Out of the darkness: Raising awareness about sexual assault with survivors, statistics

Illustration by Al Solecki

Illustration by Al Solecki

Maddy Ruos & Alexandra Sharp, co-features editors

It can happen anywhere, by anyone and at any time. Sexual assault is not uncommon, affecting 1 in every 6 women and 1 in every 33 men, according to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). As the risk and prevalence of sexual assault becomes apparent, South students and staff recognize the gravity of these crimes and work to humanize the many faces it can take.

During her freshman girls self defense unit, Meaghan Fastert, physical education teacher, addresses the issue of sexual assault by looking at it through a personal lens. At the beginning of the unit, Fastert shares her personal experience with dating violence in the hopes of sparking meaningful discussion with her students about the stigma surrounding victims of sexual assault.

“The biggest thing coming from me is just to teach the kids that [sexual assault] can happen to anybody,” Fastert said. “I think that [students] think it can never happen to [them]. I try to bring up a personal story that happened to me with a past relationship that wasn’t healthy and when I ask the girls who they think this girl is, they [think] it’s someone that’s not smart or doesn’t have high self-confidence.”

While Fastert knew her alleged perpetrator, junior Rachel Silverstone* claims she was sexually assaulted twice by strangers, once at the age of seven and again at the age of thirteen while walking home from school in the winter. According to Silverstone, both incidents happened prior to living in Glenview, and she only reported the second assault to Chicago police.

“To this day, [the assaults] affect me,” Silverstone said. “I have to take anxiety medication every night because I get scared in the dark or when it’s cold in the winter, my body triggers [my assault] and I will start [panicking]. I still have nightmares.”

Senior Angela Wallace* was allegedly raped by her ex-boyfriend three times towards the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year.**

“[Sexual assault] is something that could still very well happen,” Wallace said. “I don’t feel like I’m immune to it just because I felt prepared for it [before my assault]. I always thought if something like this were to happen that I would be able to defend myself against it, but it’s just so different when you’re in the situation.”

Recognizing the threat that victims like Wallace and Silverstone have experienced, part of South’s physical education curriculum involves a mandatory self defense unit for underclassmen and optional self defense class for upperclassmen. According to Steve Stanicek, physical education instructional supervisor, South’s self defense course is aimed at improving situational awareness and gaining the upper hand during the first moments of the attack.

“It’s a combative class because we do teach strikes, but it’s not a fighting class,” Stanicek said.  “It’s a survival class.”

Having taken both the self defense unit and class, junior Katie Roberts, a self-proclaimed feminist, believes both curriculums are equally important to learn in order to properly prepare oneself for a possible attack. According to Roberts, the classes make her feel more equipped to handle a situation if it escalates out of her control.

“I feel smarter about [self defense] because when you’re thinking of what you would do in a fight before you take self defense, you think, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna kick them’ and do all this crazy stuff and in reality, sometimes you’re not physically able to do that,” Roberts said. “And so with our class, […] we learn how to come at it from different angles depending on where the attacker is coming from [and] under different constraints.”

According to Fastert, many of her students have preconceived notions about who sexual assault perpetrators are. She hopes the self defense unit shows students the reality of the issue at hand.

“You often think about that creepy guy in the van [as the perpetrator], but it’s actually not the creepy guy in the van,” Fastert said. “We try to bust myths that kids think are true [but] the fact [is] that most of the time, [they] know the person that is going to sexually abuse [them] and most of the time they have met them [before]. They can’t go off to college and think that it won’t ever happen to them.”

Similar to Fastert, Brittany Ethington, physical education teacher, tries to focus on U.S. sexual assault statistics in order to show her students their risk of being attacked at any point in time. Ethington says her students are most surprised by the fact that most sexual assault victims are between the ages of 12 and 34, according to RAINN.

“That’s when you are most vulnerable,” Ethington said. “Maybe you are under the influence of something or you aren’t paying attention or you’re walking by yourself at night going back to your dorm or apartment. Those statistics get them into the mindset that, ‘This could happen to me.’”

According to Silverstone, after her second assault, she reached out to both Chicago police and her middle school for legal and emotional support. Although Silverstone is glad that she sought help from officials, she recognizes that sexual assault victims who open up about their experience also open themselves up for potential criticism and harsh scrutiny.

“Immediately after it happened, [my school] sent out a letter, and I guess to decrease commotion they passed out the letter to the students while I was in class,” Silverstone said. “I remember specifically this one boy in my class said out loud, ‘Of course it was a girl because it was her fault.’ I stayed quiet because I didn’t want people to know it was me, but inside I was screaming.”

Wallace’s realization that an attack can happen to anyone made her plan to take a self defense course over the summer. She feels this is especially important to do as she prepares to enter life after high school. Additionally, Wallace has developed a greater passion for the fight against rape stigma now that she is able to personally relate to other sexual assault victims.

“I do feel like after the situation had happened, [I had] a strong increase of passion for the [fight against rape],” Wallace said. “Any time the topic comes up or any time I hear about it, I’m always inspired […]. A lot of emotions boil up inside of me and make me want to do something, to change something.”

There are many resources available to assist victims of sexual assault, both within South and in the community. According to RAINN, the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline is 1(800)656-HOPE, providing a trained local staff member to assist anyone in a crisis. At South, the Text-A-Tip hotline, 1(844)823-5323, has an immediate response from a certified mental health professional who is on-call 24/7. According to Wallace, the most important thing for sexual assault victims to remember is to keep fighting, no matter how difficult the fight may be.

“Stay strong,” Wallace said. “You’re not alone. It hurts, but it’s not the end of the world either. […] I know that a lot of people do fall and it does affect their lives and completely change them, but you can move past this and stay the same person as who you were before but just […] a little bit stronger with maybe some battle scars.”

*Names have been changed

**Because of the nature of this crime and legal confidentiality surrounding sexual assault with minors, the Oracle is unable to verify these claims with other sources at this time.