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Strengthening efforts to combat sex crimes in Washtenaw County

Take Back the Night


SafeHouse Center

Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Take Back the Night Ann Arbor

SafeHouse Center "Start by Believing" Campaign

SafeHouse Center 2024 Fresh Start Breakfast


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and an issue that permeates society all year round is going to get some extra attention in April. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I'm David Fair, and when I began having these conversations on WEMU 30 years ago, I was shocked to learn that about 1 in 4 women will experience a sexual assault at some point in their lifetime. Well, we're three decades down the line now, and I'm dismayed to say that number hasn't changed at all. Figure in the number of women who don't report assaults and those who are sexually harassed, it covers an even more significant part of the population. So, the work must continue. And our guest today is doing that work on a daily basis. Christine Watson is executive director of SafeHouse Center in Washtenaw County, and I always appreciate your time.

SafeHouse Center executive director Christine Watson
SafeHouse Center
SafeHouse Center executive director Christine Watson

Christine Watson: Thank you so much for having me, David. Hello.

David Fair: Why, in your estimation, haven't we made progress in reducing the incidence of sexual assault?

Christine Watson: Well, I think you speak to something really important, which is that it continues to be one of the most unreported crimes that we experience. In fact, some of the statistics tells us that 63% of sexual assaults are never reported. And so, I think that really speaks to the continuing stigma that's around sexual assaults: the fact that people don't feel that they're going to be believed when they do report it, or that they're somehow going to be blamed or shunned as a result of the attack. And that, I think, continues to be the issue why people choose either not to come forward or why we're not seeing the number decreasing. Because by not reporting it and by not talking about it, we are unable to hold people accountable and kind of make movement.

David Fair: As a father, I, like most, tried to give my daughters every tool I could think of to prevent an assault. Yet one of my daughters was raped anyway. Do we, as a society, put way too much onus on girls and women to prevent sexual assault and not enough time working on more behavioral accountability in the male population?

Christine Watson: Absolutely, we do. And I will say I am sad to hear about your daughter's experience because, like we've just said, this shows us just how prevalent it is. And, yes, I think, as a society, as a community, we continuously look at what did the victim do? How did the survivor put themselves in a position that made them vulnerable? And the question that we really should be asking is: Why are people going out and raping other people? Why do people think it's okay to perpetrate sexual assaults? And we need to be more offender focused. I am a woman. I grew up with all the safety tips of "Don't walk alone at night. Watch out what you wear when you go outside. Make sure you have an eye on your drink when you're at the bar." And the issue that really comes from talking about those safety tips because that's what they are. I mean, they can be great tips, but it somehow puts the onus on me to keep myself safe. And it insinuates that I am somehow in control of myself and the perpetrator in that moment. And that is simply not the case.

David Fair: Do we hinder the manner in which we deal with these crimes, because we refer to them as sex crimes? And does that undermine the violent nature of the act?

Christine Watson: I think it can do, because I think when we talk about sexual violence and sexual assaults, it runs a huge gamut in terms of what people are actually experiencing. You also have people who are being sexually harassed in certain, maybe workplaces, school environments or at home as well. So, there's a spectrum there. But I think we need to be encompassing of everything because any unwanted sexual contact, sexual harassment, sexual talk, needs to be recognized for what it is, which is it's not being done with consent. It's not being invited. And it really should stop.

David Fair: You are listening to 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with SafeHouse Center executive director Christine Watson as we approach Sexual Assault Awareness Month. If a woman in our community is assaulted, Christine, and wants help and support, what would she experience when she calls SafeHouse Center?

Christine Watson: Well, I want to quickly say as well. You don't have to be a female identified survivor to reach out to SafeHouse, as it relates to both intimate partner violence or sexual assault. We are open to all survivors. But what you can expect is somebody who will hear you, who will speak with you, and who will process your experience in a non-judgmental and an opening manner that will allow you to be comfortable with what you want to share. This is all about giving people back the control that they've lost. So, we're really just here to listen, to help you make informed decisions by offering resources and support, and making sure that you have an understanding of what are your rights and who else can you reach out to and perhaps seek some kind of accountability, whatever that looks like for you. \

David Fair: Well, one of the other elements of sexual assault that hasn't changed is how women often suffer a second round of victimization. When survivors do press charges, defense attorneys try and rip apart their life, placed the blame on them in what is often a excruciatingly humiliating experience in court. And that's one of the reasons why so many rapes and assaults go unreported. Is there a way to offer better protections to survivors, while still protecting the right of the defendant to a fair trial and judgment of his peers?

Christine Watson: I would like to think so. I think it all comes down to us being trauma-informed in our approach, but it also comes down to us starting by believing. When somebody shows up and tells you that something has happened to them, for the most part, we always listen with support and intent. However, when somebody comes and shares that they have been sexually assaulted, that changes somehow. People see it differently. Our judicial system can hold people accountable. And you're right. The journey to that can be very difficult because, again, with the onus being on the victim behavior, the survivor behavior, versus the offender behavior, it can muddy the waters. I'm all about people getting a fair trial. Absolutely. But we do need to also honor the fact that we need to prosecute the person who actually is on trial.

David Fair: At SafeHouse Center, what kind of support could a survivor expect as they move through that very difficult behavior process?

Christine Watson: So, that could be anything from us going to court with a survivor, making sure that they get connected to the people that they need to speak to in the system. We can be there as an emotional support. We can be there as an informational support as well to make sure that they understand what it is that's happening. But I think the biggest part of this is really just being present with them, making sure that they have somebody who can sit with them, who can talk with them and, again, coming at it from an empathetic and non-judgmental and really just a safe space of "We're here for you."

David Fair: Once again, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and our guest continues to work to make a difference on this issue. Christine Watson is executive director of SafeHouse Center in Washtenaw County. The theme of Awareness Month this year is "Building Connected Communities." Now, when I first heard that, it's a term I associated with technology and technological infrastructure. How does it apply in the effort to combat sexual violence?

Christine Watson: I think it speaks to the core of, as a community, we need to come together to show survivors that they're not alone, to show survivors that they are believed, and to show survivors that accountability can be achieved. So, I think that it puts the onus on all of us to come together. I can only do so much. SafeHouse staff--we can only do so much. We need other people to step in and help fill the gaps that we unfortunately have. We're not attorneys, for instance, so we work closely with attorneys. So, that's just one example, but I think it does take a community to come together to make sure that survivors can have a holistic experience when they choose to come out and share what has happened to them.

David Fair: Well, one of the local events that does build community in this arena is the annual "Take Back the Night" rally and march in Ann Arbor. And it's an event that will take place Wednesday, April 3rd. It begins at 6:30 at the Michigan Union Ballroom and will start with a taped message from Governor Gretchen Whitmer and a live address from Congresswoman Debbie Dingell of Ann Arbor, among others. And SafeHouse Center is going to be there. You're going to be there as a resource, right?

Christine Watson: Absolutely. We're going to have trained staff on site who can speak to people, because, sometimes, when we find ourselves in the community, it invites people to come up and have conversations with us. We love that. And so, we want to make sure that we're prepared for that. So, we are going to be there both as a, I want to say, like, a counseling support, but, certainly, also as an informational resource, where if people know that they are either experiencing something themselves or they maybe have a friend or family member who's going through something, we'll make sure that we have literature there available to them, so that they can grab that and then share that message with other people. We think it's an important community event that takes place every single year. We're proud to be part of it, and we really look forward to seeing the community come out again. This is one way that you can show that you care.

David Fair: Well, after the rally, attendees will take to the street and march through campus in the streets of Ann Arbor. Now, I've personally covered and attended these events in the past. It is inspiring. It can be heartbreaking. It offers hope. You can run the full emotional gamut. The wish is that it will make a difference and create lasting change. You mentioned this happens every year. In your opinion, has it done that so far?

Christine Watson: I think there's still work to be done, but I think the fact that it's there is a start, right? In this community, we're not shying away from talking about this. Me sitting here talking to you is proof of that. I am so appreciative of our community because we strive every single day to break the silence. We are not afraid to speak out against rape culture. We're not afraid to speak out against the violence that is happening in our community. And I take that not for granted. And it's something that I'm really grateful for because I think that's where we have to start. We build on these conversations every single year.

David Fair: I want to thank you for the conversation today. I appreciate it in advance of the Awareness Month.

Christine Watson: Thank you, David. And. If I may, I just want to plug one more campaign that is happening in the community. In case people are not aware, it is called the "Start by Believing" campaign. It was originally launched here in 2016, in collaboration with some of our local law enforcement agencies. It's being revitalized this year. And it really is a very simple and easy concept. It's an international campaign that just highlights we need to start by believing when people tell us what's going on in their lives.

David Fair: Words to the wise. Thank you very much. That is Christine Watson. She is executive director of SafeHouse Center in Washtenaw County, working to help further educators on the ongoing crisis of sexual assault in our country and in our community. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and you'll find more about it and how it's being marked in our community at wemu.org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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