Monday, February 26, 2024

For Sexual Assault Awareness Month, DASACC Advocates for a Hard but Necessary Conversation

The lawn signs that line the fence of Shappell Park in Phillipsburg are hard to read. It’s not a problem with the font; it’s the messages.

Each sign quotes a sexual assault victim explaining why they did not report their assault to the police. Printed in plain dark letters on a white background, their bleakness is almost unbearable.

“I didn’t report because there were lots of people there and no one helped me then – why would they help me now?” –Latoya

“I didn’t report because I didn’t want to admit I lost my virginity in such a violent way.” –Vicky

“I didn’t report because the perpetrators run this town.” –Natasha

The signs surround the park, stretching into an endless line. They’re complemented by a long clothesline of t-shirts, each decorated with a handwritten message like “Silence makes you sick” and “I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor.” The sheer number of t-shirts and signs can take a passerby through an array of emotions: anger, despair, grief, helplessness. It would be easier to look away.

This is why the Domestic Abuse & Sexual Assault Crisis Center (DASACC) hosts the 100 to 1 and Clothesline Projects every spring. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). With its month-long series of events, DASACC hopes to spread awareness and education about a topic that many find too uncomfortable to face, even as it continues to affect people of all genders, races, and ages.

“We’ve had the same numbers since the 80s,” says Hailey Fritzsch, DASACC’s Capacity
Building & Advocacy Senior Manager. “It’s still so pervasive. So something needs to be done.”

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest
organization dedicated to ending sexual violence, one out of every six American women and one out of every 33 American men will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.

The exact numbers vary by source, complicated by the fact that sexual assault is notoriously underreported. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center estimates that 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to law enforcement. That number rises to 88% in the case of sexual abuse against children. For the reasons why, read the signs of the 100 to 1 Project, which takes its name from the fact that less than 1% of sexual assaults will lead to convictions.

The staff of DASACC know all too well that sexual violence persists in Warren County. In fact, reports of domestic violence and sexual assault spiked sharply during the pandemic.

But it would be a misconception to assume that the pandemic caused an increase in sexual
violence, says Fritzsch. “Violence didn’t increase during COVID,” she explains. “What it did was escalate already happening domestic violence situations, increase the lethality and the red flags and the immediate danger because of the proximity. So we had more people reporting versus people… before who were just able to get away.”

Fritzsch estimates that DASACC’s service needs increased by 300% during Covid. In the case of emergency housing, the agency went from running one shelter with a capacity of fifteen people to housing sixty to seventy people per night with the addition of hotel partnerships.

So DASACC organized this year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month with a special intensity: an awareness of the pressing need for funds and resources to address sexual violence, including community education and outreach.

This year’s theme, as chosen by the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NJCASA),
centered on equity. Intersectionality is central to an effective response, since some populations are more at risk of sexual violence.

Cindy Sizemore, DASACC’s Community Education Coordinator, noted DASACC’s sustained efforts to be more inclusive in their staffing and services. “We have a deaf advocate,” she says. “We have bilingual counselors. We have counselors for family and children, elders. We have a great staff to help. We can always do more, always. We’re never done and we’re never satisfied.”

The agency has hosted several events for SAAM already, including two Coffee and
Conversation discussions, several installations of the Clothesline Project, and a Teal Tuesdays Initiative. Teal Tuesday urges supporters to wear teal ribbons to raise awareness about sexual violence.

On Thursday, April 14th, DASACC partnered with Centenary University’s Office of Survivor
Support and Violence Prevention (SSVP) to host a Take Back the Night rally. It’s Centenary’s first time holding the event in-person since the pandemic.

Conceived by the international feminist movement of the 1970s, Take Back the Night draws
attention to the prevalence of sexual violence against people of all identities. In the tradition of Take Back the Night events at college campuses around the world, Centenary’s rally included speakers, artistic performance, a march through the darkened campus shouting empowering slogans and an ending vigil.

Sofia Senesie and Carolyn Stoner each read original poetry at the rally. Why poetry at a protest against sexual violence?

Because “poetry really, at its core, can say things in a way that normal speech or prose can’t get at,” Stoner says. “It uses those abstractions… to make really poignant moments. And it’s kind of similar to music in the way that it gets at this piece of you that’s really hard to touch without an artistic or creative spin on it.”

In her poem, Senesie used that artistic spin to channel the underlying theme of the event with its loudspeakers and group chants: “Take back your silence unto yourself. It is the greatest violence.”

Fritzsch spoke next, drawing on her six years of working for DASACC: “After all these years
doing this work, we can say we demand change, accountability and justice,” she said.

Gloria M. Rispoli, Assistant Prosecutor of Warren County, spoke as well, explaining the options available to students who were experiencing or knew someone who had experienced sexual violence.

The presence of law enforcement isn’t necessarily common at Take Back the Night
events. According to RAINN, fear of judgment or shaming by police is the second most common reason given for not reporting sexual victimization.

Rispoli knows this well. “Certainly, I think across the country, people are reporting feeling a
disconnect between law enforcement and the community,” she said. “But I do think that… our office and the other local police departments are trying to bridge that gap. And that’s what’s super important to our office. And that’s why it was super important for us to be here tonight.”

After a skit by Omega Rho Fraternity, Delta Xi Nu Multicultural Soririty, and the Lambda Sigma Upsilon Latino Fraternity, attendees grabbed the bullhorn and set off on their march. Simpdy Merelan, Director of Centenary’s SSVP, was pleased with the turnout and looks forward to an even bigger event next year.

DASACC has two events remaining for SAAM. April 26th is Denim Day. The day
commemorates the decision of an Italian judge, who overturned a rape conviction because he believed the victim’s jeans were too tight to remove nonconsensually. Participants wear jeans to defy the victim-blaming mindset that holds victims responsible for their own ssaults.

On Saturday, April 29th at the Crossbar in Phillipsburg, DASACC is supporting a spoken
word event organized by Crystal Montgomery, a Certified Sexual Violence Advocate and
founder of the group Victims2Warriors. Montgomery founded the group in April 2021 as part of her own healing journey. As a child and then later as an adult, she had experienced sexual violence but had never received therapy or recovery resources. Then, in 2021, she learned that sexual assault had affected her family member, too.

“So I was trying to find an outlet for myself and for my family,” Montgomery says. “I realized that I had to deal with my own trauma in order to help my family. How do I help my family if I haven’t helped myself?”

Trauma therapists and support groups proved difficult to find locally. So, Montgomery took to the internet, teaching herself about the nature of trauma and tools and practices for recovery.

“I said, you know what? I’m gonna do what I can do with my family,” she remembers. “And we’re going to extend it to the community because I feel like nobody talks about this enough. There’s a lot of shaming behind it. There’s not enough support behind it.”

The culture of victim-blaming, shaming, and disbelief worsens the trauma of sexual assault, in Montgomery’s experience. She began the group first as a private Facebook page, then as a public Facebook and Instagram page. When people find the group, many of them are relieved simply to find a community where they are supported and believed.

Montgomery carefully considered the name of the group. She firmly believes that word choices matter. “I try very hard not to use the word victim,” she explains. “Because yes, we are victimized. But I don’t believe that we stay victims forever. And I want individuals that have experienced this to not think of themselves as victims, but to think of themselves as survivors. They lived through that. And they could continue to live and thrive.”

The group hosts online discussions and resource recommendations, offering a supporting environment for people to feel heard. In previous years, Montgomery has hosted a speaker for SAAM. This is the first year that she’s hosting a spoken word event, after only recently writing her first spoken word piece herself.

Her work with Victims2Warriors and fellow survivors has proved not only healing, but
transformative. “What I have been doing has helped me tremendously because I get to use my voice,” Montgomery says. “I get to use my voice for myself. And I get to use my voice and speak for others. And it’s empowering… the fact that I can go in and provide individuals with hope and a safe place to talk.”

DASACC’s work to combat sexual and domestic violence may never truly end. Yet they pursue the work with persistence. This year, Fritzsch is working with the NJ Coalition to End Domestic Violence to advocate for eight new bills introduced in the state’s last legislative cycle targeting domestic violence. The agency is always working to find more funds, resources, and volunteers to meet the increased demand for services, a demand that has not fallen since the pandemic.

Yet the most significant way to help survivors is in everyone’s reach, according to Cindy
Sizemore: “You believe them,” she says. “That’s the first thing. Just believe them.”

Chip O'Chang
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.