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Sexual assault awareness groups teach and help

By Nathan Tsukroff

AUBURN – April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, highlighting local groups that have been reaching out to Mainers to educate them about sexual assault and violence.

Sexual assault goes well beyond the obvious rape of a woman or an attack on an LGBTQ+ person.

Sexual assault can be something as simple as touching someone without permission, or body-shaming a person by calling them ugly or fat.

And sexual assault at any level can have lasting psychological effects, sometimes leading to dangerous and inappropriate behavior such as self-harming, drug use, and unsafe sexual activity.

Being aware that someone else’s behavior is wrong can help a person to avoid being assaulted, or report that behavior to prevent further assaults.

That’s where the advocates from Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services (SAPARS) provide help. Starting with young children in elementary school, the advocates provide education and a place for people to report assaults and violence. At schools, the SAPARS advocates teach classes on proper behavior with fellow students, such as maintaining personal space.

Bridget McAlonan, the Prevention Education Coordinator for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services in Androscoggin, Oxford, and Franklin counties, listens as a person shares her story. Advocates from SAPARS provide outreach to adults and children to help prevent assaults, and to assist after a sexual assault or violence has occurred. (Photo courtesy of SAPARS)

SAPARS provides services in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin Counties, and the communities of Bridgton and Harrison.

There is a 24-hour Maine Sexual Assault helpline at 1-800-871-7741 for anyone who has been recently assaulted, or is suffering from the effects of a previous assault. There is also a statewide text and chat service, but it has apparently been suspended since January for maintenance/

The outreach at schools and in the local communities has changed dramatically under the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Previously, advocates from SAPARS were available at schools throughout Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties for students to drop in and talk about personal concerns or issues. Under pandemic rules, SAPARS advocates now work remotely via computer virtual sessions.

“What I have seen is a lot of struggle and lack of access to services,” said Bridget McAlonan, the Prevention Education Coordinator for SAPARS. She would be in various Lewiston schools daily, but “we are no longer to be out in the community” during the pandemic.

“In schools, in the churches, in drop-in centers, assisted-living homes, all the places that we would be normally be doing outreach . . . we are not there,” she said.

“One of my workers is the outreach coordinator (Jamie Demers) works with underserved populations . . . LGBTQ folks, folks in assisted living,” but Demers is no longer allowed to see drop-in visitors, McAlonan said. “She would go into the housing communities, into the assisted-living places, and just sit and do drop-in, and someone could come and just sit with her, and gradually know that it was safe to talk to her.” That’s not being allowed during the pandemic.

This lack of access is a problem for many students and marginalized people. For example, “When I would go into schools, kids would see me and they could say ‘Hey, I want to talk to you,’” which is not possible now, she said. “We’re talking about folks that don’t have access to telephones, that don’t have access to computers, that are dependent on someone else to get their needs met. And the way that they accessed our services was ‘casually’, and they’re not able to do that if it’s not safe for us to go out into the public.”

 National studies have shown an increase in sexual assaults and violence during emergencies, such as a flood or hurricane. While McAlonan said she did not have specific information about increases in assaults in Maine under the pandemic, she said she thinks “that there has been compounding of everything” due to the isolation under the pandemic, which would “compound any trauma that might have happened.”

There are multiple agencies providing support for people throughout Maine. Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine (SARSSM) provides free services in York and Cumberland counties to anyone affected by sexual harassment, sexual abuse, or sexual assault, through prevention programs, support, education, and advocacy.

Both SAPARS and SARSSM provide child advocacy services.

“If I think about unsupported LGBTQ youth who are living in a home where they can’t be who they are . . . the way that they got their support before was in Outright LA’s drop-in groups on Friday nights, or by going to the public library, where the library had a drop-in book group, or seeing their favorite adult who called them by their name in school . . . those things are missing,” McAlonan said.

The mission of Outright Lewiston/Auburn is to create safe and affirming environments for youth ages 12-21 who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or questioning.

Public advocates from support groups like SAPARS and SARSSM have to be careful about meeting in person during the pandemic, since they would normally see a wide variety of people in multiple locations throughout the week. Keeping isolated protects everyone, but means that many who are seeking help don’t have access to resources. “It’s kind of a Solomon’s Choice!” McAlonan said.

To address that, SAPARS provides as much internet and remote services as possible, Starting last June and working throughout the summer, the SAPARS educators “figured out the best solutions to be able to go into the schools and offer remote programming.” They rewrote the curricula for their presentations at schools to provide a better remote experience for students.

In the younger grades, students are taught about consent and personal space through games.

“So we are still in the schools! We are in the schools remotely. They are seeing our faces on their Zoom screen,” she said. SAPARS has worked intensely with schools in Lewiston and Lisbon, and the high schools in Turner and Poland, “to get back in their classroom.”

Presentations now require two or three educators, instead of the single educator who could speak the class in person prior to the pandemic. “So it’s very labor-intensive.”

Being at the schools in person gave students a sense of familiarity, which let them feel comfortable speaking to advocates about issues they were experiencing. McAlonan said. She talked about a six-year-old boy came to her for support after getting in trouble for punching a fellow student who encroached on his personal space. She was able to help him find better ways of dealing with that situation.

Starting last summer, the advocates from SAPARS partnered with the YWCA Central Maine in Lewiston to provide weekly remote guidance on social and emotional consent. The advocates are available remotely in the drop-in room at the YWCA, through a laptop computer set on one the desks.

At least two educators are available during remote sessions, so one can step aside to answer a phone call from a child who has concerns that are triggered by the information that is being presented.

Sexual assault and violence include rape, attempted rape, sexual contact and sexual coercion. Studies have shown that sexual victimization may lead to lowered self-esteem, eating disorders, and negative feelings about a person’s own body.

Teaching youth about personal space is part of preventing or reporting assault. Children are taught “they get to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a hug or a handshake,” McAlonan said. “We are making it so that if someone was going to try to exploit them or harm them, they might have an inkling (that) ‘this is not okay.’”

The prevalence of sexual assault is much like an iceberg, she explained. “All the sexual assaults above the waterline are the things that we have decided are illegal. We have made laws against them. Below the waterline are all the sexual assaults that are still legal.”

McAlonan spoke about the poem “Piñata” by Pages Matam, where he speaks about hearing a man on a bus tell a woman, “You’re too ugly to be raped.” That statement is legal, “it’s under the waterline.”

Cultural mores do not seem to affect the levels of sexual assault, she said. “The idea of personal space and creating safety translates globally.”

She has spoken with parents of European descent, and immigrants from other parts of the world, and the conversations about personal space and safety do not differ, she said.

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