Signs of progress in ending sexual violence | GUEST COMMENTARY

“As painful as this conversation can be, it is critical to finding solutions.”

By Mary Ellen Stone (Guest Columnist)

The conversation surrounding sexual violence has grown louder in recent months as more and more women, men and young people have come forward to disclose abuse.

As painful as this conversation can be, it is critical to finding solutions. One of the most vexing challenges to ending sexual violence is that it thrives on silence. Simply put, we can’t change what we can’t talk about.

Sexual violence is pervasive and complex. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18. A combination of social and cultural factors contribute to these startling numbers, including our attitudes towards sexuality, healthy relationships, gender roles and a tolerance of violence.

We know how to end sexual violence, but it requires individuals, institutions and communities to work in concert. We want to share a few exciting signs of progress on this front.

Last month, 34 King County communities and the King County Council engaged in Sexual Assault Awareness Month, setting a new bar for participation. This effort, led by Sound Cities Association Director Deanna Dawson, Renton Mayor Denis Law and Kirkland Mayor Amy Walen, acknowledged that the entire community is affected by sexual violence, and everyone plays a role in the solution. Every council meeting was an opportunity to raise this issue publicly, recognize it happens everywhere, and formally say “enough.”

Another sign of progress is new interest from health providers, schools, public transit and corporations in partnering with the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, both to improve their response to sexual violence, and to prevent it from happening.

We’re excited to partner with King County Metro Transit and the King County Sheriff’s Office on Metro Transit’s new “Report it to Stop it” campaign, launched in April. The campaign aims to reduce incidents of sexual misconduct on buses by encouraging victims and witnesses to report, and offering support to survivors.

We’re also excited by a new partnership with Kaiser Permanente that allows KCSARC to expand resources and training that will help reduce the risk of abuse. The set of tools under development engages young people and other community members, and builds on our nationally recognized Trauma-Informed Classrooms prevention resources. Initially designed for use in high schools, this resource helps trusted adults who work with children and young people every day know what questions to ask, what to look for, and — very importantly — how to respond in a way that begins to heal trauma when a young person discloses abuse. Just as important, it also helps young people communicate with adults, and with each other, helping to ensure sexual abuse is surfaced and addressed where it exists, rather than hidden away.

Why do we consider these developments signs of progress? We know that many survivors do not come forward because they are fearful of not being believed, or they perceive nothing will be done to change the situation.

We also know a supportive first response to a disclosure of abuse helps survivors begin to heal.

“I believe you, I’m sorry this happened to you, and I want to help you” are powerful responses that a survivor needs to hear when speaking up about abuse, whether from an elected leader, a bus driver, law enforcement officer or teacher.

We know the toll that trauma caused by sexual assault takes on individuals, families and whole communities. We see the effects of sexual assault every day in KCSARC’s offices; last year alone, we served 4,100 individuals and their families with therapy, family education, legal advocacy and more. The girls, boys, women and men we serve live in every community in King County. They attend your school, share your commute, and work in your office or on your job site.

We’re grateful to those who are connecting with KCSARC to understand and share effective resources, and actively using their voice to make sure abuse has no cover where they have most influence. We need all systems working together to shift attitudes and change behaviors.

Mary Ellen Stone is executive director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, based in Renton.

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