FILE -- This 2019 file photo shows people marching in ETSU's Walk in Her Shoes event, which aims to bring awareness and stop rape, sexual assault and gender violence. 

“Put a finger down if you ever said yes to a sexual encounter out of fear,” the woman read aloud.

The four other women with her each put down a finger.

“Put a finger down if you were ever coerced into unwanted sexual experiences,” she continued, all five putting a finger down this time.

Again, she read, “put a finger down if something scary or illegal (happened to you) and you were scared to report it because you didn’t think anybody would listen.” Four put another finger down.

After 15 questions, all about sexual assault experiences before graduating college, four of the five women participating had put all 10 fingers down, and were counting on a new hand. The only one who didn’t put all 10 fingers down finished with eight. Afterward, they posted video of the exercise to the Women of Mountain City Facebook page to help raise awareness about sexual assault and the importance of teaching consent.

It’s just one of the ways the non-profit group, founded to address a lack of access to menstrual hygiene products in rural Johnson County, is working to help mitigate and erase the stigma faced by survivors of sexual assault in the region during April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

“When I started Women of MC ... I just opened the doors and said, ‘If you’ve experienced sexual assault tell me about it and I’ll tell your story,’” said Founder Olivia Stelter. “It would make you sick to hear how many girls were molested before 18 and raped before 18, but it would also make you sick that a lot of sexual assault harassment happened inside of a school.”

Nationwide, someone is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds, and every nine minutes a child is a victim, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or RAINN. And according to a 2020 report on child well-being from the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, Johnson County has the second-highest rate of reported child abuse in the state.

According to a 2018 report on sexual assault in Tennessee from the Tennessee Department of Health, 14- to 17-year-olds in Northeast Tennessee had the highest rate of sexual assault compared to other age groups. Of the 189 reported victims of sexual assault in the region in 2018, 100 (52.9%) were under age 17.

“It makes me very sad, and I also don’t want to forget about our boys, because there’s something in my heart telling me it’s not just girls that are going through this,” Stelter said.

Dr. Judy McCook, a registered sexual assault nurse examiner and project manager with ETSU Health’s Health Education Learning Program for Sexual Assault in Rural Appalachia, said the issue of sexual assault in rural areas is a “hidden epidemic.”

“We have problems in rural America, OK? We have generational poverty — we have generational abuse that has been going on and you don’t talk about it,” McCook said. “It’s your family, you know: grandpa touched me, my uncle touched me, my stepfather has been doing this. You don’t talk about sex, and you certainly don’t talk about sexual assault, so it is a hidden epidemic.”

Lenee Hendrix, a sexual assault response team coordinator with Branch House Family Justice Center in Blountville, said it’s important to recognize sexual assault is an issue, that it exists, and she said “we need to talk about it and see it for what it is or we’re not going to be able to fix it.”

Hendrix also said research shows a majority of sexual assaults are first disclosed to friends or family members, and when the first person a survivor talks to doesn’t believe them or asks questions that shift the blame onto the victim (such as asking why they went alone, if they were drinking or what they were wearing), it can discourage them from reporting their sexual assault.

“It’s such a traumatic experience to begin with, but then to layer on top of that guilt and blame for such a violent act that you have no control over can have long-lasting emotional repercussions,” she continued, “and the fact of the matter is that if they feel the person they first disclose to, who is probably a close friend of family member, doesn’t believe them, they’re not going to think law enforcement is going to believe them, so it’s going to go unreported, and when it goes unreported, they’re not getting the medical services they need or deserve.”

Hendrix said starting the conversation by saying “I believe you, I’m sorry this happened to you and I will help and support you,” increases the chances a sexual assault survivor seeks formal help, even if they don’t report it to law enforcement.

Tina Johnson, program director for SAFE House, which provides support for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, echoed what Hendrix said about placing blame on victims of sexual assault, and said Sexual Assault Awareness Month can help show support for victims and provide a platform to educate others on consent.

“Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a good time to, first of all, show support for survivors and also educate that consent can be withdrawn at any time, consent is necessary and to kind of take some of that blame off victims and put the blame where it should be — on the person that’s assaulting them,” said Johnson, “and we still see this every day with law enforcement — with everyone, the victim’s family at times, the hospital staff, it’s across the board.

“Just society at large doesn’t really understand or doesn’t accept the fact that it’s not the victim’s fault when they’re sexually assaulted — no one deserves that no matter what they’re wearing, how late they were out at night, who they’re with,” Johnson said.

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