Students and shocking statistics filled the room at the Student Center on Wednesday morning, when the executive director of Safe House, Barbara Niess May, spoke about violence against women in Washtenaw County.
The presentation specifically covered domestic violence and sexual assault and included information like how many men, women and children seek help from Safe House each year (5,000), and how many more never even come forward.
“As a society, sexual assault carries a huge stigma,” May said.
Because of this stigma, 80 percent of the cases Safe House sees are survivors of domestic violence and only 20 percent are survivors of sexual assault. While only one in four domestic violence cases are reported, only one in 15 sexual assault cases are.
“The survivor loves him first of all,” she said. “Remember that first fight we had when we were in love? Most of us go back to ‘if only we could go back to before here’. She’s still going through that. Falling in love doesn’t change.”
May presented the abuse continuum to the group, which begins with the first incident and ends at the morgue.
“One hundred women die each year in Michigan because of domestic violence,” she said. “Two women a year in Washtenaw County. There are a lot of indications about Washtenaw being a better place to live, but not a better place to live for women.”
When reviewing cases of the fatalities in Washtenaw, May came across one thing all the women had in common.
“None of the fatalities have accessed Safe House’s services,” she said. “Survivors of sexual assault might report or call Safe House, but many we’re serving were assaulted ten years ago or more.”
Because of the five institutions of higher learning within Washtenaw County, having access to something like Safe House is of vital importance.
“Twenty-five percent of people who were raped were raped between the ages of 18-24,” May said. “College students are more likely then any other age group.”
Since this is such a prominent issue in the lives of college students, she provided ways students could make a difference.
The reality is, it’s a choice. It’s a learned behavior,” she said. “Fifty percent of batterers came from homes where battery didn’t happen. It’s our culture. Women are inherently second class citizens.”
The problem can be helped by believing survivors, and by changing the ways of other people by example.
“I appreciate the men in my life more and more every day,” May said. “I see what happens to people who don’t have them in their lives. It’s men that can help change the ways of these other men.”
Students and teachers alike who were in attendance were affected by the presentation.
“It was really scary hearing about all the violence,” junior and fashion merchandising major Shannon Leedle said. “It surprised me that guys are getting raped too. It never occurred to me that it could happen to them.”
Some instructors believed the issue was more important than class time and brought their students.
“It’s important to devote class time to this,” adjunct lecturer for women and gender studies Joan Sitomer said. “The statistics about the percentage of sexual assault that happens between 18 and 24 made this the target audience, and they need to be aware of their resources.”
Even for lecturers who have studied this topic, there was valuable and shocking information in the presentation.
“It was helpful to get the myths combated and heartbreaking to hear the stories,” Sitomer said. “I didn’t realize it took so long to reach out to resources in the community. It made me even more committed.”
One thing students walked away with was a further understanding of both the issue and what can be done to change it.
“If we got more people involved, a lot could change,” Leedle said. “It wouldn’t have to be such a secret anymore.”