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Sexual assault can be prevented

While I, my sister, brothers and cousins were growing up, we’d stay at our Granny’s apartment. Granny was a strong, wee Scotch-Irish woman, with a soft heart for her “wee bairns.” Frequently at night, our Granny would have nightmares of someone “comin’ thru tha winda.” In the morning, she would laugh and make a joke of it: Look at how silly she is.

It wasn’t until I was long an adult that I found out the truth: Granny had been raped at the age of 12 by a member of the Cheeky Forty gang. She didn’t know what sex was at the time and didn’t understand what had happened to her. And, so, until the end of her life, it haunted her. Looking back, I see patterns. Granny is just one of the hundreds who live with the scars, illnesses and sorrows caused by sexual assault, domestic violence and abuse.

Out of every 100 women, 50 have experienced intimate-partner violence, 31 have experienced sexual violence, and 57 have experienced both. And that’s in Fairbanks, according to the 2011 Alaska Victimization Survey.

That’s half the women walking past you right now, as you sit on a bench, ski, take a walk or shop.

We lead the nation, according to the Uniform Crime Report. That’s a shaming statistic. More than 90 percent of abusers are people our children know, love and trust (according to Darkness to Light, a child abuse prevention organization), 1 in 33 men have been sexually assaulted (according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), and 1 in 6 male adults were sexually assaulted as children (according to the CDC). 

I am one of eight forensic nurses at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. We have three full-time and five per diem nurses serving this vast beautiful land and caring for men, women and children who have been victims of crime in Interior Alaska. Last year, we had more than 450 cases.

People ask me: Why do you do this?

One of the reasons is my Granny, who was haunted by an act she didn’t understand and that caused her to make life-altering decisions that may not have been the best for her and her family at the most and given her broken sleep nights at the least. Victims suffer from depression, flashbacks, fears and post-traumatic stress disorder. I do it because sexual assault doesn’t just affect a male or female victim; sexual assault also affects the family, children, friends and coworkers of the victim.

I hope, with my work, to help people who have been assaulted to start on the path of healing, to go from victim to survivor. There are plenty of people to help our patients to heal from such a brutal, confusing, life-altering act. In Forensic Nursing Services, we work closely with local law enforcement, advocates and other agencies to physically, mentally and emotionally help our patients begin to heal. We do this with compassion, honor and respect for the patient who has the dignity and courage to come forth and face the monster of sexual assault.

There is hope for healing.

Our Granny taught me well.

While you can never completely protect yourself from sexual assault, here are some things you can do to help reduce your risk of being assaulted.

• Be aware of your surroundings. Know where you are and who is around you.

• Walk with purpose. Even if you don’t know where you are going, act as if you do.

• Make sure you have your cellphone.

• Avoid putting headphones in both ears.

• Trust your instincts. If you feel unsafe, call 911.

• Watch out for your friends and vice versa.

• If you suspect you or a friend has been drugged, call 911.

• Remember that being in this situation is not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s the person who is making you uncomfortable that is to blame.

• Be true to yourself. “I don’t want to” is always a good enough reason. “No” is a complete sentence.

• Have a code word with your friends or family so that if you don’t feel comfortable you can call them and have them come to get you or make up an excuse for you to leave.

• Lie. If you don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings, it is better to lie and make up a reason to leave than to stay and be uncomfortable, scared or worse.

• Think of an escape route.

• If you and/or the other person have been drinking, you can say that you would rather wait until you both have your full judgment before doing anything you may regret later. Alcohol can increase your risk by decreasing inhibitions and causing blackouts, amnesia and unconsciousness.

Liza Walshe is a forensic nurse at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.

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