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West Virginians not immune to problems of sexual abuse

By EDDIE TRIZZINO

Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT, W.Va.  – According to a survey by the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information Services (FRIS), one in six women in the state are victims of sexual abuse.

While not every case is reported and some victims never identify, advocates from groups like FRIS see a potential change in the climate.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a time in this field where this level of attention has been given to this issue,” Nancy Hoffman, state coordinator for FRIS in Fairmont, said.

Hoffman credits some of this attention to people known as “silence breakers,” or the victims of sexual abuse who speak out, which have now been announced as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.”

And while the cover photo includes celebrities like Ashley Judd and Taylor Swift, victims of this type of assault can be everyday people.

“Anyone can get assaulted,” Andrea Rounds, a family therapist at domestic violence center HOPE Inc. in Fairmont, said. “While we’re hearing a lot about it in the news now, it’s not a new problem. It’s just one that people are starting to talk about.”

According to a 2016 article on Time’s website, its “Person of the Year” is “the person or persons who most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill, and embodied what was important about the year, for better or for worse.”

This October, #MeToo became a trending social media topic which individuals used to signify that he or she has been sexually abused in some way, according to a Dec. 7 article on Time’s website.

The measures associated with inappropriate sexual acts can vary. According to FRIS, the law varies from state to state, but in West Virginia, an action qualifies as sexual assault if any type of penetration is involved. Sexual abuse requires only physical contact, but several other actions can qualify as inappropriate such as verbal harassment and voyeurism.

“The qualifications cover everything from sexual abuse to forceful rape,” Rounds said.

Rounds explained that victims may never speak out because of the emotional and mental damage caused by an incident, in addition to stigma associated with being victimized. In addition, she said most assaults come from a person the victim knows, which also could deter them from coming forward.

Despite the difficulty, Rounds said victims should still be aware of their available resources for help, even if they don’t want to press charges.

“A lot of it comes down to being respectful. Even if they’re not going to report it, they can still talk about it and get help,” Rounds said. “It’s about being aware of your resources and being aware of the counseling sources available.”

Being supportive and understanding in this situation is the best way to help a person who may be a victim. To this end, Rounds said the way the stigma has been changing in the public eye in the last few months is a good sign.

“For a victim to speak up, they have to feel that it’s an a safe environment to do so, but I would imagine people are thinking that with more people speaking out now that it’s safer for them to speak up as well,” Rounds said.

Hoffman agrees.

“I think we’re seeing a surge in these cases because there’s more trust. In the end, it’s an individual’s decision, and the best thing you can do is support the individual in their decision,” Hoffman said.

Even though Rounds and Hoffman are each hopeful that change is coming thanks to the silence breakers, both of their organizations are still fighting to end this type of abuse to get victims the help they need.

“Even though it’s shocking, creating an environment where people will be believed is goal we’re trying to do. There’s really no way to have a radar to find those victims without them saying, but the best thing you can do is believe them, support them, be an ally and help them remember it’s not their fault,” Rounds said.

“There’s absolutely no excuse for this kind of abuse.”

For more information on sexual misconduct or abuse, or to seek help, call HOPE Inc. at 304-367-1100.

Email Eddie Trizzino at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @eddietimeswv.

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