Local organizations are hoping to reach out to victims and educate the public on the realities of sexual violence through the month of April for Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
“Sexual assault and intimate partner violence are crimes that are really shrouded in silence, secrecy and shame,” said Becca DeSimone, Victims Assistance Services' (VAS) manager of sexual assault services. “And that’s done intentionally by the perpetrators of these crimes. That’s what allows it to continue. Our goal is to let people know that this is not tolerable and not acceptable in our society. That people who commit these crimes will be held accountable, and not the one being victimized.”
Victims Assistance Services (VAS), which serves victims of crime in Westchester, said its hotline received a total of 592 calls in 2012, 381 of which were related to sexual assault. VAS also gave out 65 comfort kits to sexual assault victims in hospitals in 2012.
According to DeSimone, one in four women and one in 33 men will experience sexual violence annually—while Denim Day’s Web site estimates that someone is sexually assaulted every two and half minutes in the U.S.
VAS is a program of the non-profit organization Westchester County Opportunity Program (WestCOP) and was founded in 1981. VAS’ rape and sexual violence crisis services, which are free and confidential, offer:
- a 24-hour hotline (914) 345-9111 or toll free at 1-855-827-2255 (1-855-VAS-CALL)
- a hospital advocacy program where professionally trained volunteers or nurses accompany victims to the hospital during their medical exams and forensic evidence collection
- comfort kits with new clothing and toiletries
- counseling and therapy
- community education and outreach
- advocacy services
VAS has offices in Mount Vernon, Peekskill, Yonkers and White Plains. Visit westcop.org/WP/victims-assistance/ for more information on services and locations.
DeSimone said that recent cutting to program funding and help for survivors is “dangerous," but what she finds “heartbreaking” is the recent stories in the news of teens, like 15-year-olds Rahtaeh Parsons and Audrie Pott who committed suicide after their sexual assaults were photographed and circulated among peers who are accused of bullying them.
“Personally, I do I feel attitudes about violence and misogyny and those roots of oppression haven’t changed, but we’re more vocal in talking about it and I do feel that is a positive shift,” said DeSimone. “Those are really tragic instances and our hearts go out to everyone in that situation. I’m sure there are plenty more not being talking about in the media. It’s not social media and it’s not kids being kids or teenagers. It’s about the control dynamic we see in sexual assault and domestic violence. It’s tragic it needs to be that far.”
Stopping the bullying and victim blaming would equate to a win against "rape culture" for DeSimone.
“I think there’s a lot of misinformation about gender roles and what it means to be a man or woman in our culture,” said DeSimone. “There are a lot of expectations that are unfairly placed. For instance, we want to be clear about what consent is. Consent is an active process that is informed along the way.”
DeSimone said there needs to be an end to false expectations between dating partners, like the expectation of sexual gratification or that someone owes another person something after one person takes another on a date.
“Yes does mean yes and no does mean no, and there is no grey area—at all,” said DeSimone.
VAS is celebrating Sexual Assault Awareness Month with National Denim Day on April 24. Check out our story on VAS' plans for the day Friday morning and click here for more on the history of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.