When walking home from a birthday party in 1972, two 11-year-old girls were kidnapped at gunpoint, sexaully assaulted, and shot near Chautauqua, Colorado. The people of Boulder were outraged, said Janine D’Anniballe, Ph.D., director of Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA). The incident, which tragically left one of the girls dead and the other injured, prompted the founding of the organization now known as MESA, the third oldest rape crisis center in the country.
Every year in April, MESA – and sexual assault prevention organizations across the country – promotes Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), which is used to shine a spotlight on what D’Anniballe refers to as an “epidemic crime,” for which both men and women need to take preventative action. D’Anniballe, who is in her 20th year as the director of MESA, also wears the hat of Director of Trauma Services with Mental Health Partners and was named BOCO Woman of the Year in 2015. D’Anniballe started in sports psychology. She discovered students wanted to share trauma stories instead of talking about their game.
“It started fueling the underlying, hidden activist in me, really,” she said about her path. “And, realizing that this issue is not just about psychological trauma, it’s about social justice. Because, people on the margins in our society are more likely to be victimized sexually, whether we are talking gender, gender identity, race, class, or ability.”
MESA’s Prevention Director Sarah Dobson said, for Coloradans, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Dobson says there is a high prevalence of minors being victimized with 60 percent of sexual assault victims under the age of 18 and 29 percent under the age of 12.
D’Anniballe MESA has experienced its highest call volume in its history within the last 12 months.
“I think [#MeToo] is important because, when Tarana Burke founded this [#MeToo] idea, she had an experience and she said, ‘This happened to me. Who else has it happened to?’ And, she kind of invited a raising of hands, of sorts,” D’Anniballe said. Social media played a significant role in providing anonymity and solidarity as the movement formed and evolved in unprecedented ways.
“Then, as it grew with one person coming out, then three, then 10. I think people found safety in numbers and found a community in numbers. The next thing we knew, people who had never told their story, ever, maybe even to anyone, all of a sudden, felt like it was okay to finally speak their truth. I’ve never seen anything like it my career.”
D’Anniballe believes it is thanks, in part, to #MeToo that people are feeling more comfortable speaking up and out about sexual assault. “Maybe [people are] more aware of labeling what happened to them as sex assault and then feeling more comfortable reaching out”.
Both D’Anniballe and Dobson believe that prevention of sexual assault is key with MESA currently planning to expand prevention programs for Boulder County with a focus on prevention and consent education.
“[Prevention] has to be a relentless, persistent challenge of rape culture in all of its forms,” D’Anniballe says. However, prevention education is “grossly underfunded”.
“We have evidence-based programs. We know what to do. We know what works. It’s being able to get the resources to do it,” she says. Sexual assault also needs to be looked at as a public health issue considering how much trauma impacts physical and mental health, as well as work productivity.
Dobson said she aims to help others reimagine how all are interconnected and to rehumanize each other. “We talk a lot about the gender binary, and the violence that causes,” she said. “We look at rape culture and the way we dehumanize and sexualize certain groups of people, whether it’s women or the female body, or feminine, or transgender, or non-binary, or people of color, people with disabilities, all of these different groups who have been marginalized and dehumanized in our media, in our language, in our infrastructure. The more distance we have from people, the easier it is to enact violence, so a lot of our work is shifting toward cultures of equity and equality, cultures of nurturance, re-valuing femininity, feminine values, and expanding beyond binary notions of identity.”
According to FBI crime statistics, while people of all genders have perpetuated sexual violence, the majority of those arrested are men, at 95 percent. MESA has created programs especially for men and boys.
MESA offers the Men of Strength club (MOST), prevention programs for middle and high school boys, up and running in three Boulder County schools so far. The club is a safe space, with an adult male mentor, for middle and high school boys to talk about what it means to be a man.
MESA also collaborates with Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (SPAN), which focuses on domestic and intimate partner violence in Boulder County, for a Peers Building Justice (PBJ) program. PBJ is an eight-session, healthy relationships curriculum and after-school program.
“I think there are a lot of people who would be very capable of learning consent if that’s what we are teaching, are expecting, and holding people accountable to,” Dobson said.
PBJ also offers an after-school program and students delve into social justice issues and create exhibitions to educate the community, particularly adults, about issues that are personal to them. The next showcase will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, May 11, 2019, at the Boulder Public Library.
Dobson works to recruit and train volunteers. “[Sexual Assault Awareness Month] is a great time to get in your volunteer applications,” she said. “Without the volunteers, it would be very hard to do what we do. We always need more volunteers.” The majority of the volunteers act as hotline advocates for MESA’s 24-hour hotline (303.443.7300), which is available for people to call for resources and emotional support for themselves or a loved one, who may have experienced sexual violence. Volunteers receive up to 40 hours of training for a certification in Confidential Sexual Assault Advocate.
Check out the website for ongoing and cointnuing events. And be sure to check out the new podcast, Sex by Invitation Only, launched recently by MESA. Several episodes have already dropped. “The way that sexual assault is talked about in the news leaves a lot wanting,” Dobson said. “MESA wanted to add a more nuanced perspective to talk about the news.”
Donations can be made on MESA’s website. More information is available by visiting https://movingtoendsexualassault.org/. Victims of sexual assault are encouraged to call the 24-hour hotline at 303.443.7300.