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Changing the conversation: Words carry power in sexual, domestic assault discussions

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Changing the conversation: Words carry power in sexual, domestic assault discussions
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FARGO — Women with short hair are not common targets of sexual assault.

Carrying an umbrella can stop a potential perpetrator.

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These myths and others about sexual assault are found in the viral article, “Through a Rapist’s Eyes.”

The 16-point list and similar documents have circulated cyberspace for more than a decade, disseminating statements supposedly gathered through interviews with rapists in prison.

Many of the tips in the document are more damaging than helpful, said Sarah Dodd, the assistant director of sexual assault prevention programs at North Dakota State University.

“My reaction to this is it really makes invisible the reality of sexual violence and what people are most often experiencing in our communities. I think that can be kind of a dangerous message to be sending out,” she said.

The wording suggests that it’s a victim’s fault if she is sexually assaulted, said Daria Odegaard, education coordinator for the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center in Fargo.

The language used to talk about sexual assault influences society’s attitudes and beliefs toward rape.

“When we talk about victims and survivors of sexual assault, words are so incredibly powerful. It’s such a very dangerous thing to have that sense that well if you had done this, you wouldn’t have been assaulted,” Odegaard said. “We know that you can follow any and every safety tip you’ve ever been given but it’s not your fault. Your behavior, your actions don’t cause someone to perpetrate.”

Such myths go viral because of fear and a desire to help, Odegaard said.

“When safety tips are put out there, people latch on and say, ‘This is something tangible I can do to protect myself,’ “ she said. “But often the way they’re worded and the way they’re put out there, there’s an underlying current that if you don’t do this or if you did something incorrectly, well, what did you think was going to happen? Or you should’ve done a better job. It’s a horrible message for anyone to be receiving.”

To prevent sexual assault, Odegaard said society’s behaviors, attitudes and beliefs have to change.

“So often perhaps we’re not aware of the impact of the language that’s used or the subtle messages that are running through a simple statement or a simple sentence,” she said. “Sometimes it may take just saying, ‘Do you know how that could be interpreted or how that could read?’ “

One way of changing behaviors is promoting bystander intervention, said Chris Johnson, director of the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center.

“We as a society kind of hold onto this idea that what’s happening between two people behind closed doors is their business,” he said.

“I believe that, as human beings, we all have a duty to one another.”

Dodd hopes that with work in prevention, eventually sexual assault could become nonexistent.

“Changing rape-myth acceptance is a huge way to change environments,” she said.

Myths vs. facts

Dodd, along with Odegaard and Johnson, separate myth from fact in “Through a Rapist’s Eyes.”

- A group of rapists and date rapists in prison were interviewed on what they look for in a potential victim and here are some interesting facts.

Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes — 60 percent are unreported, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Only 3 percent of perpetrators will spend a day in prison so even if perpetrators were interviewed, Johnson says the lens is narrow.

Referring to the phrase “rapists and date rapist,” Dodd said there’s no difference.

“Rape is rape. Period. People use that term (date rapist) usually to minimize rape that occurs between people who know each other in some way,” she said.

- The first thing men look for in a potential victim is hairstyle.

On college campuses, Dodd says perpetrators target somebody who seems vulnerable to them, and that can mean many different things.

“That has nothing to do with what someone’s wearing or their hair or anything like that,” she said.

The statement also implies that only men are perpetrators and only women are victims, Dodd said.

“Assuming that only women are victims of sexual assault makes invisible all of the men who are as well,” Dodd said.

Nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3 percent) and 1 in 71 men (1.4 percent) reported experiencing rape at some time in their lives, according to the Division of Violence Prevention of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

- Perpetrators are most likely to attack in the early morning, between 5 and 8:30 a.m.

Sexual violence can happen at any time, Dodd said.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 43 percent of rapes occur between 6 p.m. and midnight; 24 percent between midnight and 6 a.m.; and 33 percent between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

- The No. 1 place women are abducted from/attacked is grocery store parking lots; No. 2. are office parking lots/garage; and No. 3 is public restrooms.

“That’s such a huge myth in our society – it’s that creepy guy standing behind the bushes or dark alley, and if you avoid him, you’ll be safe,” Odegaard said.

Most often, the victim knows the perpetrator and the violence occurs in the home of the victim or perpetrator, she said.

“Because so many of these myths are popular and readily believed in, you don’t anticipate or expect or think that you’re at most risk of being assaulted by someone you know in a place where you feel safe,” she said.

More than 50 percent of all rape/sexual assault incidents were reported by victims to have occurred within a mile of their home or at their home, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Four in 10 take place at the victim’s home; 2 in 10 take place at the home of a friend, neighbor or relative; 1 in 12 take place in a parking garage.

- Only 2 percent of perpetrators said they carried weapons because rape carries a three- to five-year sentence but rape with a weapon is 15 to 20 years.

In 2001, 11 percent of rapes involved the use of a weapon – 3 percent used a gun, 6 percent used a knife and 2 percent used another form of weapon, according to RAINN.

Rape statutes vary by state.

- If you carry pepper spray, yell “I have pepper spray,” and hold it out as a deterrent.

“It’s impossible to give somebody direct advice in terms of what to do when someone’s in a dangerous situation, whether it involves sexual violence or not,” Dodd said. “We tell people to follow your instincts.

“Telling people to carry pepper spray makes it seem like, ‘OK, we’ve done our duty in terms of prevention,’ “ she added.

While Dodd said personal safety is important, the information in the article is not prevention.

“It’s risk-reduction, it’s personal safety. It’s important,” she said. “But we also need to make great strides in preventing crimes before they occur, working toward a world where no one has to read this, working toward a world where we’re not living in a rape culture.”

Where to get help

If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault, get help.

If you are in immediate danger, call 911.

- Rape and Abuse Crisis Center’s 24-hour crisis line: 701-293-7273

- National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673

- National Sexual Assault Online Hotline: www.ohl.rainn.org/online

- North Dakota State University’s Sexual Assault Resources and Advocacy Helpline: 1-701-730-6149

- Hendrix Clinic and Counseling Center at Minnesota State University Moorhead (daytime hours): 218-477-2211

- Counseling Center at Concordia College in Moorhead: 218-299-3514

- Health Center at Concordia College: 218-299-3662

Assault statistics

In 2013, the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center in Fargo intervened with 576 victims of sexual assault. Of those:

- 7 percent were children (under the age of 18)

- 53 percent were adults

- 11 percent were male

- 89 percent were female

- 79 percent were new clients in 2013

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Anna G. Larson
Anna G. Larson is a features reporter with The Forum who writes a weekly column featuring stylish people in Fargo-Moorhead. Larson graduated from North Dakota State University with a degree in journalism and joined The Forum in July 2012. She's a Fargo native who enjoys travel, food, baking, fashion, animals, coffee and all things Midwestern. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @msannagrace 
(701) 241-5525
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