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How Do We Address Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence?

Anna Saphphire via Flickr

There’s no “typical” abuser. There’s no “typical” victim. Domestic violence and sexual abuse happen everywhere.

“It doesn’t matter what you drive, what you do for a living, how many kids you have, what neighborhood you live in, we receive calls from every single ZIP code in the entire St. Louis metropolitan area,” said Susan Kidder, executive director of Safe Connections. “Abuse is happening no matter where one lives.”

Safe Connections works to prevent and end domestic and sexual violence. The organization focuses on crisis intervention; therapy and support groups for women and teen boys and girls; and prevention education.

“Domestic violence is a pattern — a pattern of coercion and a pattern of control. It comes in many forms. It can be physical, which is probably the most readily known to the general public, but also verbal, emotional, sexual abuse, and also now technological abuse.”

Most victims are women: “Eighty-five percent of the time, it’s women who are the victims, and not always the survivors, of violence from men,” she said.

But the issue is not as simple as men versus women.

“Most of the men in St. Louis are fathers, grandfathers, husbands, brothers, boyfriends,” said Cindy Malott, crisis intervention coordinator at YWCA of St. Louis. “They’re not perpetrators. They don’t accept that behavior.”

Similar to Safe Connections, the YWCA’s Women’s Resource Center focuses on crisis intervention; education; and outreach and therapy.

“Bringing males in as allies I think is the important thing,” she said.

The College Influence

College-age women are at the highest risk for sexual assault, Malott said. She said victims often have a false sense of safety and security. And there’s alcohol.

“We know the number one thing used to facilitate a sexual assault is alcohol,” Malott said. “It’s important for us to realize young people are going to make decisions, sometimes bad decisions, and drink under age. But sometimes the victims will take that as the reason that it was OK for them to be raped and sexually assaulted. And absolutely not. It really just made them more vulnerable to a perpetrator.”

Safe Connections’ college program focuses on creating a “culture of consent,” Kidder said, “because sexual contact without consent is rape.”

There are also complaints about how colleges handle assault.

“I think a lot of our colleges and universities locally are starting to look at the issue and starting to really try to improve their response to victims of sexual assault on campus, but accountability, I think, is the really important thing,” Kidder said.

That accountability includes a system of transparency, including making sure victims have accurate and clear information on how to report assault, and have a program in place to respond to victims that includes trained investigators.

After working to reduce problems with sexual assault in the military, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., turned her attention to colleges in April. Three months later she sponsored a bill to address sexual violence at colleges

“Right now, the way things stand, I think that there is accountability in myth and not necessarily in practice,” Malott said. “The penalties are to such an extreme that it would be almost impossible to, without devastating universities and affecting students as well as faculty and staff, to implement basic accountability.”

The bill also would connect victims with community sexual assault centers and advocates.

“An advocate’s job is never to say ‘This is what you need to do,’ but to make sure these young people — in a lot of cases they are young people — have the information they need at least to make a decision about how they want to go forward, to understand the process and what the options are,” Malott said.

Malott said legislation alone will not solve the problem. Instead, she said we need to approach it “legislatively, culturally and individually.”

The NFL Influence

In a detailed letter last week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced sweeping changes to the league’s personal conduct policy regarding assault and domestic violence. First offense: Suspension without pay for six games. Second offense: Banished from the NFL for one year.

The changes brought attention to sexual assault and domestic violence on a national scale, which Kidder said “cannot be anything but positive.” The NFL has a lot of influence, she said, especially among young adult men and boys.

But blaming the violent nature of the sport for a player’s behavior is “an excuse,” Malott said. Many people deal with violence and intense stress as part of their jobs, she said: “It’s not an excuse to bring that home.”

Surviving Abuse

“A bone will heal. A black eye will heal. But the breaking of one’s spirit and soul takes sometimes a longer time to heal and can be just … as devastating,” Kidder said.

Working with abuse victims means working through blame.

“Self-blame is definitely the No. 1 thing that we have to work through,” Malott said.

There also may be attempts to blame the victim, which Kidder said “is not helpful, is not productive, is not really the accurate question. The accurate question is ‘Why doesn’t he stop abusing?’ ”

More Information

St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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