BRISTOL, Va. — As the avalanche of sexual harassment complaints against high-profile men in the media, entertainment and politics continues, one local hotline has seen an uptick in calls on the subject.

“Every time you turn on the television or read an article, it seems like there is a new public figure with allegations against them,” said Emilee Lawson, sexual assault advocate at the Bristol Crisis Center in Bristol, Virginia.

“With the number of local calls that we’ve had come through the hotline, I would say that we have seen an increase,” she added. “We want to encourage victims to come out and share their own voices.”

The list of celebrities whose careers have been suddenly derailed as a result of accusations of sexual misconduct include former “Today” show host Matt Lauer, TV chef Mario Batali, TV journalist Charlie Rose, actors Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman, and former U.S. Sen. Al Franken, among many others.

The #MeToo movement was touched off in early October, when The New York Times published an expose on movie producer Harvey Weinstein that revealed sexual harassment and assault allegations going back for decades. Weinstein, who was fired, denied all the accusations.

The barrage of accusations can trigger emotions in survivors of sexual abuse or misconduct, according to Lawson.

“For many, it has reminded them of their own experiences,” Lawson said. “It also triggers back memories of not being believed or supported by someone — like a family member or even a friend.”

That may be changing. Time magazine recently named, “The Silence Breakers,” as its 2017 Person of the Year — honoring those who spoke out about sexual misconduct.

“When the magazine announced that, it was huge,” Lawson said. “I feel like it showed a lot of people that the subject matter truly is real, and it’s happening right before our own eyes.”

Highlands Community Services, which provides behavioral health care for those dealing with mental health, substance abuse and development issues, hasn’t experienced an increase in complaints of sexual harassment or abuse. But Program Director Kathi Roark said she believes the national attention will mean local victims will start to feel empowered and want to share their own stories, which often isn’t easy to do.

“Sexual abuse, harassment and assault are not easy topics to discuss publicly or privately,” Roark said. “It’s amazing to see all those that are telling their story in the news and on social media. Our hope is that victims — both kids and adults — will feel more OK disclosing details and start that road to healing.”

Bristol, Tennessee-based Abuse Alternatives provides support for victims of sexual harassment. The nonprofit offers a number of services, including temporary, emergency shelter and emotional support to survivors and their children who need safety from violent situations.

Officials there recommend creating a back-up plan to escape situations like sexual abuse.

Some tips include calling 911, arranging a signal with someone when help is needed and taking important items including driver’s licenses, medical records, money and credit cards.

Advocates like Lawson hope the national conversation will bring lasting change.

“For many, it’s their first time talking about the issue,” Lawson said. “Here at the Crisis Center, we want them to know that it’s never too late to seek help, and that’s what we preach.”

An online national poll conducted in November by survey development firm SurveyMonkey revealed that “82 percent of respondents said women are more likely to speak out regarding harassment.” The survey also found that 85 percent of those taking the survey say they believe the women accusers.

“For some, the news has made them feel empowered,” Lawson said. “There’s also a sense for some women and even men — that if you come forward, things are going to happen now.”

For many survivors, it takes years to gather the courage to speak up, she added.

“We have seen a lot of women and men who feel like they were the ones held responsible,” Lawson said. “It doesn’t matter what you were wearing, what you were drinking or where you were at — rape, sexual assault and harassment can happen to anyone. It doesn’t have an effect on race, educational status, job status or who you are as an individual.”

The ongoing opioid crisis is also resulting in sexual assault, according to Lawson. She said those who live on the streets and are taking drugs deal with the daily fear of an attack that they are too sedated to fend off, or of waking up to signs that they have been assaulted.

“Some men and women will call the hotline and say ‘I was high on pills and woke up with my clothes off,'” Lawson said. “They don’t remember anything and when they come off the opioids — that withdrawal can also make them return to violent crimes or other terrible things.”

Awareness is still the best defense when it comes to dealing with sexual assault or harassment, according to Lawson.

“We don’t say 50,000 men raped women — it’s 50,000 women were raped,” Lawson said. “Sexual assault has become less taboo now, and we’re seeing it all around us. It’s important to become educated on the topic and also become aware of your surroundings.”


Information from: Bristol Herald Courier, http://www.bristolnews.com

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ZACH IRBY
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