WHITEFISH – A crowd of about 30 people gathered around a tent here Monday to discuss the reality of rape and sexual assault in Flathead County, the problems’ prevention, and to try to dispel some of the myths that surround such issues.
Speakers at the “Take Back the Night” rally, sponsored by the Flathead County Violence Free Crisis Line (VFCL), took pains to emphasize that despite the idyllic setting of Depot Park on a warm summer evening, sexual violence is a real problem.
“How much of an issue do you think rape and sexual assault really is in a town like Whitefish?” asked Hilary Barshay of the VFCL. “We’re not a small town anymore, we’re still growing.”
Barshay went on to list a number of statistics: Roughly one in five women experience rape or sexual assault, and seventy to eighty percent of rapes occur between two people who already know each other.
“Yes, I feel really safe walking the street,” Barshay added, “but a close knit community isn’t going to help me very much if I’m on a date with someone who has the wrong intentions.”
The rally was a chance for victims to tell their stories, with Cassie Comeau, a counselor, reading aloud from a rape victim’s letter to her attacker.
“You’ve driven me away from love. I punish my friends and my family as if I’m going to be hurt again,” Comeau read. “Not ever your memory will make me cry, because I will be stronger.”
But the rally was also a chance for educators to explain how to fight back.
Whitefish Police Officer Bridger Kelch discussed the proper use of pepper spray, and allowed himself to be punched and kicked as Janie Green of the American Karate Academy demonstrated self-defense techniques. Green recommended hitting larger targets, like the side of the thigh or the face, instead of the nose or groin – which are easier to defend. Green, who described pulling hair as “an art,” also urged victims to scratch an attacker’s face to collect DNA under fingernails.
Karina Ek told of being raped by an ex-boyfriend at a party in the beginning of her senior year of high school, and the isolation and humiliation she felt showing up at school after word spread that she had reported the incident.
“I knew it was going to be difficult to accept,” Ek said, “I didn’t miss a day of school, but I had to hang my head down,” to avoid eye contact with her peers.
“I would go up to people, and they would turn away,” she said, then had to stop as tears sprung to her eyes. When the women who organized the event rose to stand at her side, Ek went on to describe how some friends supported her, and others turned against her amid the homecoming dance, her alleged attacker’s transfer to another school, and the teenage drama of other high school social events.
Although a jury found her alleged attacker not guilty, Ek said she left the courtroom “still feeling strong and still knowing that what I did was right.”
“I feel like I affected a lot of people, children, adults and acquaintances. That enough, right there, is rewarding,” she concluded. “I stood on my own two feet, I suppose.”
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