CLARION – The recent string of sexual harassment/assault allegations against high-profile Hollywood directors, politicians and newscasters appears to be garnering more support for sexual abuse prevention in the local area.
While exact numbers could not be provided, officials from the local PASSAGES (Prevention And Services for Sexual Assault through Guidance Empowerment and Support) office said they have not only noticed an influx of victims coming forward with their stories in recent weeks, but an increased interest in community prevention and education as well.
“It is apparent to our staff at PASSAGES that the string of recent disclosures regarding high-profile offenders has emboldened survivors to come forward in our area,” PASSAGES volunteer coordinator and community outreach advocate Tia DeShong said last week, noting, however, that specific numbers could not be provided because of confidentiality. “Similarly, we are seeing increased interest from community members looking to learn more about sexual violence prevention and to volunteer with our organization.”
Information released by PASSAGES describes sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal, [written] and physical harassment of a sexual nature.” While most common in the workplace, harassment can also occur in schools, businesses and public places.
DeShong explained that because sexual violence is typically fueled by power dynamics and one person’s attempt to coerce another, it is oftentimes difficult for victims — whether a high-profile celebrity or a low-level community member — to come forward due to the fear of retaliation and backlash from the perpetrator as well as the community at large.
“Despite the fact that delayed disclosures of abuse are far more common than immediate reports, many people assume that victims who come forward well after the fact are either lying as a way to seek revenge or opportunistically jumping on the crime-reporting bandwagon,” she said, noting the importance of not only educating community members on the recourse available should they face sexual harassment, but creating “communities where survivors can come forward and know they will be believed and supported.”
One way PASSAGES works to achieve this, according to DeShong, is by providing age-appropriate prevention education programs to teach community members — from pre-school children to adults — about sexual violence from unsafe touching and asking for help to bullying prevention and staying safe and respecting others to healthy relationships, consent and social media to bystander intervention and how to keep children and other vulnerable populations safe.
“By starting these conversations young and having them frequently throughout life, we are raising a generation of children who know about their own bodily autonomy and respect it in others,” DeShong noted, adding that it also makes children less likely to commit crime later in life and more likely to help others should they need it.
“These programs are our best weapon against sexual violence, and the more informed participants we have the better they work in our communities,” she continued, explaining that because sexual violence is often committed by someone the victim knows, tactics such as rape whistles, mace or self-defense classes will be useless in most cases.
In addition, DeShong pointed out the importance of education in the judicial system, especially for average citizens from the community who make up juries.
“Juries who do not understand sexual violence or its effect on victims are more likely to let violent predators off the hook and back on the street where they may reoffend,” she said. “As a matter of public safety, educated communities are essential.”
When it comes to reporting sexual harassment and assault, DeShong urged individuals to become familiar with the sexual harassment policies at their workplace, and encouraged businesses and organizations to make individual policies transparent for employees, while ensuring it complies with federal standards regarding workplace discrimination.
Additionally, she said parents with school-aged through college-aged children, should become familiar with Title IX, which prevents sexual discrimination in educational institutions, as well as who handles those complaints.
Sexual violence reports can also be made at the local police station, and DeShong noted that PASSAGES can provide legal advocates to accompany victims when they report an incident.
“It is important for survivors of both sexual harassment and assault to know that they do not have to come forward and report in order to receive support,” DeShong said, noting that many victims will talk about their assault to family, friends or counselors but never make an official report. “There are many healthy ways to begin healing. The most important thing is that the survivor finds sources of support — whether that is family and friends, PASSAGES or other counseling services.”
Serving clients of all ages and genders in Clarion, Jefferson and Clearfield counties, PASSAGES is a non-profit sexual violence victim’s advocacy agency that provides free and confidential services in counseling, legal advocacy, prevention education and medical/legal accompaniment. The organization tackles issues ranging from sexual harassment and bullying through sexual assault and rape, and hosts numerous outreach events to raise awareness of these issues.
Numerous volunteering opportunities, such as attending community outreach events, assisting with prevention education programming and acting as on-call victim advocates — are also available. In order to be a volunteer, a person must be at least 18 years old, have a reliable form of transportation, and be able to pass a criminal background check and obtain child abuse clearances.
In addition, individuals must pass a criminal background check and complete 40 hours of flexible training courses.
For more information on PASSAGES or volunteering in the Clarion area, call (814) 226-7273, or visit www.passages-inc.org. For free and confidential services for sexual assault incidents, call 1-800-793-3620.