Sexual Violence Prevention Programs Enlist Bystanders

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(Host) Last November, the Centers for Disease Control released a survey about sexual violence that showed rape and stalking are serious problems.

And sexual violence prevention programs in Vermont have changed to do something about it.

VPR’s Charlotte Albright recently sat in on some of the programs in the Upper Valley.

(Albright) The latest statistics are stark. According to the CDC’s 2010 survey, nearly three in ten women and one in ten men have experienced rape, physical violence, and or stalking by an intimate partner.

Since many people do not report these crimes, the number of victims is probably even higher.

At a recent community forum in Woodstock, Sarah Kenney of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence put what she called "an epidemic" in perspective.

(Kenney) "If we had a virus that was impacting that many people in our communities we would all be washing our hands every five minutes and yet we’ve had such a difficult time historically making headway,  in terms of putting the kinds of resources that we need to into preventing something that’s really impacting incredible numbers of people in our communities."

(Albright) Kenney says Vermont’s statistics more or less mirror the national data. So several communities are trying to attack the problem by changing the way they teach young people about sexual relationships. 

On a recent morning in Hanover High School, Kate Rohdenburg greets sophomores at the door of their health classroom. She’s prevention and education coordinator for a non-profit group called WISE of the Upper Valley.

Dressed like a lot of the students in jeans and multiple earrings, she quickly builds rapport and punctuates Powerpoint slides with blunt questions about sex.

(Rohdenburg) "It’s my responsibility before I do something sexual to make sure it’s OK with that other person. Right? How might you do that?"

(Albright) "Communication?" one student ventures shyly.

"Right, ask them," Rohdenburg says.

But she says most sexual partners don’t explicitly do that. The 15-year-olds learn what to do if they are assaulted, how to listen to stories about sexual coercion or violence, and how to intervene when they see or hear something disturbing.

(Rohdenburg) "There’s no such thing as an innocent bystander. If you do nothing, if we sort of think that we don’t want to know about it, we don’t want to see it, we don’t want to know about it, you are actually helping people perpetrate because you are letting them get away with it."

(Albright) Rohdenburg says the focus on bystanders represents a big shift in preventing sexual violence.

Until recently, she says, the pressure in education was on perpetrators to stop themselves, or victims to stop them. Yet they are the two people least likely to take those steps.

Now, she says, in addition to holding perpetrators accountable, she wants to empower kids to report not just acts of violence, but seemingly less serious offenses like inappropriate language or stereotyping. That message got through to 15-year-old Evie Keating.

(Keating) "Stuff like ‘slut’ and ‘homo’ and derogatory terms like that are really unfortunate and I feel like that makes people seem weaker than men."

(Albright) Rhodenburg says such insults create the imbalance of power that underlies most sexual violence, which victimizes many more women than men.

And she says if bystanders are complacent, statistics will continue to tell a troubling story.  

For VPR News, I’m Charlotte Albright.

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