If you aren’t a victim, you can still be a witness

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(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—I was never moved when I saw those old Sally Struthers ads telling me I should support a kid in Africa. First, I was pretty young at the time and second it all seemed so far away. These were kids like me struggling in another country and I just didn’t see much of a connection. Of course, I am a lot older a bit more socially conscious now, and I, like most adults, recognize that you don’t have to suffer the way others do, or even have direct experience with tragedy or trauma to make a difference.

That’s why we can all, victims or not, actively participate in Sexual Assault Awareness Month this April.

JasonJohnsonBox

Of course I’m suggesting that we all take a bit more of an active role in Sexual Assault Awareness Month since nobody in America isn’t aware of the prevalence of sexual assault in this country. We hear so much about sexual assaults and violence that we’re desensitized to it.

The recent rediscovery that the pope ignored reports of a child-molesting bishop directly under his authority is not met with much shock by anyone. We knew about child molesting priests years ago. For several years “To Catch a Predator” on MSNBC featured grown men going through ridiculous lengths to have sex with underage boys and girls. We watched, were disgusted, laughed then forgot about it. Every couple of months there’s another report of a high school teacher having sex with her students and most people only check out the story long enough to see if she’s attractive. Americans are all too aware of the rate of sexual assault in this country without even being reminded of the statistics. The real question is, what, especially during this month, can anyone do about it?

Just like child labor, racism and spousal abuse no one out there is in favor of sexual assault. However most people believe that if you’re not directly contributing to violence perpetuated upon another person that that is good enough. Given that one in five young women in this country are victims of sexual assault at some point in their lives and one in eight men simply not engaging in violence doesn’t mean you can’t take an active role this month. Those of us who aren’t abusers and haven’t been abused ourselves often miss out on one of the critical roles that we can play in saving and rescuing the lives of those who have been victimized in the most unspeakable fashion: Bearing witness.

Only about one in 10 victims of sexual abuse ever report their assault to anyone, and the average age for reporting sexual violence is nine years old. However, the more troubling statistic is that the average victim of sexual violence tells at least three people before they are advised or taken to a health or legal authority. All too many times we become confidants to those who have suffered, but we help them keep their secrets. We attempt to counsel them on our own rather than make the tough choice and suggest, cajole and sometimes take it upon ourselves to tell family, authorities or the police. If you know of someone who is a victim of sexual violence and you don’t bear witness to their pain, if you don’t do all that you can, sometimes against their suggestion to help them get help you’re essentially helping to protect whatever monster attacked them in the first place. A harsh claim I know, but ultimately when we fail to help those in need all we’re really doing is protecting the man or woman who assaulted them to begin with. You in your complacency become as much their protector as anyone.

Let April be the month where you become a strong witness and a support network for someone you know who has been a victim of a sexual crime. Become a part of someone’s healing process, expose a family secret, take a friend to a therapist or pastor or better yet, slip them this column as a way to open up doors of communication. This April can be the beginning of a healing process for the millions across this nation who have been victims of an unspeakable crime. We can all make sure that it never takes three tries for the voice of a child victim to be heard again.

(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)

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