Speaking Your Truth

 

By Sunny Cook

 

OUR VOICE, a crisis intervention and prevention agency, is one more reason to feel fortunate to live in Asheville.

 

Anne Heck was not so fortunate to have such a resource when she was raped in Virginia in 1990.

 

She was a young teacher that year, riding her bike on a beautiful, warm summer day on a picturesque country road. When the pavement before her turned to gravel, she got off her bike to walk it past the stretch. A car pulled up and the man asked for directions. She turned to get her map, and turned back to find his fist in her face, breaking her teeth and bloodying her mouth. He then dragged her into the bushes where he forced himself on her.

 

Our VOICE staff, left to right: Papillon (counseling intern), Stefanie Gonzales (client services coordinator), Melanie Gordon-Calabrese LPC (counselor), Angelica R. Wind, J.D. (executive director), Leah Rubinsky, MA (prevention ed. coordinator), Dearing Davis, LCSW (counselor), Daniel Lee (volunteer coordinator).

Our VOICE staff, left to right: Papillon (counseling intern), Stefanie Gonzales (client services coordinator), Melanie Gordon-Calabrese LPC (counselor), Angelica R. Wind, J.D. (executive director), Leah Rubinsky, MA (prevention ed. coordinator), Dearing Davis, LCSW (counselor), Daniel Lee (volunteer coordinator).

When the police found her, they took her to the hospital where her clothes were taken to gather forensic evidence. A priest arrived “to forgive her for her sins.” As the survivor who had just been raped and traumatized, she felt it was inappropriate and asked him to leave. With her swollen mouth and broken teeth, and dressed in a thin, open-backed hospital gown, the police took her back to the scene of the crime to re-enact the event and gather evidence.

 

For years following her attack, Heck suffered from debilitating post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which would unexpectedly make her heart race, and make her gasp for breath to the point of passing out. This disorder is commonly associated with traumatized war veterans, but her symptoms were exactly the same. “Talk therapy never worked for me,” Heck says, “but another type of therapy we offer at Our VOICE did.”

 

Thanks to Our VOICE, an Asheville nonprofit organization, any local survivor of sexual violence older than age 13 would have a very different experience from the one Heck endured in Virginia.

 

Here, the police and hospital personnel would immediately call Our VOICE. The organization would then dispatch a trained advocate to the hospital to support the survivor. The advocate would arrive with a “hospital bag,” containing a toothbrush, a change of clothes, and a handmade Nourish the Soul Postcard expressing compassionate care.

 

The advocate is trained in proper verbal expression for the situation, and focuses solely on the needs of the survivor while he or she is so disoriented from the trauma. The survivor may feel distressed that somehow they were to blame for the situation, especially if drugs or alcohol were involved. The advocate supports the individual in either the hospital or court setting, and helps him or her understand that sexual violence is not the fault of the victim. Ever.

 

Daniel Lee, the Our VOICE advocate trainer, says he is amazed at how often female survivors feel that they somehow deserved the crime committed against them. “Every single person on the planet deserves respect,” Lee says. “No one deserves sexual violence.”

 

An American woman is more likely to experience sexual violence in her life than breast cancer. One in five will experience sexual violence; one in eight, breast cancer. The risk for sexual violence is actually even higher due to many unreported cases.

 

In fact, this is not exclusively a female issue. One in six men will experience sexual violence at some point in their lives as well. And that number, experts agree, is vastly underreported, due to the stigma men feel in coming forward to speak about it.

 

“I was never raped,” Lee says. “I got involved in this work because a girl I dated in school confided that she and generations of women in her family had been sexually abused by her grandfather. That really affected me that they all silently knew what he did, and knew not to leave their children alone with him, but they never talked about it.”

 

Silence allows sexual abuse to continue. That silence is what Our VOICE seeks to change. Their theme is “starting conversations.”

 

When you consider all the national talk about breast cancer, and contrast that to the nearly nonexistent conversations about sexual violence, the difference is obvious. Our VOICE aims to break down the barriers to talking about this topic that affects so many.

 

Heck, who now serves on the nonprofit organization’s board of directors, says these conversations are essential.

 

“We must start those conversations early,” Heck says. “When I taught these concepts to elementary children, I would ask them, ‘Where’s your body box?’ This helped them think about their body’s physical boundaries. Children have a right to their own space, and they have a right to speak up when someone doesn’t feel right or safe for them.”

 

Many parents are unaware that males are just as much at risk for sexual violence as females.

 

John Doe* grew up in a family in which the four boys and their sister were sexually molested by their stepfather for years. The stepfather’s public persona was that of an upstanding church volunteer who married the widow with five small children. He often volunteered to take the Bible study children on camping trips. Such a good man, everyone thought.

 

That “good man” was a predator who counted on his public image and the silence of his young victims to protect him.

 

“Children know, they definitely know when something doesn’t feel right or safe for them,” Heck asserts. “They just don’t know how to verbalize it. Listen with extra sensitivity to what they are trying to say. Help them identify safe adults whom they know they can talk to, who will listen, understand, and know what the child needs.”

 

“Men and boys especially underreport this crime,” says Lee. “There’s a lot of stigma in our society surrounding male survivors of sexual violence. They believe they should just tough it out, so they hide it.”

 

Sometimes only in mid-life, will survivors of childhood sexual violence have painful memories resurface to be acknowledged and healed.

 

In John Doe’s case, the first time his siblings realized they had all been abused by their stepfather was when they were in their forties. His sister began the family conversation. Their mother had never known.

 

Our VOICE is unique, because a sexual violence survivor can receive counseling and support at any point in their life. “We have many men that come in for counseling,” Lee says, “long after the event took place.”

 

Silence perpetuates this darkness, but conversations stop the cycle by shining the light of awareness on the issue. Our VOICE programs and events, such as Walk a Mile Asheville, help initiate these important conversations in schools and the larger community.

 

“In junior high, we offer Teen Tech Safety,” Lee says, “which educates kids that inappropriate sexual photos naively posted on social media, can spread fast on the Internet, and may wind up in the hands of pornographers. Kids need to understand technology and the unexpected, harmful outcomes that their online activities may cause.”

 

“For high school students, we offer a healthy dating workshop, where we teach what is appropriate behavior and what is not,” Lee says. “We explore the differences between flirting (mutually enjoyed by both) and sexual harassment (not mutual). We help them see what consent is, and what it isn’t.”

 

Programs for college students are “a bit racier,” Lee says. They ‘know’ about sex, but they still have lots of confusion surrounding it, especially with messages they constantly get from the media. But they still need to understand consent, disrespect and the spectrum of violence. “Unwanted touch or attention of a sexual nature is something they can all understand,” Lee says.

 

Lee explains that the training helps students become more well-rounded human beings. “It helps them develop listening skills and makes them more whole.”

 

A tidal wave of unhealthy behavior is depicted in the media, which constantly bombards kids with persuasive messages. Lee sees kids acting out those cold, hard, mean, objectifying behaviors in the hallways of the schools he visits. “I tell them, ‘Man, going in that direction will only create a lonely world for yourself. You’ll miss out on all the warmth of community.’ ”

 

Our VOICE’s prevention, education and outreach programs are rooted in the belief that sexual violence is a cultural problem, and we must challenge the so-called “benign” norms in order to make progress.

 

Twenty-three years ago, Anita Hill, a young law professor, challenged, calmly and eloquently, the sexual harassment she had endured while working for Justice Clarence Thomas before he was appointed to the Supreme Court. By speaking her truth, she sparked a national conversation about the topic of workplace sexual harassment. She broke the silence about that form of sexual violence.

 

The spectrum of sexual violence spans a continuum that begins with disrespectful attitudes, and culminates, at its most extreme, in physical violence.

 

To illustrate, Our VOICE offers this infographic on their website:

 

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

In addition to the many educational programs they provide, Our VOICE also offers affordable counseling services. “Anyone affected by sexual violence, either directly or by being close to someone else affected by it, can receive counseling,” Heck says.

 

One of the programs provided is the Sex Workers Outreach – Kelly’s Line. It offers support for those who are among the most invisible and marginalized in our society.

 

Another unique offering is The Bar Outreach Program, which aims to prevent date rape by educating bar workers. Seventy-five percent of date and acquaintance rape involves alcohol or drug use by the assailant, and trained bar and restaurant workers can help reduce incidents in their establishments. This curriculum has been so successful that it affords the nonprofit a stream of income, as the program is purchased by other organizations nationwide.
On September 4th, Our VOICE just celebrated its 40th year. Anita Hill was the keynote speaker to a packed Diana Wortham Theatre audience.

 

Lee recalls, “Anita was wonderful. She was fiery, funny, eloquent, and traced how far we’ve come through the decades. It was a historical moment in the theater that night. People walked away aglow, certain that this progress would carry through the hearts and minds of our community and beyond.”

 

Providing coverage for 24/7 phone and advocate support requires coordinating numerous dedicated people. The organization has more than 50 volunteers for their many programs. Ninety-five percent of the volunteer advocates are women.

 

Lee says, “For many rape survivors, giving back is part of their healing process. But if we can reach men and they ‘get it,’ and they’re educating others, then I feel we’re successful. It’s one thing for them to show up, but another for them to get involved – it takes a special kind of man who does that.”

 

As Our VOICE seeks new volunteers and board members, it plans to continue inspiring conversations until we have a healthy society for all.

 

* John Doe (not his real name) was not an Our Voice client, but someone known by the author many years ago.

 

For more about Our VOICE, visit www.ourvoicenc.org or call the 24-hour crisis line at (828) 255-7576.

 


 

Sunny Cook is an Asheville writer and editor who appreciates inspirational true stories. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

 

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