Editor’s note: This story discusses sexual assault, including a first-person account. Individuals triggered by this article or in need of help are encouraged to seek support. The Maui Sexual Assault Center can be reached at 808-873-8624 (24-hour hotline) and Childandfamilyservice.org.
Chances are, you know a victim of sexual assault. Sexual assault and rape, sometimes referred to as a silent epidemic, impacts an untold, large portion of society. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a leading national nonprofit addressing the prevention and response to sexual violence, rape is the most under-reported crime in the nation, and 63 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police. This culture of silence notwithstanding, studies have found that one in five women and one in 67 men will be raped in their lifetime, the NSVRC states, and one in two women and one in five men will experience a form of sexual violence other than rape.
April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, is a time to address this silent epidemic and the complex societal and cultural issues surrounding sexual assault and violence.
Mayor Michael Victorino issued a proclamation recognizing the month on Monday morning to a small group gathered on the Great Lawn at the University of Hawai‘i Maui College. The crowd included students and staff of the college, members of the public, and social service organizations serving Maui County, especially relating to issues of sexual and domestic violence.
The mayor began by recounting his experience as a victim of sexual assault, a story he said he had never shared until then.
“I have never told even my wife of 43 years this story,” he said. “It’s a true story. It was about a young man who’s 13 years old, and four guys jumped him and took his clothes off and played with his privates. Thirteen years old. And I’ve never told this story because I’ve always kept it inside of that person. I never wanted anyone to hear about it. But it was me that it was done to – it was me.
“For years, it stayed in me,” he continued. “Never talked about it, not even to my priest – no one. So I understand what you’re talking about, sexual awareness and abuse. It should never happen to anyone… it should never happen. Never. I would like to continue working to say that it would never happen in the future. Remember: respect. And I talk about respect all the time. This is the ultimate respect, when someone says no.”
The mayor also made note of the prevailing culture of silence regarding sexual assault, a tide which has slowly turned as awareness of sexual assault and abuse of power has expanded in the social conscience.
“This was 50 years ago and back then you had nowhere to turn,” Victorino said. “You didn’t wanna tell your parents; you didn’t wanna tell your friends. Cause ‘You cannot handle yourself?’ was the attitude. So I grew strong from it and I worked hard and I never let it deter me. I end this today with saying the proclamation is what we at Maui County feel and want to see happen. No one should ever be put in that situation.”
The culture of silence around issues of sexual assault is something that Dani Riggs has seen and worked with first-hand in his position as the clinical director of Child and Family Services’ Maui County programs.
“Nationwide, the cultural silence around sexual assault has been with us probably as long as sexual assault has been,” Riggs told me. “The shame, self-doubt, guilt, fear that no one will believe you – and oftentimes when victims have come forward people don’t believe them or there’s some victim blaming that goes into the process – all of these things have contributed to a culture of silence that we really are just now learning to break through.”
The effects of this culture are damaging to both society and individuals, Riggs said.
On a societal level, “If we don’t know we have a problem, we don’t address the problem. Or we believe it’s much smaller than it is and we don’t allocate resources in a way that really promotes helping us to solve the problem as effectively as we can.”
For individuals, he added, “this is a crime that impacts someone for their entire life. And when we think of child sex assault and we look at the impact of adverse childhood experiences – ‘ACEs’ as we call them – there’s a whole number of [effects], from auto immune system diseases to obesity, diabetes, to even a lot of physical illnesses. A lot of things that are diagnosed as mental illnesses might in fact be post traumatic stress disorder.”
These effects further ripple through communities in health care costs and other ways that are hard to quantify. But there is hope.
“There are probably many victims on Maui right at this moment, who don’t know there’s a place they can go and get help,” Riggs said. “What I would say is to get help from a professional. I would encourage anyone to call our hotline [808-873-8624]… We have a 24-hour hotline, we have crisis intervention services. We have long-term therapy for those that want to pursue that.
“If you can find the courage to come forward, know that there are people who are ready to listen to you and capable of helping you, and that it is possible to move from being a victim to survivor to becoming a thriver… We have a really strong team that works Maui-style, that works together to help victims of sexual assault.”
As I was about to end our conversation, Riggs wanted to add one more comment.
“I want to say I really have respect for the mayor – for the courage to say what he said, to come forward.”
The Maui Sexual Assault Center can be reached at 808-873-8624 (24-hour hotline) and Childandfamilyservice.org.