‘Yes means yes’: Changing the way Maine looks at sexual violence

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BRUNSWICK — Sitting cross-legged on a couch last week in the student union building at Bowdoin College, Ali Ragan was smiling as she talked about her involvement on campus.

The senior would be graduating in a month and was excited for what’s to come. Looking at her, no one would guess she was the victim of a sexual assault two years ago.

That’s the thing about sexual assault, though. It doesn’t care who someone is or what they look like.

“Sexual assault isn’t discriminatory,” Ragan said. “It can happen to anyone.”

It happened to Ragan when she was a sophomore. She was on campus and the perpetrator was a close friend.

That one night changed everything. Parties are no longer the same, walking alone is a little scarier, and power dynamics are questioned.

“I’ve definitely become a different person,” Ragan said. “After an experience like that, you change.”

Staying the same would have been impossible, she said.

“Rape is one of the most psychologically damaging things a person can do to you,” Ragan said. “You don’t know what that feels like until it happens to you.”

To make sure fewer people “know what it’s like,” some organizations in greater Portland during April participated in Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

For example, the Portland Public Library hosted April Awareness Week, which featured self-defense classes for women, and performances by the Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program and Speak About It, both of which focus on consent education.

According to Brandie Burrows, the library’s health team leader, the goal of the week was to “educate our community about assault and to empower individuals and communities to promote safety and respect.”

But Maine organizations that specialize in sexual assault prevention or in working with survivors don’t tend to do anything extra during the awareness month. The people that do this work dedicate themselves to it year round.

Responding to rape

Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine works directly with victims and survivors of sexual assault through its crisis and support line, support groups, and response team. It is part of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which oversees Maine’s seven sexual assault centers; SARSSM is the resource for Cumberland and York counties.

Sexual Assault Response Services works with anyone who has experienced sexual violence, “regardless of whether it happened two days ago or 20 years ago,” Julia Davidson, the organization’s sexual assault response team program manager, said.

Davidson said there is no average victim, and no single type of person is more at risk than another.

“Everyone is at risk for sexual assault,” she said. “We see 85-year-olds, and children, and everyone in between.”

Davidson acknowledged, though, that women are victims more often than men.

A 2011 study by Mark Rubin of the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine found that 20 percent of Maine residents have been raped, or were the victim of attempted rape, in their lifetime. For Maine women, 32.1 percent have been raped, and for Maine men, 5.3 percent have been victims.

SARSSM’s sexual assault response team coordinates with police, nurses, and mental-health providers, so that when a sexual assault does occur, everyone knows what to do.

When someone calls the organization’s crisis and support line (800-313-9900), which is run by staff and volunteers, they could just want to talk, or they could disclose that they were just sexually assaulted. If it’s the latter, and if the person wants assistance, a volunteer will accompany the victim to the hospital.

“It’s incredible that we have people from the community willing to provide that service,” the organization’s executive director, Amy Stanley, said.

Volunteers and staff can also accompany people to the police or to court, if victims choose to report the incident. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 68 percent of sexual assaults go unreported and only 2 percent of rapists will ever spend a day in prison.

In Maine, 13,000 residents will experience sexual violence each year, according to MECASA. Of this, 359 rapes and attempted rapes were reported to Maine police in 2013.

According to SARSSM, around 150 people ask the organization to accompany them to the hospital or police each year. The organization said everyone handles the experience differently, and there’s no right or wrong action to take after an assault.

At Bowdoin College, Ali Ragan chose to confide in a friend after she was sexually assaulted. Her friend pointed her to counseling, which Ragan said was very helpful. From there, she decided to speak with the school’s Title IX coordinator.

‘Informal resolution’

Title IX is the federal education law that says no person can be discriminated against based on sex. Ragan said Bowdoin’s coordinator helped her choose the response option that was best for her.

She chose to do an “informal resolution” with her perpetrator, meaning she didn’t report the incident to the police or have the person expelled. Instead, she has the school’s equivalent of a restraining order against her perpetrator and required him to take sexual assault prevention and consent training.

“I was very focused on him never doing this again,” Ragan said. “Expelling him could have made him angry to the point that he wouldn’t learn from his actions.”

She said sexual assault is common, not just at Bowdoin, but at all colleges. She said it affects more than just the survivor.

“Sexual assault affects everyone, even if it hasn’t happened to you directly,” Ragan said. “If you ask someone at Bowdoin if they know someone who’s been sexually assaulted, they probably do.”

According to a 2015 poll conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, 20 percent of women and one in 20 men are sexually assaulted while in college.

To bring the issue to light, Ragan made a film, “Together,” which shows the lives of five people who have been affected by sexual violence at Bowdoin. The first screening of the film on campus last year drew a crowd of more than 300 people.

Ragan said after the film premiered she received emails from people saying they felt the film validated their experience. Often, she said, people don’t believe survivors, or they blame them for what happened.

“People are so scared to tell their stories,” Ragan said. “I don’t think anyone wants to be a survivor. No one wants this to be their story.”

Telling these stories, though, opens people’s eyes, she said. Once people know the effects of sexual assault, they want to prevent it from happening to others.

In Cape Elizabeth two weeks ago, students heard from an organization dedicated to educating young people about prevention.

Breaking the silence

“What’s it called when you have sex without consent?” Jenna Rodrigues asked.

The Cape Elizabeth High School freshmen stared at the walls or their feet, no one daring to say the word aloud. After a moment, one boy finally broke the silence.

“Rape.”

The class relaxed, each student seeming grateful they weren’t the one to say the word no one wants to talk about.

Rodrigues, though, forces the word to be talked about. She and co-worker Dan Kipp were teaching the class about consent and dating violence. They work as educators for the Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program through Portland-based Family Crisis Services.

The pair, both in their 20s, visit middle and high schools and colleges around the state performing YAAPP’s “Jake and Caroline” skit about a teenage couple in an abusive relationship.

Two days after the Cape Elizabeth performance, they visited Falmouth High School, where a class of sophomores were less reserved than their younger peers.

“Jake said Caroline didn’t say no,” Rodrigues said. “What else didn’t she say?”

“Yes,” the entire class replied in unison.

“What’s that called?” Rodrigues asked.

“Consent.”

Consent education has been at the center of sexual assault prevention, and many Maine schools have brought in programming for students. In 2013, sexual assault support centers provided prevention education classes to more than 38,000 Maine students in kindergarten through 12th grade, according to MECASA.

Speak About It, based in Portland, travels to schools across the country doing performances about sexual assault prevention. Last year the organization went to 55 high schools and colleges in 14 states.

Shana Natelson, the program’s executive director, said it’s important for young people to know their own boundaries and to know and respect other people’s boundaries and limits.

“Just because someone takes their shirt off doesn’t mean they have to take their pants off,” Natelson said.

Consent, Natelson said, needs to be ongoing and affirmative. Many organizations are trying to switch mindsets from “no means no” to “yes means yes.”

Natelson said young people can be afraid to be so vocal about consent because it can ruin the mood or make things awkward.

“Sex is funny and awkward and smelly,” she said. “It’s not what we see on TV or in porn.”

‘Pretty much a no-brainer’

It’s important for young people to receive this type of consent and sexual assault prevention education because they may need it the most. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, women ages 20 to 24 are most at risk for rape and sexual assault, followed by women and girls ages 16 to 19.

Karen Finnegan, the 10th-grade health teacher at Falmouth High School, understands the importance of educating students about consent from a young age.

“I do it to expose the kids and help them get awareness around what’s not a healthy relationship,” she said. “Within our school community it does occur, and after this, (students) will leave and get thrown into a mix of students (in college).”

According to MECASA, 7.70 percent of Maine high school students report that they have been “physically forced to have sexual intercourse” and 9.90 percent report they have been forced to do other sexual acts. Also, 17.7 percent said they have been the target of sexual comments at school or on their way to and from school.

Rodrigues and Kipp said one in three teenage relationships contain abuse, which can be physical, sexual, or emotional.

Shael Norris, of SafeBAE, said it’s important for schools to have sexual assault prevention programming.

“It’s pretty much a no-brainer to say we need to appeal to younger people,” Norris said.

SafeBAE is a survivor-based education program aimed at middle and high school students. Norris, originally from South Portland, is moving back to the Portland area and is hoping to get the program into local schools. She’d like to find survivors of sexual assault to go to their high school alma maters and give talks.

The power survivors can have in preventing sexual assault is strong.

For Ragan, her experience sparked a passion for the work, and she is now Bowdoin’s student director of gender violence prevention. She helps create education programs and gives survivors a platform to speak about their experiences.

To completely prevent sexual assault, though, there needs to be more than just good programming.

“One day in school isn’t going to change everything,” Norris said. “You need to shift the culture.”

Rewriting unwritten rules

Society plays a large role in sexual assault, especially because of the way gender roles are stereotypically defined. When hyper-masculinity is thrust at young boys through media, it can lead to repressed emotions, which may later be expressed through violence.

“I think sometimes guys aren’t taught how to express emotions or anger in a healthy way,” Kipp said. “If people play into male and female stereotypes, it makes it easier for abuse to occur.”

Maine Boys to Men, based in Yarmouth, is working to change the way boys approach masculinity by letting them know it’s OK to express themselves, but that it’s not OK to express their emotions in violent ways.

“When you do a program like this, everyone benefits,” Executive Director Matt Theodores said.

Maine Boys to Men has been to 45 middle and high schools in the state. Although some programs are just for boys, some are for both boys and girls.

“If you’re talking about this issue, it’s everyone’s to solve,” Theodores said. “It’s not a women’s problem. Men need to be part of the solution.”

The first step, Theodores said, is having men and boys acknowledge that their gender often perpetuates assault, but that society has created the system allowing the issue to occur so easily. He said they need to break stereotypes and not believe in what society considers “normal.”

“The way systematic oppression stays in place is having beliefs that make it seem legitimate,” he said.

Ali Ragan agreed and said that shifting power dynamics would help prevent sexual assault.

“It’s changing the culture around sex and power,” she said. “It seems like such a simple change of mindset for all of us, but it’s also about undoing all the social programming we’ve had.”

Changing the culture is something Ragan hopes she can do as she transitions out of college and into a career in this field. By speaking up, ending victim blaming, and teaching people that this is a human issue, she said sexual assault can be prevented.

“The point is that we’re all in this together,” she said, “and together we can stop sexual violence.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Dan Kipp and Jenna Rodrigues of the Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program perform a skit for a class of sophomores at Falmouth High School on April 13.

After being sexually assaulted as a sophomore, Bowdoin College senior Ali Ragan has made a film about survivors, worked at sexual assault centers and for the school’s gender violence prevention program, and is now hoping to pursue a career in the assault prevention field.

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I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.