Safe Passage workers say key to helping victims of sexual violence is believing them

April 5, 2019

DeKALB – Lynnea Erickson Laskowski and Kendal Baker sat in the living room at Safe Passage’s administrative offices Thursday, filling goodie bags for Saturday’s upcoming Walk-A-Mile fundraiser.

They talked about Sexual Assault Awareness Month and the #metoo movement. They discussed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, and Erickson Laskowski said Kavanaugh touted the age-old argument “If it was really a problem, she would have come forward before now,” in response to Christine Blasey-Ford’s testimony claiming he sexually assualted her decades earlier.

They mentioned Barbara Streisand’s recent response to the Michael Jackson documentary “Leaving Neverland,” in which she noted that the pop star’s alleged sexual abuse of children “didn’t kill them.”

“Start by believing,” Erickson Laskowski said. “If someone tells you they’ve been sexually assualted, think about how you’re going to respond. The only thing you need to say is, ‘I believe you. How can I help?’ ”

Safe Passage is hosting three events in April to raise awareness about sexual violence, and raise money to help victims through their advocacy and social services programs. Walk-A-Mile, in which participants will walk a mile in high-heeled shoes inside the Sycamore High School Fieldhouse, will begin at 11 a.m. Saturday.

On April 16, Take Back the Night will give a public platform to survivors wanting to share their story. And on April 30, 15 local survivors will showcase their healing journeys through an art gallery debut.

Erickson Laskowski said she often sees two reactions to news involving sexual violence.

“It can be a really positive thing,” she said. “I think you really saw that with the #metoo hashtag, people realizing ‘I’m not the only one who has gone through this. I don’t have to be embarrassed or keep it a secret.’ But on the other side, if you’ve lived through this and you hear the way people are responding, saying it’s not big deal, some people really internalize the victim-blaming.”

Safe Passage offers shelter, counseling, support, and other services for victims of sexual violence, whether its women, men, children, transgender, bisexual, or gender-queer people. In 2018, Safe Passage helped 216 sexual assault clients and received 3,232 crisis hotline calls, Baker said.

“The main things we want people to know is that [sexual violence] does happen here [in DeKalb County],” Erickson Laskowski said. “And when it does happen, the way we respond to it really matters. ”

She said people should call out comments that coddle rape culture, like when a friend makes a joke about the way a woman is dressed, or advocates commenting on a Facebook thread “I believe you,” instead of being dismissive or judgemental. Or remembering that men can be victims, too.

“I think [at] every opportunity, we have to let [men] know we have services that are available to them,” Baker said. “This is something that affects men and boys, too.”

Over the course of a lifetime, one in four women will be sexually abused or assaulted, as will one in six boys or men, according to Safe Passage statistics. For transgender people, 47% will be victims of sexual violence, and 74.9% for bi-sexual women. Between two and eight percent of sexual assault claims will be ruled as false, meaning 92 to 98% of the time, a victim is telling the truth.

“A lot of men internalize [an assault] and never come forward because there is so much social stigma,” Erickson Laskowski said. “It’s really important for men to realize that what happened wasn’t okay. It doesn’t reflect on you, your masculinity, or your sexuality in any way, or how other people should think of you.”

She said it’s important for survivors to know that, however they choose to heal, their journey is valid.

“Some people will want to come to counseling, press charges, have a rape evidence collection kit taken, and some people will not, or they don’t trust the system,” Erickson Laskowski said. “We respect every survivor’s right to heal in their own way.”

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse or assault, contact the Safe Passage Crisis Hotline at 815-756-5228. Operators are standing by 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.