The month of April is sexual assault awareness month, and sources encourage locals to join together in empowering victims of assault. In Flagstaff, 72 cases of sexual assault have been reported in the last year. Advocates against sexual violence say establishing greater consciousness about the issue and its severity is imperative in decreasing rates of crime against northern Arizona residents.
According to the United States Office on Violence Against Women, sexual assault is any sexual act where a victim did not give consent. Sergeant Charles Hernandez II, a Flagstaff Police Department (FPD) officer, said that because sexual assault is a violent crime, law enforcement officials hope for a complete reduction in the rate of its occurrence.
“Seventy-two incidents within a year,” Hernandez said. “I would say it’s not a rampant amount of reported abuse, but one occurrence of sexual assault is too many.”
Hope Cottage is a local women and children’s emergency shelter. Director Sharon Wilcox said people often ignore and deny the existence of sexual assault as a problem in Flagstaff, despite its continuing presence and need for recognition.
“I think people are uncomfortable with it,” Wilcox said. “We want to say, ‘Violence and sexual assault don’t happen here,’ because we want to be distanced from it.”
With heightened awareness of the situation comes a need to debunk popular misconceptions about sexual assault. Sarah Pawlicki is the owner of Flagstaff Krav Maga, a local self-defense training facility. Pawlicki said there are many misconceptions people have about sexual assault that could perpetuate its occurrence.
“People have been saying that we shouldn’t teach women to defend themselves and should, instead, teach guys not to attack,” Pawlicki said. “That would be great but it’s not really going to happen, so we need to break that misconception.”
Pawlicki said that believing women shouldn’t learn to defend themselves is a dangerous ideology, because women are forced to do so far too often. She said a lack of proper training can cost someone their life, and that Krav Maga is a highly effective form of self-defense for women in dangerous situations. Pawlicki emphasized that it is important for everyone to understand the basics of self-defense.
Another misconception Pawlicki pointed out is that attackers are often personally known by their victims. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, eight out of 10 rape cases involve an assailant taking action against someone they know. Pawlicki said victims might be hesitant to fight back because they care about the person who is harming them. She said training can be life saving in situations like these.
Senior Kylie Malilay said people often misunderstand sexual assault situations to the point that they place blame upon the victims themselves. She said this can be emotionally traumatic to victims and can perpetuate instances of violence.
“I hate when people say things like, ‘Well, they asked for it. They brought it upon themselves,’” Pawlicki said. “Women should be able to feel safe wherever they choose to go.”
Hernandez said one of the most harmful misconceptions surrounding sexual violence is the belief that there is only one specific demographic of victims and respective predators. According to the NSVRC, one out of every five women and one of every 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives. Although these statistics demonstrate that it is much more common for women to be victims of sexual assault, Hernandez urges people to understand that sexual crime isn’t exclusive to one demographic. He said sexual assault is not about the victim but, rather, the assailant asserting power and control over someone else. In the end, anyone can become a victim.
“It’s a matter of a predator finding the right time and an opportunity,” Hernandez said. “So it could happen in a hospital, at a church, a party — anywhere.”
Because sexual assault can occur almost anywhere, Hernandez said it is crucial for people to know how to get themselves out of a crisis. For Hernandez, this means knowing which environments are safest and how to get away from someone who makes them feel unsafe.
Pawlicki said that self-defense training gives women confidence in dangerous situations. She explained how having confidence can, in itself, prevent an attack from taking place.
“Some women come to class and tell stories about having been in a bad situation,” Pawlicki said. “Because of the training they’ve done here, they were able to assert themselves and avoid looking like an easy target. They were able to verbalize, ‘Hey, you need to stay back,’ and create a safer space for themselves.”
Hernandez said people can also assert themselves in an attempt to help someone else. He said if someone notices a person being made uncomfortable by someone else, they can easily help that victim by stepping into the situation and attempting to dissuade the predator.
“Stepping in is not necessarily being confrontational toward a predator,” Hernandez said. “The idea is to get the person away from them.”
By simply helping to remove a victim from a bad situation, Hernandez said people can be spared the trauma that comes with acts of sexual violence.
“Victims often undergo self-worth issues after an attack,” Hernandez said. “Their social skills can become impaired. It’s something a victim has to live with for the rest of their life. So, there’s not only the effect of the incident itself. There’s often lifelong trauma that a person has to endure and hopefully overcome.”
Wilcox said rehabilitation after sexual assault can be extremely difficult, but institutions such as the Hope Cottage emergency shelter and Northland Family Help Center are there to help victims in need.
Malilay said that students also have a variety of on-campus resources available to them that can help keep them safe and alleviate trauma. NAU Safe Ride and NAU Safe Walk are programs designed to help students move safely throughout campus, and urgent counseling is available to student victims of sexual violence.
Malilay said community members and students can help victims of sexual assault by being kind and understanding to everyone they come across.
“It’s important to treat humans like humans,” Malilay said. “Be kind to whoever you can. Everyone has a story, and you might now know what that story is. Being cautious about what you say to other people and being a friend — someone who listens and validates victims’ feelings — could mean the world to them.”
Malilay emphasized how having someone to talk to is crucial for victims of sexual assault because it i s necessary for many victims to feel validated and heard. She also said perpetrators of sexual abuse might not be receiving the help they need, and are thus driven to commit acts of violence.
Love is Respect is one organization that offers helpful services to victims of sexual assault. They use text messaging, conduct phone calls and engage in online conversations to educate and encourage victims. Flagstaff’s Peaks Counseling Services also offers anger management counseling for past and potential perpetrators of sexual assault.
Hernandez said FPD works with Victim Witness Services (VWS) to aid victims after an incident is reported. He also described the department’s methods in dealing with cases of sexual violence.
“VWS advocates and helps represent victims,” Hernandez said. “I think they’re a huge asset to have after an incident. At that point, officers also aid victims by telling their story and collecting the necessary case information. Investigators continue that process hopefully through to the successful prosecution of an offender.”
Hernandez said knowing that the police and other organizations are there to protect and empower sufferers of sexual violence can be helpful in recovery and prevention.
“When you become a victim, you’re a victim for the rest of your life,” Hernandez said. “The only thing that can change is how you choose to live the rest of your life.”
Hernandez said the recovery process looks different for everyone and pointed out that there are different resources and support systems available. He said it is especially empowering to see people engage in advocacy after becoming victims.
Wilcox encouraged everyone to join the fight against sexual assault in their community. She said spreading awareness of this ongoing issue is the simplest, yet most effective way to get involved. Victims are encouraged to report incidents of sexual violence, as painful as sharing their experiences may be. Flagstaff experts agree that doing so could prevent future incidents from occurring.