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Conversations about sex assault needed to help others, local advocates say

Pandemic may have caused dip in reporting, but abuse hasn’t gone away
Michelle Johnson, right, a victims’ advocate and a volunteer with Durango Sexual Assault Services Organization, stands with Taylor Woolverton, left, and Jennifer Redfern at Hair Fusion to promote Denim Day on April 28. Denim Day is an international day of action and awareness to encourage people to wear denim to combat victim blaming and educate others about sexual violence.

Michelle Johnson spent one of the last days of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, every April, stopping by businesses on Durango’s Main Avenue in an effort to spread awareness about the issue.

“You can tell the conversation is uncomfortable,” said Johnson, a victims’ advocate for the Sexual Assault Services Organization. “But we have to get through that because it’s happening in our community, believe me.”

One in two women and one in four men in Colorado have experienced sexually violent crimes in their lifetime, according to the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. SASO handled 67 cases related to sexual assault from January to March. The figure represents an increase compared with case numbers during the pandemic, when there was a dip in reporting.

Johnson and other service providers say public awareness is vital. Johnson is speaking from experience: It wasn’t until the #MeToo era, when much of the nation was openly discussing sexual violence, that she started talking about her own experiences.

“That’s almost 40 years where I was walking around feeling like something was wrong with me or that I did something bad,” she said. “That’s why I want to keep talking about it.”

Johnson was raped at 16 by her best friend’s brother. As an adult, she served in the military. A man sexually assaulted her in a field in 1982, an act that was stopped only because someone heard her calls for help. She was sexually assaulted twice more in the military and then stalked, all within four years.

“A lot of times, if someone says they’re raped, the immediate thing is, ‘Well, what were you doing with him? What were you thinking?’” Johnson said. “That’s putting the onus on the person who was raped and it’s not their fault, it’s the person who’s doing it.”

Michelle Johnson, a victims’ advocate and a volunteer with Durango Sexual Assault Services Organization, sits with her service dog, Romeo. Romeo is trained to help her with her post traumatic stress disorder, which she was diagnosed with after being sexually assaulted.

Instead, she wants to see more awareness, like educational programs at schools and colleges or anonymous reporting options.

“Even just getting the story out so you can talk about it and deal with those feelings and heal makes all the difference,” Johnson said.

In 2020, 29 total sex assault incidents were reported to the Durango Police Department, most commonly unlawful sexual contact or fondling. The department reported similar numbers in past years, 29 incidents in 2019 and 28 in 2018.

Service providers at both SASO and the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners program, or SANE, at Mercy Regional Medical Center, said fewer cases were reported in 2020.

People were likely self-isolating at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic or unwilling to come to the hospital out of fear of contracting the coronavirus.

During that time, advocating for people who experienced sexual assault became more difficult. SASO advocates could not appear in courtrooms or at medical visits with their clients, while the clients needed more mental health resources and in-depth case management, said Laura Latimer, SASO executive director.

“To be able to bear witness to the trauma, to be there in person and offer support is huge,” she said. “It’s critical to really be able to be a presence and stand in solidarity with someone.”

The SANE nurses are also exhausted or burned out, said Bethany Bernal with SANE. She said SANE had about 59 cases in 2020 compared with 80 in 2019.

Since the program began in 2002, the case numbers have increased 500% – which she attributed to more staffing and community awareness.

“The biggest thing is patients understanding their reporting options,” Bernal said.

Victims’ advocates say people might be hesitant to talk to police or that talking to police can exacerbate trauma.

And the advocates are a benefit to police, said Durango Police Department Sgt. Bobby Taylor in an email to The Durango Herald.

“When possible, we try to coordinate with these advocates during the investigation process to minimize the number of times the victim has to relive the trauma of having to tell a stranger what happened to them,” Taylor said.

Michelle Johnson, right, a victims’ advocate, meets with David Latham, canteen manager at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031 in Durango, and Josie Latham, auxiliary member, on Tuesday to discuss how the club can help bring more awareness to sexual assaults.

DPD’s first priority is ensuring the person has a safe place to be. If a patrol officer learns of a sexually related crime while responding to an initial report, a detective takes over from there, he said.

Everyone needs to have conversations about sexual assault or other related crimes, like stalking, sexual harassment and rape, Bernal said.

“Especially for guys who might be a witness for something going on. It’s important for them to stand up and be a bystander who says something,” she said. “That could help prevent someone from making the wrong decision and raping someone. They could offer someone a safe ride home. Small intervening acts can make a big difference.”

Such conversations can often include common questions or misconceptions.

For example, most sexual assault perpetrators are not strangers – it’s more likely to be acquaintance rape, Latimer said.

Nurses with the SANE program at Mercy can assess injury, and, if the person has a history of assault, whether the injuries are consistent with that history. But they can’t determine whether someone has been raped in the exam. The goal is to make sure the person is healthy and safe, Bernal said.

Johnson said she’s even heard common misconceptions crop up while attending trials as an advocate for SASO clients.

“It’s the whole notion that the victim is put on trial. They do it for attention or are asked why they were drinking,” Johnson said. “That was eye-opening to me.”

The percentage of people who make a false report is small, but a lot of times people hear about that and it makes them even more afraid to come forward.

“That’s the reason they don’t come forward: They’re afraid of what someone’s going to think,” Johnson said. “In all actuality, either you’ve been raped, you know someone who has or they haven’t told you. The statistics are high.”

Johnson took to Main Avenue last week as part of the awareness campaign Denim Day, named after a sexual assault case in Italy. The court ruled the individual must have been willing because her jeans were too tight to be removed without her help, according to the Denim Day website.

Johnson wanted to start conversations. There is so much shame and victim-blaming, she said. But talking about the issue can be the start of healthy healing.

“If somebody tells someone they’ve been sexually assaulted, believe them,” Johnson said. “No one wants to go through going to the hospital, the backlash or a trial.”


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