Sexual assault advocates stress awareness in community
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — With the increase of sexual assault survivors across a range of industries such as politics, broadcasting and entertainment sharing their stories on national news outlets and social media, local victim advocates believe that community awareness has become more important than ever.
Wendy Page, community educator and advocate for Aroostook Mental Health Center’s Sexual Assault Services, said Wednesday that the agency does not have full data regarding the average amount of people they serve, due to their three service areas in Aroostook, Hancock and Washington counties. But she does attribute recent national awareness of sexual assault cases as a major reason why more victims, particularly women, might feel more compelled to come forward with their experiences.
“I think one of the biggest issues is that people want to be believed, whether the incident happened today or five years ago,” Page said. “So when they hear about more and more people who have come forward and are believed, that can empower them to come forward. And if they haven’t come forward, that could mean they just aren’t ready.”
Many victims who do not come forward right away, Page said, make that decision because a supervisor or co-worker is the perpetrator of the sexual harassment. In those situations, the perpetrator can use their power to threaten the victim’s job security or opportunities for advancement if they do not consent to sexual favors. Recent famous cases of workplace sexual harassment include allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, TV journalist Charlie Rose and former Today show host Matt Lauer.
Page recommends that individuals who experience sexual harassment at their workplace keep a written account of all incidents and find out the best person within their company with whom to submit a complaint. Through her work at AMHC, she has helped people through the process of filing a formal complaint and/or protection order, seeking out their company’s Equal Employment Opportunity Officer and seeking legal services if they chose to press charges.
Other services that Page and her co-workers offer at AMHC include accompaniment to medical appointments and legal proceedings, support groups for both women and men, school-based education for pre-K through grade 12 students and trainings for community members and employers.
“Sexual assault is about a difference in power whether the perpetrator is a person’s boss or co-worker, teacher or family member,” Page said. “Our job is to educate the community, believe the victims and help them through the process of coming forward.”
Like Page, Angel Gilberti, program director for the Aroostook Band of Micmacs Domestic and Sexual Violence Advocacy Center, has been glad to hear about more awareness of sexual assault, especially during the “#MeToo” social media campaign. But she also likes to emphasize that even with increased support of victims, some might still be afraid that no one will believe them if they speak out.
“I still find on social media that some people will post comments like ‘Oh, I can’t believe it. He’s such a nice guy,’ and they’ll stand up for the person who’s accused instead of the victim,” Gilberti said. “There’s been a lot of progress made in terms of awareness, but there’s still the issue of victim-blaming.”
Gilberti said that she takes seriously the role that her program plays in educating the Micmac community in Presque Isle. The center provides sexual assault awareness trainings annually for employees of the Micmac administrative offices and also hosts community-wide trainings such as “How to Recognize Domestic Violence in the Workplace.”
For victims, Gilberti and two other advocates at the Micmac center provide assistance to individuals who seek legal or medical resources, offer weekly support groups and operate a confidential 24/7 hotline: (207) 551-3639. Being in a small, close-knit community, Gilberti said, has helped more individuals become supportive toward friends and family members who might have experiences sexual assault.
“The first step is to believe victims and listen to them,” Gilberti said. “How they want to deal with the situation is up to them, but initially they might just want somebody to listen.”
To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine. Calls are automatically routed to the closest sexual violence service provider.