Educate and assist — the Crisis Shelter of Lawrence County wants to do both throughout April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Like almost everything else, though, the mission is complicated by COVID.

"We want to bring awareness to this issue," said Shelter advocate Sophia Mills. "Oftentimes, it is something that people don't want to talk about; it's kind of pushed under the rug. We want to shine a light on a lot of these issues.

"Unfortunately, due to the nature of the pandemic, we are unable to be out and about in the community like we would want to be. But we have a couple of different initiatives so that we can still raise awareness and let people know that we are here and still accepting clients and wanting to support individuals in the Lawrence County community."

The shelter's plan to get its message out began last week with downtown billboards that feature a teal background. Teal is the color of sexual assault awareness, and residents also will see it in bows that the shelter is putting on light posts along East Washington Street and in yard signs that will be placed around the community.

The shelter also is participating in the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's "30 Days of Sexual Assault Awareness Month" Instagram campaign.

"Every day, you are encouraged to post something," Mills said. "We are doing it at the Crisis Shelter on our social media, so that will be on our Instagram if anyone wants to check it out. It's really just about raising awareness and showing our support for individuals impacted by sexual violence."

In addition to handcuffing efforts to raise awareness, the pandemic also may have exacerbated the matter for many, Mills believes.

"People are encouraged to go to the hospital after a sexual assault to get a rape kit done," she said. "But because the hospitals have been so bogged down with COVID, it's been really tough for survivors to get out there, especially because they are stuck in their homes and might not have the resources or access to get to the hospitals."

About 43.6 percent of American women and 24.8 percent of men have experienced some form of sexual violence, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. About 21.3 percent of women surveyed reported completed or attempted rape at some point in their lives, with 1.2 percent saying it had happened with the 12 months preceding the survey. About 2.6 percent of men reported being victimized at some point in their lives.

Moreover, the survey showed that 81.3 percent of female victims and 70.8 percent of male victims experience their first completed or attempted rape before the age of 25.

Often, though, victims may not even understand what has happened to them.

"A big issue in general is that individuals may not know that what they experienced was sexual violence," Mills said. "A lot of times, if it's some kind of spousal or partner assault, you may just assume, 'That's my partner, so its OK.' But really, those cases are absolutely assault or harassment."

In the minds of many people, Mills went on, sexual assault is something that happens when a person is walking along and someone jumps out of the bushes and attacks him or her.

"While that does happen, this is not the majority," she said "It is usually an acquaintance, a partner, a loved one — someone that you know in some capacity."

She is optimistic that more people are beginning to understand that.

"I think because of the #MeToo era, people have become a lot more accepting (of that definition)," she said. "I like to think things are getting better, and we are raising more awareness, and things are becoming less stigmatized.

"There is lots of work that still needs to be done, which is why we're still here promoting events like these, but I do think it is starting to swing in the right direction."

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Dan Irwin is currently a reporter and page designer. He was most recently the editor. He started with The News in 1978 and spent 10 years as a sports writer. He's a '78 Slippery Rock University graduate with a B.A. in English.

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