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    Tuesday, February 27, 2024

    Sexual assault prevention tips from those who’ve been there

    From left, Safe Futures Inc.’s Education and Community Engagement Director Nazmie Ojeda and Christine Foster, the organization’s director of crisis counseling and Camp Hope. Safe Futures is a nonprofit agency providing services, support and housing for victims of sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence and trafficking in New London County. Photo submitted
    Christine Foster is director of Safe Futures Inc.’s crisis counseling and Camp Hope. Photo submitted

    After stopping by a non-commissioned officers’ club in 1986, Ruth invited Jay, a fellow U.S. Army comrade, back to her hotel room. Soon afterward, he assaulted her even though she said, “No.”

    Jay was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged.

    Another time while with Army personnel, Ruth was drugged, after which she overdosed and fell into a coma for three days. (Names have been changed for anonymity in accordance with The Day’s policy not to reveal the names of sexual assault victims.) The predator who had drugged the Columbia native and numerous others, was eventually charged with the murder of one woman.

    Speaking by telephone, Ruth advised, “Always, always be in a crowd. Never go to a hotel room by yourself. Always report the incident. Never leave your drink,” either bring it with you or get another when you get back.

    Safety plans for meeting new people should be a normal part of everyone's everyday conversation, said Education and Community Engagement Director Nazmie Ojeda at Safe Futures, Inc., a nonprofit agency that provides services, support and housing for victims of sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence and trafficking in New London County. She and Christine Foster, Safe Futures’ director of counseling and Camp Hope, spoke recently during a Zoom interview from their New London office.

    “We're not saying don't put yourself out there,” or that “the world is so scary you should always be afraid,” said Ojeda, who educates children through college-age students with age-appropriate conversations about boundaries and relationships - sometimes having them practice role-playing exercises.

    “Every 68 seconds an American is sexually assaulted,” according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, rainn.org. “The majority of sexual assault victims are under 30.”

    Additionally, RAINN states that individuals between 12 and 34 are at the highest risk years for rape and sexual assault, and one out of every 10 rape victims is male, and “21% of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18% of non-TGQN females, and 4% of non-TGQN males.”

    “I do think that technology and online dating certainly requires its own specific safety plan. Just like any other situation that comes with certain risks, you have to be cautious,” Foster said.

    While talking with older students, Ojeda said she often asks them “What advice would you give your best girlfriend if she told you she was going on a date?”

    Good advice often includes sharing your location so someone knows where you are and who you’re with, having a phone number to call after the date for support, arriving at the meeting place separately and departing the same way.

    Some people might be more comfortable in a group situation rather than a one-on-one date, which is why safety plans vary among individuals, said Ojeda, a survivor.

    By learning social-emotional skills and how they view themselves, young people learn to first have a healthy relationship with themselves and where they need to improve, such as their communication abilities, she said. They also discover if they have assertive, aggressive or passive personalities and how that affects relationships with people around them.

    Ojeda said she asks students how they pick their friends, because they may turn into closer relationships in middle and high school and become more intimate in the future.

    “What keeps people safe is their understanding that they have a right to their bodies, time, wellbeing and that we all have the right to safe love - whatever that means and looks like depending on the type of relationship,” Ojeda said.

    Tackling and preventing problems

    Ways to avoid being drugged include not accepting drinks from strangers, Foster said. “Watch the bartender make the drinks. If you're going out in a group, take turns having one stay sober to keep an eye out on things.”

    When online photos do not match in-person reality, the best way to react may differ from person to person.

    "Maybe a person who is more assertive and feels comfortable in their communication and feels safe enough will meet the person and say, ‘I’m sorry. This is not what I thought’ and they can walk away,“ Foster said. ”A different person might not be so comfortable and might not feel as safe. Depending on their previous experiences, they might decide when they see the person from afar to turn away.”

    Stalking requires a very specific safety plan for each situation, Foster said.

    “If someone is stalking you, calling you, sending you a lot of text messages, bothering you on social media,” sometimes the approach is to block the number, shut down your social media pages for a little while and see if it stops.

    “If the person is showing up at your work or at your school, I think that requires a little bit of a different kind of plan. You might need to talk to your friends and coworkers and have them keep an eye out. And always, always set clear boundaries.”

    When people are being stalked, Foster said it is very important to say, “I am not interested. I do not want this attention. I do not want you visiting me.”

    This way, depending on the individual’s behavior, if you have to get the police involved, “you can make it very clear that you've already sent that message - there is no gray area in that.”

    If someone takes sexual videos or photos of you without your knowledge, Foster said you can go to the police. If you know where they have been posted, you can sometimes contact the website, tell them it was not consensual and they will sometimes take them down.

    Domestic violence is the scenario they see the most, Foster said.

    “People that are in relationships with someone that is exerting power and control over them in some way, whether that's physical, emotional, financial or otherwise. We really just work to provide people with information and options, so that they can make choices about how to best keep themselves safe.”

    Sometimes, the abuse starts in a subtle way by a predator grooming a young person, Foster said.

    “It might be you're dating someone who pressures you to have sex” with another person or friend and it snowballs into something much larger. “It's not always this huge, dramatic story of someone being thrown in the back of the truck and hauled across the country. I'm not saying that doesn't happen. It's not usually what we see.”

    Sometimes, individuals reach out and ask someone to call 911, which is how they gain access to Safe Futures, Ojeda said. Staff often learns they have very little education, income, or access to health care and support, because they are kept completely isolated, and their partners would not allow that.

    "Our services are available to anyone regardless of your gender, where you come from, or language you speak,” Foster said. "Our hotline is very confidential. You don't even have to provide a name if you're not comfortable. So if you ever have questions or concerns about your safety and want to talk to someone, please call us. Someone will always pick up the phone.”

    Safe Futures Inc. is located at 241 Main St. in Norwich and 16 Jay St. in New London. Its offices are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Safe Futures offers emergency shelter for men and women 18 and over and their children and pets.

    Call its confidential hotline 860-701-6001 (which uses a phone interpretation service) available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For more information, or to volunteer or donate money, clothing or household goods, go to safefuturesct.org.

    Jan Tormay, a longtime Norwich resident, now lives in Westerly.

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