#MeToo is an issue in Williamsburg, not just Hollywood

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The Avalon center is expanding its resources in the peninsula right as the #MeToo campaign causes a surge of sexual harassment reports. (File photo)
The Avalon center in Williamsburg is expanding its resources in the Peninsula right as the #MeToo movement reflects growing awareness of sexual harassment. (File photo)

The #MeToo movement has raised awareness of sexual assault and a national nonprofit is spreading out across the Peninsula to help.

Ever since Harvey Weinstein, a prominent Hollywood film producer, was alleged to have engaged in inappropriate conduct by multiple women in October, women have been speaking out about their own experiences. On social media, they’ve often used the hashtag #MeToo.

“Social media is a powerful way for people to connect,” said Priscilla Bevel Caldwell, Development and Communications Director of the Avalon Center in Williamsburg. “It’s a good way for people to tell others that they are not alone.”

Record numbers of phone calls have poured into national sexual assault hotlines, according to a report from Reuters. Williamsburg’s Avalon, a national nonprofit that works to end domestic and sexual violence, has seen a spike in numbers as well, and all of the data goes into a statewide database to be analyzed.

In Virginia in 2012, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reported, law enforcement officers made 20,718 arrests for domestic violence, which is often a form of sexual violence; only 26 percent of those arrests led to convictions.

The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network reports that a case of sexual assault occurs every 98 seconds in the United States — meaning there could be as many as 321,500 victims of sexual assault or rape each year.

More recently, the National Sexual Assault Hotline has had to put callers on hold for as much as three hours, due to the rush of reports.

And the #MeToo campaign has given victims around the country new confidence to report abuse, according to a report from Reuters. Calls to crisis centers increased by 25 percent in November of 2016 and then by another 30 percent in December, according to a report from The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network.

Avalon has been working to help these victims for years. 

“While many people may have not been aware of how prevalent sexual violence and abuse is, for us, we’ve been aware,” Caldwell said.

The organization provides shelter and other services to anyone who has experienced sexual assault, according to its website. This includes the implied threat of violence or coercion.

Since 1978, Avalon has tracked incident rates and sexual harrassment is much more common than people realize, even in our own area, according to Caldwell.

Avalon has planned an expansion that will add hundreds of volunteers to its program across the Peninsula. 

The spectrum of sexual harassment 

While many people think of sexual violence as only an act of physical harassment, the phenomenon includes many forms of harassment, according to Doorways for Women and Family, a nonprofit organization that helps women who’ve been assaulted.

Many of these instances occur in the workplace, where there is a direct link between power and sexual aggression, according to a study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers found that men who’d experienced long-term feelings of low power in the workplace and who were suddenly placed in a more powerful position tended to respond with more hostile sexual behavior toward a less powerful victim.

“It’s about power and the abuse of power,” Caldwell said.

This imbalance can play out in schools, too.

A study done by Harvard University, for example, found that degrading language is used often in school hallways and classrooms, where young women are being referred to as “sluts” and “whores.”

Many young people don’t see this as sexual assault, according to the study, so these instances fade into the background of everyday life.

Still, Caldwell views the #MeToo campaign as progress and hopes it will continue to increase awareness.

“My question for you,” Caldwell said “is have you ever seen such a media exposure this long?”

Tom Davis contributed reporting.

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