me come?” he said in a demanding tone.

It did not sound like a question. I obeyed.

Shortly after I reported my sexual assault to my House staff, I was told by a senior member of the College administration that the Administrative Board was very unlikely to “issue a charge” against my assailant and to launch a thorough investigative process because my assailant may not have technically violated the school’s policy in the student handbook. Even though he had verbally pressured me into sexual activity and physically hurt me, the incident did not fall within the scope of the school’s narrow definition of sexual assault.

The policy, published in the spring of 1993, defines “indecent assault and battery” to be anything involving “unwanted touching or fondling of a sexual nature that is accompanied by physical force or threat of bodily injury.” It does not provide any definition of consent beyond the brief mention, in its definition of rape, that a victim cannot consent if he or she is unable to express unwillingness due to alcohol or drugs, among other factors.

I could still press charges in front of the Ad Board, I was told, but they would probably be dropped because my situation did not match the language of a 20-year-old policy. The last thing I wanted was for my assailant to feel vindicated if the Ad Board dropped the case. After two horrible weeks spent curled up in bed drinking, crying, and trying to come to a decision in the middle of reading period, I decided not to open a case.

The school was extremely reluctant to take any action against my assailant without a fair investigative process. In theory, this approach makes perfect sense. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and you cannot take severe action against a student—such as forcing him to move to a different House—without a formal investigation process. But in practice, this works against sexual assault survivors at Harvard. Our policy is so outdated and narrow in scope that it discourages survivors from entering an investigative process in the first place. And without such a process, Harvard will take very little action against the alleged perpetrator.

And so I found myself in the middle of the worst scenario possible: I couldn’t get Harvard to move my assailant to a different House without going to the Ad Board, but I could not go to the Ad Board because of the school’s narrow policy.

In an attempt to comply with Title IX regulation—which requires universities to provide a safe environment to survivors of sexual assault—school officials told me about 20 times that I should feel free to transfer to a different House if I wanted to. At first, this option felt unfair. Why should I be the one moving when I had done nothing wrong? Did this imply that what had happened to me was my fault? Then, the idea of transferring felt utterly disempowering. Moving to a different House would have felt like giving up and granting even more power to my assailant. At last, moving out felt flat-out impossible. I could see myself slowly descending into mental illness, and I knew I would spiral out of control quickly without my blockmates and favorite tutors around to support me. If I was going to go down, I thought at least I deserved to be surrounded by my closest friends. And so I decided to stay.

There had to be other options for me out there, I thought. I got the school to issue a no-contact order against my assailant. I convinced myself that if I pushed hard enough, if I made enough noise, someone somewhere would hear me, stand up, do something.

But no one really did. Confidentiality rules prevent me from revealing most of what was—or was not—done to respond to my report. Ironically, if I were to reveal this information, I could risk getting disciplined. What I can say, however, is that in my opinion, the school’s limited response amounted to the equivalent of a slap on the hand for my assailant. After unsuccessfully suggesting a number of interventions that could have helped me better live with my situation, I eventually got the persistent impression that my House staff believed I was fussing over nothing.


There are few things more disempowering than being sexually assaulted. You suddenly and unexpectedly find yourself in a situation where someone else—perhaps someone you trusted or loved—claims absolute authority over your body. You are desperately trying to have your voice heard and to assert control over what is being done to you, but are systematically shut down until you are forced to simply wait for it to be over. In that context, being practically denied the right to decide what you want to do with your story, being told that something with the potential to be as empowering as prosecuting your assailant is unlikely to result in any action, being denied several requests that you think will help you heal—those things truly make you feel hopeless, powerless, betrayed, and worthless.

Seeing how your school officials refuse to validate how upset you are over and over again is equally damaging. When I told my House Master that I was considering an Ad Board process, I was told it was a bad time of the semester, that there would be consequences for my assailant anyway, and that we shouldn’t go through the process if it was going to be fruitless. Shortly after, my resident dean told me that my assailant couldn’t be punished because he didn’t know what he was doing. The resident dean compared living in the same House as my assailant to a divorced couple working in the same factory. My House Master and my dean encouraged me to forgive my assailant and move on. Someone at University Health Services asked me if it was possible that my drinking habits were the problem, because it seemed like they had led to my sexual assault. And always, at the end of those discussions, I would hear the same thing over and over again: “We want you to get all the support that you need.”

I know deep down that all those administrators are not bad people. They want to be supportive, and they really try to be. But they have no idea how to do deal with cases of sexual violence because they have not been trained sufficiently. They use insensitive language, unfortunate comparisons, and empty phrases to avoid any liability issues that could come up. They simply do not know, and, as a result, they do more harm than good when trying to handle cases of sexual violence.

Moreover, these administrators operate within a system that offers little alternative for people in my situation and bounds administrators to inaction because their jobs depend on it. This system is a product of a broader rape culture that permeates our society—a culture in which it is acceptable to blame a victim of assault for drinking too much, in which the burden is always on the survivor to advocate for her- or himself, in which inaction is always preferred, if only to make sure the assailant does not sue anyone for unfair punishment. But that does not mean that we cannot do anything to change the way we handle sexual assault at Harvard.

I might have lost my battle, but I also hope that this story can initiate a serious discussion about the way we want to handle cases like mine as a community. Do we really want survivors who speak up to be systematically shut down if their experience does not fit some criteria for sexual assault written in 1993? Do we really want to let survivors advocate for themselves until they are so exhausted that they collapse into depression?

We need more options for survivors who do not want to—or are unable to—open an Ad Board case. We need school officials to receive extensive training about how to handle sexual assault and talk to survivors. More importantly, we need the school to start listening to its students when they vote on sexual assault policy, and to survivors when they knock on administrators’ doors with a mental illness. The current review of the College’s sexual assault policy is a step in the right direction. But there is much left to be done to make sure student voices are heard.

The last time I met with my resident dean, I told my dean about my depression, and how I thought it had been caused by the lack of validation and empathy I had received from the Harvard faculty. I said that it would be immensely helpful for me to know that my dean, not as a school official but as a human being, understood my pain and empathized with it. I asked my dean to take a step back from the situation and to admit that I had not been served well by the Harvard system. My pleas were met with a refusal to comment and an argument that it was not an administrator’s role to criticize Harvard’s sexual assault policy.

If my resident dean refuses to question the current policy we have in place, then I will. Dear Harvard: You might have won, but I still have a voice. And I plan on using it as much as I can to make things change.

Editors’ Note: We made the decision to run this op-ed anonymously due to the private and intensely personal nature of its content. It is our hope that this piece will bring to light issues that affect members of our community and inform campus-wide conversations on sexual violence and health services at Harvard.

Readers should also note that online commenting has been disabled for this piece in an effort to help protect the author’s identity.

—Brian L. Cronin and Anja C. Nilsson, Editorial Chairs

—Samuel Y. Weinstock, President

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April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month!


Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a time to recognize where we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going in the work to prevent rape, childhood sexual abuse, sexual harassment and all forms of sexual violence. It is also a time to recognize the harm done by sexual violence – not only to individuals, but to our communities and indeed, our entire culture. Just as importantly, Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a time to celebrate healing and the resilience of victim-survivors.

We are busy planning and preparing for educational presentations, activities, and events. Here is a link to our happenings throughout Androscoggin, Franklin, and Oxford counties.

PS: Don’t forget to wear lots of teal this month!

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The Vagina Monologues

The Vagina Monologues will be performed at the First Universalist Church of Auburn on Saturday, March 29th (7 PM) and Sunday, March 30th (1 PM). We hope to see you there!


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Local 12 year old speaks out against bullying

From our newest staff member, Shawna:

“My name is Shawna Austin, and I have recently started working with SAPARS as the new Northern Oxford County Rural Outreach Coordinator. I would like to share my son’s link on Q97.9’s Q Morning Show from Monday, March 17th. He posted a Facebook status about bullying and judging others. I feel as though his courage to speak out at 12 years old, not knowing how his peers would react, is fantastic. I hope for his message to be shared, and that maybe this will help other children his age speak out against bullying, sexual assault, and/or domestic violence.”

12 Year Old Mainer With Wisdom Beyond His Years, via Q97.9 WJBQ:

Evan Burnell

12 year old Evan felt the need to update his Facebook status…what he wrote has stopped people in their tracks.

“I’m in the mood for a much needed status. It’s about people these days. Well let me just start by saying enough is enough. People judge others by the way they look, what they wear, who they hang out with and what gender they like. You people need to stop and think that maybe that kid you said has no style can barely afford clean clothes. That group of “nerds” are the ones that go to college and make millions of dollars because of their ability to keep their nose in a book and read. And that “Homosexual” you make fun of cries himself to sleep every night. Why can’t people be…. people.. not bullies and stuck up little punks who think they’re the best because they have the best clothes and have the coolest most expensive things in the world. People just don’t get it. If people spent more energy on being a positive person and if people actually realized that everybody should be treated equally no matter what then maybe this world would see more love. -Evan”

Evan’s proud mom Shawna shared this with me, I’m sharing it with you hoping you share with someone too….spread the love.


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Speaking out over Twitter

Rape Survivors Talk About Why They Tweeted Their Stories, via TIME:


A spontaneous conversation about sexual assault on social media sparks a debate over whether public sharing helps victims heal or hurts them.

JoAnne Cusick was wearing a pink floral sundress and jelly sandals when she was sexually assaulted at the age of eight by a group of neighborhood boys. Believing that she was to blame, she kept the secret for nine years until she told a priest about the attack during confession. He assured her that she was innocent in the eyes of God, and the eyes of the world.

Twenty-eight years later, Cusick, now a 37-year-old nurse living in Colorado, shared that secret on social media joining hundreds of other victims who tweeted their stories of assault. These women (and a number of men) were responding to a simple question that went viral on Twitter Wednesday night asking victims what they were wearing when they were assaulted. Within hours, a long list of outfits—ranging from sweatshirts to pajamas to bathing suits—accompanied by stories of rape and assault filled Twitter feeds, replacing the normal news items and GIFs.

The huge response ignited a conversation on social media and blogsamong victims and health professionals as to whether sharing stories on highly public, semi-anonymous social media forums could be a healthy step in the recovery process—a way to make those who’ve been assaulted feel less alone, less stigmatized and shamed. Or does sharing leave survivors open to online shaming and undermine a more traditional route of coping, like therapy?

The debate started when Christine Fox, a young woman who tweets under the handle @steenfox, got into an argument on Twitter with a follower who insisted that women who wear revealing outfits are at fault if they are sexually assaulted. Fox invited those on the social media network who had been victims of rape or sexual assault to tweet the outfits they wore at the time of the attack in hopes of convincing this man not to victim blame.

“I was trying to make him understand that it absolutely does not make a difference, and that the responsibility does not lie on women,” she told The Root. Over the next several hours, Fox received hundreds of replies. With the users’ permission, she retweeted stories as she received them.

The campaign of sorts took on another life when Adrienne Simpson from Philadelphia, who has never been a victim of sexual assault, saw the conversation on Twitter and thought that it could take on a new visual format. “I am a marketer, so I think in campaigns and imagery,” she tells TIME. “I was thinking they need pictures with this because that’s what’s going to drive home the idea that you can have on corduroy pants and a camouflage shirt—there’s nothing remotely sexual about that—and this can still happen to you.”

She created five images from the texts of five tweets that caught her attention: the camouflage shirt and cords a 15-year-old had been wearing; a school uniform (buttoned-up polo, knee-length khaki shorts) worn by a 13-year-old; a sundress a 19-year-old was wearing to Church on Sunday when she was raped by her 50-year-old minister; jeans and a hoodie for a 22-year-old girl who was acting as a designated driver at a party and whose soda was roofied; and—the one that got the most retweets all night—the Barney pajamas worn by a seven-year-old when she was raped.

She added a hashtag: #RapeHasNoUniform. “I think as a victim, when you speak out, you want it to matter. The bigger this gets, the more it matters. I think it should be an organized, public campaign.”

But without expecting attention or publicity, many just tweeted in the hopes of helping others. “[The assault] had nothing to do with anything I did. And I think hearing one survivor being able to say that is a good for people who may still be blaming themselves,” Cusick tells TIME. She has shared her story with friends before, and says she felt comfortable opening up on Twitter.

Sarah Webster said she tweeted with a similar motive. Webster has tweeted about her assault in the past and says that nothing is too private for her to share on her account, which is focused on sex and body image. During the course of the Twitter conversation, the question of whether most assailants are strangers or not arose, and Webster decided it was important to share her story. Webster says she was raped by someone she was very close to and hoped her experience would show others that even those you trust can be perpetrators. “I was sexually assaulted by someone I knew, and at the time I wasn’t wearing anything at all. It was in my home by someone who was never supposed to do that to me,” she says. “I wanted to contribute another side of the story.”

Scott Berkowitz, the President and Founder of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) was not surprised that seeing so many people share the same experience on Twitter motivated people to share their stories for the first time. “Having this whole community of other people who have been through something similar can be really empowering for people,” he says. “I think there’s safety in numbers. We see that in a lot of scenarios with sexual assault survivors. When there’s allegations, say, against a particular priest that becomes public, suddenly many other people who were abused by that person are okay with coming forward.”

Those who posted compared the spontaneous movement to Take Back the Night and Slut Walk—two organized campaigns that have aimed to create safe environments for rape victims to share their stories, debunk the notion of victim blaming and restore safety to campuses and neighborhoods. The popularity of such projects proves that large groups of victims speaking out can bolster other survivors’ confidence. But unlike past movements, this one took place on social media, which can be simultaneously both anonymous and extremely public.

Anyone on the Internet can read your tweets; and anyone on Twitter can respond to them. You can choose how much information you share about your real identity in your Twitter profile. Some shared their experiences anonymously; others had names and faces attached to their profiles and hence, their stories. Either way many thousands of strangers read their tweets, a fact that became controversial when some media outlets reprinted the tweets and were accused of doing so without everyone’s permission. An argument ensued as to whether tweets are public or private and whether extra consideration should be given to sensitive cases such as this one.

The anonymity, after all, is exactly what convinced some victims to share their stories. Many of those who posted who I interviewed said that though Twitter was public, their family didn’t know that they tweeted and were unlikely to see the tweets. Sharing their story on Twitter with other survivors felt safer than sharing on someplace like Facebook where their tight circle, that might include family members who don’t know about the assault or even the assailant him or herself, might be able to see.

RAINN has found that some anonymity helps those who have never shared before. “We launched an online hotline in 2006 to compliment our telephone hotline because we were finding that younger victims in particular just weren’t comfortable picking up the phone and saying out loud what happened to them,” says Berkowitz. “But that sitting in the privacy of their room at their computer with at least a measure of anonymity there that they tend to open up much more.”

But that’s an anonymous hotline. Twitter is a public forum, where there’s always going to be backlash. “In a [therapy] group, you generally sign a confidentiality agreement. There are no agreements on Twitter. Nobody cares about you. It’s the Internet,” says Nicole Aghaaliandastjerdi who shared her experience and now runs a women’s abuse support group in Louisville, KY. Along with all the supportive messages came the the kind of slut-shaming that originally spurred the conversation. “I remember someone was tweeting, ‘Look at all the damaged goods.’ That was really hard for even me to read, and I’m pretty far along in my healing process.”

Despite such comments, Aghaaliandastjerdi focuses on the good that came out of it, like her friend who had only shared once before but decided to participate on Twitter. “That was huge for her. For a lot of people, they’re taking back whatever had been taken from them. They’re claiming it and giving the story a different kind of power.”

Indeed, many first-time sharers found safety in numbers. Clifford Johnson, 31, hadn’t shared his story before except with a few close family members. “When I think about it, it kind me feel like a little less than a man—just the fact that it happened.”

But seeing others share their story and the ease of tweeting allowed him to post. “I don’t think I intended to go that deep. I almost deleted it because I didn’t know if I wanted this out there.” But as people began to respond he changed his mind. “It was a forum for the first time I was able to say what happened and get feedback from other people who went through the same thing. Plus, everyone there was a woman, you know? And it just kind of got me to thinking about things that happened to me as a child, and I wanted to put it out there to say, ‘It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. It doesn’t even matter your race or sex. It could happen to anybody.’”

The experience made him want to become involved in advocacy for male victims of rape.

The Twitter conversation was a healing process for many of those who participated. The majority of responses were ones of love and support from strangers.

“What made me feel okay is that it’s so much more prevalent than one might initially think. Even though in my personal network that I follow I didn’t see anyone else respond, the fact that there were so many people responding to the question made me realize it’s not an uncommon thing,” says Ayanna who wanted her last name to be withheld and tweeted despite the fact that her ex-boyfriend and assailant still follows her on social media. “Some women tweeted at me who had been through the same thing. They really identified with what I said and it made me feel validated in my decision.”

Of the seven assault survivors I interviewed, none regretted having tweeted.

“I’m sure hundreds of people probably woke up today with a heavy burden lifted off them,” Johnson says.



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Survivor’s words

A Message to My Assailant: Lessons on Being Human, via The Good Men Project 



It’s been years since we last saw one another in that dated courtroom; I worked hard to avoid eye-contact and I assume you did the same. I held my breath as I slipped past your chair on my way to the stand, trying to protect my insides (yes, perhaps in vain) from the air you exhaled.

When I gave my statement, when I answered your lawyer’s relentless questions, I tried to pretend you weren’t there, five seats away, brooding and breathing.

I looked to my parents and wondered how they did it—how they showed such strength in that room with you, sitting mere feet from the man who had defiled their only daughter, their baby girl.

But that was the last time you saw me, at least to my knowledge. There haven’t been opportunities for us to work through the scars you left me; and I’d have run like hell had you ever proposed the idea. My guess is that you’ve preserved an image of who the teenaged-me was; a static entity—a girl never-aging, just the girl who turned you in.

I have grown and changed in spite of that day.

Twelve years have passed. Twelve entire years since the version of me I had been crafting was derailed. Though still in its rough form, I had a sense for the girl I was, the girl I’d like to be; but I was made to relinquish her. I was made to start with new materials, new shapes, new colors—most not as soft, or as pleasant, or as bright as the old.

That’s the first lesson I have for you, the first lesson on being human: we are a culmination of all the past events that we have experienced. Some we cultivate with intention. Some we strive for. Others… well, others happen like you happened—alone, in the dark, when we’re least prepared for something to go tragically wrong. So to be human in this world, you must understand that.

We aren’t permitted to choose the good memories alone to shape who we are—we must absorb the pain as readily as the joy and allow the course of who we thought we were change ever so slightly.

So, I have been changed. Forever so. And some days I’m alright with that fact, but most days I try to dress that fact up in elaborate costume. Most days I masquerade as a woman who can walk and move and flow. I float through my life with an inflated opinion of how gracefully I have survived you. An euphemistic existence.

That moment lasted mere minutes, but it still lives with me. I remember the pull of my cigarette in that nearly-pitch black room. I remember the sweatshirt I wore and the unease I felt the moment you let the door close softly behind you.

I remember the feeling of you, long before you reached out to touch me—your intentions thickened the room, it hurt to breathe.

But I was a young girl then. I worried about authority and the impressions I left on others. I had trouble disappointing. But you knew that, I think. That’s why I was selected.

When you joined me that day, I shushed the heart that began to implore—I shouldn’t have done that, and I hope she has forgiven me.

If I may: when your heart whispers, quiet yourself and listen. And if you find yourself in the company of a heart who begs of you, you trust her. No matter what you think the cost will be, to ignore her will be a cost far-greater.

You corned me in darkroom—a designated space where a person can develop permanent marks on paper. A photographic scar.

But I was busy picture-taking. Unforeseen images seared into mental film.

You advanced, speaking things—so many things—you offered as flattery. Picture. You inched close enough to upset my pleading heart further. She begged me to move. Do something. Another picture. Your greying breath reached my ear as the words turned to whispers. Picture. You brought lips to mine. Picture. Lips to neck. Picture. To ear. Picture. A stagnant gaze. Picture. Blurred periphery. Wall. Smoke unfurling. Picture. Picture. Picture. Hands to neck. Hands to breast. Picture. Picture. Hands to waist.

And when I felt your hand move to that delicate, middle line, my heart bellowed, terrified—and I broke free.

Sometimes the bravest move is only inches from where you currently stand. Sometimes the smallest falter can offset great force, that’s part of the magic of being human. So my tiny step backward broke your flow, enough to fill the room with a sobering air.

You walked back to the door, slinking out as quietly as you had arrived. And just as my body had relaxed, your face reappeared in the doorway, speaking things again. Just as my heart had implored, there you were, asking me to consider “making an old guy happy.”

And that was that, except it wasn’t. There were depositions to be made, formal charges to be filed, tears to be shed, court dates to be extended.

Today, I am a grown woman. I’ve done work, real work, to rid myself of this pain, of you. I said all of the brave things out loud—things like “I forgive him” and “it wasn’t my fault”—but that moment still claws its way out of me, up my tender insides, penetrating the open air in wails and sobs.

Even after all these years.

Because that’s another thing about being human: those moments we push down, those moments we want to wish away, they don’t die. They hibernate for short spells, but they don’t perish down there in your belly. Instead, they wait till you’ve grown comfortable in your routine. You might forget for entire weeks that you’re broken, that things ever went wrong in this glittering life of yours.

But really, those moments will bleed into your everyday. Those moments will change your behavior in imperceivable ways and they will manifest as pain and problems that you just don’t understand. You’ll feel lost and scared and resentful without warning, a sinking that you can’t quite define. And when someone asks what’s wrong, you’ll say “I don’t know” and it will be truth that springs from your lips in that moment. You’ll question who you are and who you’re capable of becoming. You’ll question if you’re capable of becoming.

So on this human journey of yours, remember that suppression is not the same as expulsion. Ignorance does not replace management.

But because we’re human, we adapt as best we can; we ‘cope,’ we ‘deal,’ we ‘survive’—we do this because we don’t know what else to do. Because things like you happen to people like me—and when things like that happen, fearless living becomes a story you sell yourself amidst reckless distraction.

Twelve years have passed and I’m supposed to be free; I’m supposed to have coped with that day because I’ve grown up, no longer the child you cornered. I’m supposed to be free of you because I have a man now, a real man, who looks after me and honors this heart’s whispers. I’m supposed to be free of you because I’m a mother now—of remarkable little boys who know me for my strength and humor, my dependability and my resilience.

Resilience. Another lesson.

How to endure my senior year in high school when peers were still working out whether or not I was in-fact lying. It wasn’t yet clear if I invented a story about a popular, respected teacher putting his hands, his lips, his intentions against a paralyzed frame.

But all that chatter of where I’m ‘supposed to’ be, that’s another lesson on being human: ‘supposed to’ has no real place in this world. We can use the rational part of our mind to understand the why, but that doesn’t mean our heart has to accept it as truth. ‘Supposed to’ is relative, subjective—oftentimes cruel.

‘Supposed to’ stunts progress, it inhibits our ability to heal.

‘Supposed to’ is a fiction.

Because you were supposed to know better that day. You were supposed to use your authority to shape minds in beautiful ways, not compress them in on themselves. You were supposed to honor the commitment you made to your wife. You were supposed to think of someone other than yourself.

But none of that happened, because ‘supposed to’ isn’t real.

In spite of everything, I convinced myself that I had forgiven, because I had read all the self-help books that told me this was the way to freedom.

You see, by forgiving you, I had forgiven myself. Proclaiming to the world “I have moved on” meant I had permission to heal, to release the red-hot coal.

But, this lesson is important: interacting with other humans changes them long after you part ways. So while you, no doubt, had to deal with your own hardships as a result of this experience, I do not believe you had even the smallest inkling of how far into my future you were actually touching.

I doubt you knew that grown-up me would still be manipulated, still be groped by those hands of yours.

She does.

I do.

And so, being human, I’ve learned, means doing dirty work for the sake of coming clean. To purge myself of you, I must face and feel you again and again and again. I must accept that you are a part of me—even if I hate that this is so. To honor myself, I must honor the part of you that survives—this is what it means to be human. No one said it would be fair.

You made a decision that would forever bind us, and I didn’t ask for that. I didn’t ask for you to stay with me all these years. And because I’m human, I still fight against the ugliness; I struggle to find the language that will free me. I still struggle with the guilt of hating you.

That day in the courtroom, when I had given my testimony, describing every awful detail of the encounter, I was asked how I felt after you had finally left me in that room.

I answered with a single word: gross.

But I don’t think that was true. I think I searched for what someone who had just gone through what I had gone through should feel. And what should I have felt? Fear. Anger. Resentment. Disgust.

But I felt nothing. An empty vessel with a grieving heart.

You took nearly a year to plead guilty, but you did it—the only gift you had left to give me, if that matters at all.

That plea mattered to me, so I thank you.

I needed that plea to reassure me that there was an actual person in there. The one that I trusted—regardless of how that good faith was made to collapse.

Years later, when I was finally willing to face the newspaper articles written, I found a summary of your sentencing. I read that you spoke before the judge, revealing that you “deeply and profoundly” regretted your actions.

And I hope that’s true.

I hope to walk through my life believing those words someday; because I know deep-down that we’re all facing battles, our stories are all complicated and messy—that’s what it means to be human. And we’re all human, aren’t we, even monsters like you.

- See more at: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/attacker-advice-human-scrol/#sthash.6HDgzg7k.dpuf

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Ending the backlog

How “Law And Order’s” Mariska Hargitay Is Helping Put Real Rapists Behind Bars, via Think Progress:

Mariska Hargitay

Mariska Hargitay is best known for playing a detective on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show that focuses mainly on sexual crimes. But she doesn’t just go after rapists on TV. Hargitay’s efforts to reform the way that law enforcement officials deal with sexual assault are helping convict people who are guilty of rape in real life.

Hargitay’s nonprofit organization, the Joyful Heart Foundation, advocates for ending thebacklog of untested rape kits across the country. In storage lockers across the United States, an estimated 400,000 kits that contain DNA evidence from sexual assaults are collecting dust. Without that evidence, sexual assault cases often stall. By now, some of these kits are 25 years old, and those rape victims haven’t seen justice served.

So now, the actress is partnering with leaders in Detroit — a city that’s working hard to end its own backlog — to push for a new bill to implement a better process for rape kit pickup, testing, and tracking across Michigan.

“To me, this is the clearest and most shocking demonstration of how we regard these crimes,” Hargitay said at a press conference in Detroit this week to announce the new legislative initiative. “One would assume that if someone endures a four- to six-hour invasive examination, that that evidence would be handled with care.”

Reporting rates for sexual crimes are already low, but even among the rapes that arereported to the police, only about one out of four leads to an arrest — and of those arrests, only about one out of four leads to a conviction. Activists like Hargitay point out that’s partly because cities don’t have enough resources to test all of the rape kits they receive. For instance, back in 2009, Detroit law enforcement discovered 11,000 untested rape kits left forgotten in a police warehouse.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who was a victim of sexual assault herself when she was in college, has focused her attention on processing all of those kits. So far, police have gotten through about 1,600 of them. At this week’s press conference, Worthy announced that effort has already identified 100 serial rapists — meaning that DNA was found in at least two different kits, or matched the suspects in other open cases.

On the same day that Worthy and Hargitay joined forces at their press event, a judge sentenced one of those serial rapists to prison for at least 45 years. In response, one of his victims submitted a statement saying her nightmare is finally over. “As of today, the Lord has blessed me with some closure, knowing that the person that created this bad dream is going to pay for his actions,” she wrote.

But there’s still more work to do to get through the rest of the city’s backlog. “I don’t care how long it takes, we’re going to finish,” Worthy said on Monday.

Hartigay’s organization has more work to do in other areas of the country, too. There are rape kit backlogs in cities across the United States. President Obama is proposing $35 million in his 2015 fiscal year budget to help address the issue, and Hartigay is currentlyworking on a documentary to continue to raise awareness.

The character that Hargitay plays on TV actually motivated her to get involved in this work. After she started portraying Detective Olivia Benson, who’s a strong ally to rape survivors onLaw & Order, she started getting thousands of letters from real survivors who wanted to tell her their stories. Many of them had never talked to anyone about their sexual assault before, and most of them had been let down by the justice system. Hartigay says that’s what led her to found Joyful Heart in 2004.

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