Community confronts issue of sexual assault

After a University student reported a sexual assault April 15, the University community once again felt the tight clamp of an elusive and frightening force that affects both women and men.

While this well-publicized incident renewed fear of sexual assault in the University community, most students do not realize the greatest danger lies in acquaintance rape.

"The majority of sexual assaults are placed within the context of the relationship or an acquaintance," said Aretha Donnelly, Adult Education and Special Projects Coordinator at the Sexual Assault Resource Agency. SARA tries "to focus on reality versus hype, because the reality is that most sexual assaults are between people who know each other."

Commonwealth Attorney Dave Chapman said students in environments such as the University are particularly at risk.

"In the University context, especially in the arena of assaults between people who know each other, the prevalence is very significant - almost no one fails to know somebody who is assaulted," Chapman said.

Kris Wright, a fourth-year College student who helped found the sexual assault education group One in Four, said the myth that most rapes occur between strangers is fairly widespread at the University.

"I think it's a common tendency for people as a whole to think someone is going to jump out of a bush and rape them, when 80 percent of the time it's people they know," Wright said.

In fact, the average time the perpetrator has known the victim is up to a year, he said.

While these statistics may be alarming, he added that students do not have to alter their lifestyles completely.

"It's important to be mindful - to be careful at all times," Wright said. This "doesn't mean, don't wear this shirt tonight because you might be raped, but make it clear that you communicate about the sexual encounter rather than assuming one thing or another."

Donnelly said because of the pervasiveness of sexual assault throughout college communities, victims are misled by situations in publicized cases which describe rapes by total strangers.

These cases can create an attitude of complacency within relationships, she said.

"It is a disservice to focus on hype because it leaves men, those in marriages, relatives and others unprepared and with a false sense of security when this is not statistically the case," Donnelly said.

The April 6 conviction of Monteret Davis for the Aug. 26 rape of a University student is one such highly publicized case.

Chapman, who prosecuted Davis for the rape, said the publicity of recent events has heightened people's awareness of the problem.

"Several incidents have received attention statewide that I think have contributed to people feeling as if the problem has worsened or [that they are] less safe in areas of Charlottesville where people live nearby the University," he said. "The instances of highly publicized cases [have] led people to feel less safe. [It] is unfortunate, but perhaps it will influence people to protect themselves better."

Chapman said the long-term evidence suggests a static state in the numbers of sexual assaults.

"I'm not sure data would suggest a statistical basis," he said. "The problem is more prevalent and is always a serious problem regardless of when or where it occurs."

He added that the sheer numbers of cases of sexual assault that end up as contested cases in court are a fraction of the total number.

Although highly publicized cases help raise awareness about sexual assault, this heightened consciousness may come with a price.

Women are constantly warned about walking home alone, about date rape drugs and acquaintance rape. They even are wary of the possibility that someone may break into their own place of safety - their homes.

The survivor of the Davis sexual assault said she is still afraid even after the capture and conviction of her rapist.

"I have to rationalize why I am safe - that I am behind dead-bolted doors and the parking lot is well lit and that I am not a good target for an intruder."

The victim added that emotion surrounding the incident now permeates nearly every aspect of her life.

"I'm not a racist person but this event has instilled fear in me," she said. "Especially when he hadn't been caught yet, I looked at every black man on the street and wondered if it was him."

Even if one is not a survivor of sexual assault, this devastating experience is present in a very real sense - the chances are one in four that someone's mother, sister or friend has been involved in a sexual assault.

Kelty Garbee, former president of the University chapter of the National Organization for Women, said she organized the April 13 Take Back the Night rally to help community members fight these feelings of fear and powerlessness.

"Take Back the Night deals with empowerment rather than powerlessness," Garbee said. The rally is about "consciousness-raising, not having survivors speak on the news so that people can sit at home and dismiss violence as something that is being taken care of."

And the reality is that one woman is raped every 40 seconds in the U.S. - an eye-opening statistic.

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