Sexual Violence: Healing Survivors and Communities Susan Moen Jackson County Sexual Assault Response Team (JC SART)

Susan Moen and the organization she leads are fighting an epidemic: what the American Medical Association calls the “silent, violent epidemic” of sexual assault. In today’s interview we talk about the roots of this violence, the innovative free services that Jackson County Sexual Assault Response Team (JC SART) offers for survivors, and what we can all do to bring much-needed change to our community.

Hi Susan, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today at LocalsGuide. 

Thank you. We really appreciate this chance to let more people know about our free services and the work that we do. Sexual violence is a huge problem and an urgent one, but it’s also one we can change. The more people know, the more they will come to understand that even small things they do can have a big impact.

We want survivors of sexual violence in our community to know that we are here for them, that we understand what they are going through and that we are committed to helping them find ways to heal.

Straight to the point: what does the American Medical Association mean when they call sexual assault an “epidemic”? Please talk about the severity of this problem in our community and society.

Because of the silence still surrounding this crime and the low percentage of people who report it, we know the statistics don’t capture the full picture, but even the numbers we do have are hard to wrap your head around. Nationally, one in four girls and one in six boys will experience sexual violence before they turn 18, and 1 in 4 women and 1 in 33 men will be assaulted as adults (National Sexual Violence Resource Center). And though we would all like to believe that the place where we live is different, recent reports find that Oregon actually has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the nation.

We know that there are especially vulnerable populations: a staggering 80% of women with developmental disabilities are sexually assaulted, half of them more than 10 times. Sexual violence against LGBTQ+ people and Indigenous Peoples is also especially high. But sexual assault affects every age, every gender, every social and economic group. We have cared for infants; we have cared for 96-year-olds. We all have a stake in understanding and confronting this crisis.

Susan, as one of the co-founders of JSART, will you please tell us about your background and goals behind helping found this program?

I worked as a sexual assault advocate in Los Angeles, after a year-long training with Peace Over Violence in the early 1990s. As a survivor of sexual violence, I wanted to help support others who were searching for ways to navigate the aftermath of an assault; I learned everything I could about medical care and forensic exams, emotional healing, the judicial system and all the potential needs that survivors have as they work to reclaim their lives and ultimately learn to thrive in their “new normal” after sexual assault. When I moved to Southern Oregon I joined with the social service agencies and individuals who were already engaged in working to improve systems of care for survivors. Jackson County SART became a non-profit in 2004 after nearly 4 years of planning with law enforcement, the DAs office, advocacy organizations and our hospitals.

Can you give us a brief overview of your organization and the services you provide with Jackson County SART?

 We provide a variety of free, confidential services for sexual assault survivors:

Free medical care and evidence collection within 7 days of an assault at any county hospital. You do NOT need to report to law enforcement in order to access this care

    • Free confidential support groups for women, youth, LGBTQ+ folks and support for male victims (call or text (541) 625-8089)

    • Free help finding resources for yourself or a friend/family member/client: vrs.sart@outlook.com

    • Prevention education in county schools K-12, and resources addressing sexual violence prevention for parents, school staff and community members: sartprevention@gmail.com

Susan, can you please introduce your team to us? Can you talk about the many different roles that everyone is doing to provide these services to our community?

Providing free acute medical care and forensic exams at our county hospitals, we have our SANE Program Manager Cherrith Young (SANE stands for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) and our 13 SANEs, all of whom work at the hospitals when they are not on-call for the SANE program.

Lezley Sanders and Wendy Anderson are the facilitators for our survivor support group for adult women, Christia Bactista leads our LGBTQ+ survivor support group, Randy Ellison works with male survivors seeking peer support, and Erin Carr runs our confidential youth survivor group.

Erin Carr is also the Resource Specialist for JC SART: she works with advocates and case workers from other social service agencies to help secure resources for survivors they serve, and works directly with survivors who come to us for help finding counseling, medical follow-up care, and housing or financial resources needed after an assault.

Our Prevention Program is headed by Kyndra Laughery and she is supported by our Prevention Educator Claire Harkola; the two of them bring prevention education classes to over 9,000 K-12 students in our county schools as well as educating parents and school staff on sexual violence prevention.

Doing the crucial work of raising money to fund our organization’s free services, including grant management and donor outreach, is Judith Rosen.

What does sexual violence prevention education include?

The prevention education I grew up with was problematic and pretty limited. It assumed that sexual violence was inevitable; that offenders were strangers in dark alleys and that it was a woman’s responsibility to avoid being raped (male and non-binary survivors weren’t even mentioned).

Prevention education today focuses on stopping violence before it begins. It understands that individual behavior change, while important, isn’t enough to bring an end to sexual violence; we also have to understand and change the ways that communities and institutions and the broader culture around us enable – and even encourage – sexual violence. Also, in exploring the root causes of sexual violence, prevention education examines the ways that hate crimes and forms of oppression are root causes of sexual violence.

Please tell us more about your prevention education program.

Our sexual violence prevention program aims to help students understand the social and cultural elements that contribute to the epidemic of sexual violence in our communities. It strives to make them educated and active re-shapers of that culture from an early age. Just as crucially, it educates parents, teachers and administrators how to help.

We use age-appropriate curricula that build on one another in sequence. We work with teachers to introduce concepts that children must understand first: empathy, inclusion, expressing strong emotion without hurting others, asking for help and understanding consent in their interactions with others. These lessons all intersect with the existing social/emotional learning framework that teachers in the area regularly employ, integrating specific ideas and activities that will prepare students for our later classes. Our middle school presentations address sexual harassment, harmful gender stereotypes, healthy and unhealthy relationships and media literacy and introduce intersections with dating and sexual violence, topics we explore in depth in older grades. Our classes emphasize active skills (bystander intervention, peer-to-peer education, saying and receiving a “no”), engaging students in the creation of a healthier peer culture, as well as helping them identify aspects of our culture that promote victim-blaming and create barriers to survivors reporting or seeking help after victimization.

Bringing education to teachers and administrators is another key element of our program. By understanding prevention’s goals and recognizing the dynamics of sexual violence, these adults can support students’ practice of the skills our program imparts within the school community. They can fulfill their obligations as mandatory reporters of sexual violence, enable students’ safe disclosures of abuse, recognize and interrupt unhealthy behaviors, and help change the harmful stereotypes and institutional structures that encourage them.

We also work to expand this kind of understanding and support into the home and the wider community. Parent nights have proven a valuable way to let us hear parents’ needs and concerns; we are also able to talk with them about what we are teaching their children and why these lessons are so crucial. Resource packets encourage parents’ active participation in prevention work, introducing age-appropriate activities for their children that use ideas like consent and suggesting ways of opening up difficult conversations. 

Can you tell us more about the resource packets that can be shared with parents?

People can email us for copies (sartprevention@gmail.com; website downloads are coming! We also offer informational parent nights in each of the school districts our prevention program serves and we have resources we hand out at community events like the recent Ashland Family Fun Fest.

Young people are overwhelmingly learning about how to have sex by watching porn. Please say more.

Yes they are, and unfortunately it’s easy for them to think that the desires and relationships that porn portrays are “real.” In the absence of other, healthier models, porn becomes the norm that young adults feel they must imitate instead of paying attention to their own desires and their partners’. Guys often assume they need to be aggressive in bed and that their partners (especially female partners) will enjoy anything they do; girls often assume they should look like the women they see, should want the same things they do, should respond in the same ways they do. Sexual activity often links violence with sexual gratification. Actual intimacy and active consent don’t get modeled. That’s why helping students think critically about the culture that surrounds them is so crucial, so that when they see porn – and most of them will – they can step back and critically analyze the harmful assumptions and messages it can impart.

Why is sexual violence such a powerful form of violence against victims?

Sexual assault is an overwhelming violation. It takes away people’s sense of control, their selfhood, their joy in their sexuality, their trust. One survivor told me she felt it exterminated her soul. Offenders know the impact of their crime; they choose it because its uniquely personal and intimate nature is more devastating to their victim than a purely physical assault. I can’t forget the offender who said he knew that every time the woman he raped had sex in the future, she would think of him. It’s the ultimate exercise of power over another person.

Knowing this makes us all the more determined to help survivors find ways to reclaim their lives. Our multiple SASH healing groups are one way survivors can get the support they need. Our Resource Specialist has also been invaluable in helping people access trauma-informed counseling and therapeutic bodywork. Life after sexual violence will never be the same, but it can be healed.

What is the reason our society accepts this level of sexual violence?

It’s kind of a perfect storm. On the one hand, we don’t see the extent of the sexual violence that surrounds us. Only a small percentage of survivors ever report what happened to them (in 2016, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 23% did). When church abuse scandals and the #MeToo movement hit, people were shocked by how many survivors, speaking publicly for the first time, had kept their pain hidden for decades.

On the other hand, when a case does come forward that involves people in our community, or people we think we know (like celebrities!), we’re primed to dismiss it: “maybe it was a misunderstanding… if it had really happened she/he would not have…that doesn’t happen HERE…yeah rape is terrible but that wasn’t really rape, right…he has lots of girlfriends, he doesn’t need to rape someone…” We want to find reasons to discredit reports of sexual violence so we feel like it could not happen to us, or someone we love, and no one we know would do something like that.

It is important to understand that perpetrators of sexual violence intentionally choose victims that face barriers to reporting or who may be viewed as “less credible” by society than their offender: this allows offenders to continue to commit these crimes and avoid being held accountable. And it allows us as a society to question whether the reports that actually do come forward are “real.”

Furthermore, when we view aggression and sexual conquest as normal aspects of masculinity and sexual relationships, we learn to see sexual violence as something inevitable in our culture. We cope by minimizing and normalizing that violence to erase it. We even weave the elements that enable it into our cultural definitions of romance: hence the countless romantic comedies that sell coercion as romantic by defining love as the relentless pursuit of someone until they finally give in and stop saying “No.”

I often ask students in our classes: “if 25% of kids were hurt when riding in a school bus, would we put lots of resources into figuring out how to make safer school buses?” Of course we would. And yet we have not yet dedicated ourselves, as a community, to putting our resources towards ending the sexual violence epidemic that harms so many of our members. We need to stop seeing sexual violence as a fact of life and commit instead to learning how to lessen, and one day, even eradicate its existence.

What are the biggest myths and misconceptions that our society holds about sexual assault and violence?

There are so many… The idea that false accusations happen often is certainly one of the biggest ones. The most commonly accepted studies find that 2-8% of sexual assault allegations are false. Since the vast majority of sexual assaults are never reported at all, the percentage of false accusations to actual crimes committed is considerably smaller than this.

Statistically speaking, a man is far more likely to be sexually assaulted than to be accused of it, but the fear of men’s victimization by a false (generally female) accuser completely overwhelms fears of being victimized by an offender. And this fear of the false report dominates our perception of sexual assault cases and survivors as it does with no other crime. A greater percentage of car theft reports turn out to be false (10%), but how many of us respond to a report of a stolen car by assuming the owner is lying?

We also do great harm by not understanding the ways that trauma affects survivors’ behavior. Perversely, things we assume cast obvious and logical doubt on a survivor’s truthfulness are often the very things that support it. Just to name one example: because of the way the brain responds during a traumatic event, survivors often don’t remember basic details like the order of events or what an offender was wearing, and may have acted in seemingly counter-intuitive ways (not screaming, “freezing” rather than fighting back). While these are actually normal responses to experiencing a traumatic event, people often respond with “well if she/he had REALLY been raped they would have…” or “If I were attacked I would have fought back, so it must not have been that bad…”

Another common effect of trauma is “flashbulb” memories and delayed recall of specifics: when a survivor’s repeated accounts of an event are not completely “consistent” it does not mean they are making up details, but it is an effect of how our brain encodes and later recalls memories made during a traumatic incident. It’s interesting that when a police officer has an officer-involved shooting they are usually granted several sleep cycles before undergoing a full interview, and we understand why after the life-threatening incident many will honestly not be able to recall how many times they fired their gun or will give a number that doesn’t match the facts. Such discrepancies testify to the reality of their trauma – but in a sexual assault survivor we see similar “inconsistency” as proof they are lying.

We are working actively to change these perceptions; we partnered to develop a program, You Have Options that has trained law enforcement officers in Jackson County and elsewhere in the country to understand the neurobiology of trauma and how to conduct trauma-informed interviews. But until this knowledge spreads more widely in the general population, it’s always worth remembering that what seems like behavior that casts doubt on whether a person was “really” raped (like why they wait to come forward or why they might maintain apparently friendly contact with an offender) is a reflection of the very normal workings of the brain during and after a traumatic event.

How do stereotypes keep victims silent?

Unfortunately the myths we’ve just talked about affect everyone, including friends and family members, law enforcement officers, juries and judges. I’ve seen this happen not just once, but multiple times: a survivor has been kidnapped, beaten up, strangled and raped; the jury convicts the offender on the first three charges, but they don’t convict him of rape. With crimes involving sex, a victim’s credibility is always in doubt. Victims thinking about coming forward know this. They know the attacks they will face in public, in court and on social media – all at a time when they’re still deeply in trauma. Offenders amplify this disbelief, often selecting people who are especially vulnerable and even less likely to be believed.

Myths and stereotypes affect survivors powerfully too. It can take years for someone to work through shame and self-blame and come to terms with what happened to them. And offenders, so often people whom survivors know and trust, exploit their resulting shock and confusion. They make survivors feel guilty for thinking that the friend or lover or priest or coach or teacher who hurt them is a bad person, and make them question whether they somehow “did something to make this happen to me.”

We are all responsible for survivors’ silence. The more hopeful flip side is that we can all be responsible for helping create a community where survivors feel safe and supported enough to ask for help.

What are other barriers that prevent people from coming forward?

To mention just three among many, in addition to the things we’ve talked about…

  • The sense of shame and violation of privacy. Choosing to inflict harm of a sexual nature is very intentional on the part of the offender, who knows this makes it especially hard for a survivor to publicly disclose and have to detail what they’ve been through.
  • Sometimes survivors believe that in order to get help they have to report to law enforcement. Going through the criminal justice system can be a lengthy and emotionally grueling process, and many people already in trauma can’t imagine coping with more. But no one has to report their assault in order to access our services. We have made anonymous evidence collection available to all survivors who receive our acute care, so that they can preserve that evidence and decide about reporting (or not reporting) when they feel ready; law enforcement agencies like the Ashland Police Department who follow the You Have Options model will let survivors control the extent and timing of the investigation into a reported sexual assault (see ReportingOptions.org for more information on the program).
  • Just as we tend to blame victims, we tend to believe offenders, especially when we know them. We want to think that a sexual offender is easily identifiable. We want to believe we can know people and therefore know what they are – and are not – capable of. So we see success and charm and “goodness” as signs a person could never commit violence. Yet offenders frequently groom their community with their charm and success and good nature to ensure people’s trust, which creates both their alibi and their opportunity. As a result, I hear over and over again when someone from our community is accused that “I know him and there’s no way he could do this.” Or, chillingly in the case of a child abuser with multiple offenses: “He would never do that. He’s so good with children.” It’s precisely because he’s so good with children that he’s able to do what he does to them and repeatedly get away with it. And it’s precisely why, when combined with the doubt most accusers face, that out of every 1,000 sexual assaults committed, fewer than 5 offenders will ever serve jail time. With the visibility of the #MeToo movement we’re witnessing more theoretical support for victims and more discussions about power dynamics between offenders and victims, but that does not necessarily translate into support for local survivors when they come forward and say one of our friends, family members or local “celebrities” has harmed them; it is far easier for us to support and believe and support someone whose assailant is an unidentified stranger, or someone unknown to us – and perpetrators of sexual violence are well aware of this.

Susan, how should we as parents, friends, and society respond to reports of sexual violence?

There are two really important things we can do. The first has to do with supporting a survivor who comes to you. If someone discloses what happened to them, that’s a sign of trust that you will help them and keep their confidence. You do not need to know the details of what happened in order to support them, nor do you need to “fix” them. Just listen to what they are willing to tell you, and respond with a simple “I’m so sorry this happened to you. What can I do to help?” This lets the person know that you believe them and you are there for them. If they do want help, know some places they can turn. The “Find Help” section of our website explain options and describes resources, including our free, 24/7 acute care at every Jackson County hospital for survivors who are within 7 days of an assault, our free support groups and the free services of our Resource Specialist. Community Works’ HelpLine offers confidential 24/7 support at (541) 779-4357.

The second thing has to do with your response to reports of sexual violence in the news or social media or just in conversation. Be aware of the snap judgments about credibility that are easy to make based on minimal information or stereotypes or a misunderstanding of how trauma affects victims’ behavior: “he would never do that,” “why did she wait so long to come forward,” “she sounds too calm to be a victim,” “she couldn’t even describe what he was wearing”. Be conscious too, that many of us don’t want to believe that sexual violence is as common as it is, so we look for reasons to disbelieve a survivor of sexual assault instead of focusing on the alleged perpetrator and how they are intentionally manipulating stereotypes and societal norms to get away with their crimes. While every case is different, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of reports of sexual violence are true, and the biggest problem is the fact that most survivors still do not feel safe coming forward for help after experiencing sexual violence.

Susan, thank you and your entire team for your work to build a stronger and healthier community here in Southern Oregon.

And thank you for this chance to tell our community about our services for survivors and our prevention work.

Susan, do you have any last thoughts or comments you might like to share with our readers today?

Just something I can’t emphasize enough: there is help and there is healing, and there is the possibility of change. Everyone reading this can make a difference – for survivors, for our children, for ourselves.

 

Learn More:
Jackson County SART
2305 Ashland Street, C-418, Ashland OR 97520
www.JacksonCountySART.org
(541) 840-0904 (9am – 5pm)