We don't want to see the people in our own lives as capable of hurting us and the people we care about. It's easier to view people as simply a good person or a bad person rather than understand that the people we love and care about can engage in behavior that is harmful or hurtful. —Alana Kindness, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault
SALT LAKE CITY — Glade Ellingson walked along the display of more than 70 brightly colored and decorated T-shirts hung by clothespins near the University of Utah Union ballroom.
Every so often Ellingson, a psychologist at the University Counseling Center, reached down to spread out a shirt and read its message:
"You deserve not to be hurt anymore."
"You're not worth the tears I cried. I can now heal."
"I forgive you, Chris. You're [sic] little sis. — It's time to forgive yourself now."
The shirts, part of the Clothesline Project, are a small representation of the hundreds of thousands of rape and sexual assault victims across the country each year.
“Unfortunately, I hear these stories too often," Ellingson said. "It reinforces for me in a tangible way some of the struggles and some of the accounts I hear in a professional capacity.”
The Clothesline Project is part of a new effort to change the dialogue on sexual assault and rape to empower women toward prevention and educate men on what it really means to be a man, turning away from aggression and physical strength and promoting character-based, anti-violence characteristics.
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is focused on rape and sexual assault as a public health issue and has begun identifying the risk factors for assault as it seeks ways to ward off rape and assault, much in the way one would fight a disease.
Nearly one in five women and one in 71 men say they have been raped at some point in their lives in the United States, and half of all women and one in five men report that they have experienced sexual violence victimization at some point, according to the CDC in its National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.
Sexual assault includes rape and attempted rape, as well as any “attacks or attempted attacks generally involving unwanted sexual contact between victim and offender,” according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Verbal threats may also qualify as sexual assault in some cases.
The survey measured responses from more than 9,000 women and almost 7,500 men in the United States.
Researchers have shown risk factors that contribute to both perpetrating and risk for becoming a victim. They include violent, strongly patriarchal and emotionally unsupportive family environments, poverty, violence witnessed as a child and history of sexual abuse as a child.
The Rape Recovery Center in Utah has a hotline, counseling and group therapy for men and women who have been victims of sexual violence.
The Rape Recovery Center is also reaching out to high school and middle school students throughout Salt Lake County to teach them about healthy relationships in an effort to prevent perpetuating what is being called a rape culture. The idea is to educate young men and women while they are young to learn healthy relationship patterns such as boundary setting and accepting.
“It builds on the understanding that people have the right to have their own autonomy and they have the right to their own boundaries,” Holly Mullen, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center, said.
Men and boys in groups such as the Men’s Anti-Violence Network are redesigning what it means to be a man. The group is trying to de-emphasize violence and encourages men to take a leadership role in promoting respect.
Ned Searle, co-founder of the Men’s Anti-violence Network, said the group is encouraging men throughout Utah to place respect and compassion as relationship priorities, and realize that they can influence others through words and actions. They are reaching out to men on college campuses throughout the state with the idea that they can encourage men to become involved in defending others against violence, including sexual violence.
“MAN’s message is that the 'boys will be boys message' is inappropriate, and I believe that it is destructive,” Searle said.
Instead, the group helps men learn how to be loved and to love, to practice empathy and inclusion and accept the responsibility to stand up for others who are being abused.
Most people do not realize that most sexual abuse of children is committed by a family member, said Alana Kindness, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Most assaults are by someone known — an acquaintance, or someone they’re dating or in a relationship with.
“We don’t want to see the people in our own lives as capable of hurting us and the people we care about,” Kindness said. “It’s easier to view people as simply a good person or a bad person rather than understand that the people we love and care about can engage in behavior that is harmful or hurtful.”
She compares someone who has been sexually assaulted to a person who chooses to drive a car. Someone can wear a seat belt and drive carefully, but it does not protect them against getting hit by another driver. And if they do get hit, they are not responsible for the actions of the person who hit them.
“Part of what perpetuated is the desire that if we behave a certain way then we will be safe and our family will be safe, rather than recognize that you could make all of the best decisions and do everything you can do reduce your risk and you still might be vulnerable,” Kindness said.
The convictions of Ma'lik Richmond and Trent Mays last month for raping a 16-year-old girl in Stubenville, Ohio, and further conviction of Mays for distributing a nude photo of the victim have drawn attention to a culture of rape and sexual assault and the need to fight against it.
The investigation included the testimony of three friends of the co-defendants who saw them rape the girl, prompting many to ask why no one intervened.
The Clothesline Project is one way of bringing the dialogue about such incidents into the open and revealing the impact rape and assault can have. It was held at the University of Utah on Monday and Tuesday as part of Sexual Assault Awareness month.