“What if we didn’t have to have conferences about sexual assault?"
“What if sexual assault wasn’t the norm?”
That’s how Oregon Rep., Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland began her keynote address at the first-annual Oregon Sexual Assault Awareness Month conference on Friday, April 19, before a packed auditorium of survivor advocates and service providers at Portland Community College.
The conference — hosted by the Family Violence Coordinating Council and the Multnomah County Domestic and Sexual Violence Coordination Office — offered a full day of workshops and discussion panels aimed at helping providers and advocates strengthen their response for sexual assault survivors.
Topics included legal help for survivors, supporting people with disabilities and health challenges, services for LGBTQ+ survivors, and the intersection of sexual violence and sex trafficking. Dozens of experts hosted workshops, with voices representing Call to Safety, Bradley Angle, Portland Police Victim Services, Proyecto Unica, Sexual Assault Resource Center, and Native American Youth and Family Center.
“The need for this service is great,” said Alise Sanchez, the County’s new Domestic and Sexual Violence Coordination Office manager. “Registration for this conference filled up in just a few days and we believe this shows both the commitment for this work and the necessity for these conversations about sexual violence and how it affects our community”
Sexual assault crimes go underreported, strongly impact marginalized communities
Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal opened the conference saying that 75 percent of sexual assault cases go unreported in the County and that more must be done to better meet the needs of sexual assault survivors — especially those who belong to marginalized populations.
Jayapal represents the Board of Commissioners at the Oregon Domestic Violence Fatality Review team, the Gateway Domestic Violence Council, and the County's Sex Trafficking Collaborative. She said she asked for those assignments because of their impact on women, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants and refugees, and communities of color.
“While sexual and domestic violence knows no boundaries in terms of race, sexuality, or income, we know that these groups experience disproportionate rates of violence and significant barriers to service,” she said. “Specifically, people of color and other marginalized communities are less likely to report the assault to law enforcement, and less likely to show up in hospital emergency rooms, and thus, are less likely to receive services.”
In 2018, the County’s Domestic Violence Coordination Office changed its name to the Domestic and Sexual Violence Coordination Office after leaders learned about underreporting in sexual assault cases. The office focuses on supporting marginalized and underserved communities, including LGBTQ+ survivors undocumented survivors, and survivors who are experiencing homelessness, disabilities or mental health issues.
“We are committed to understanding the root causes of sexual violence,” Commissioner Jayapal said. “It’s not enough, there’s much more to do, but it’s where we begin.”
Conference attendees speak out
Kiera Hansen, Bradley Angle’s community-based services manager, heard about the event from their network. Bradley Angle offers services and support groups to anyone affected by domestic violence.
“It’s so common,” Hansen said of sexual assault. “Service providers often are kind of uncomfortable talking about it. Sometimes, people are uncomfortable because they don’t have any guidance around how to offer support to someone who comes to them.”
Bradley Angle clients come from various cultures, and Hansen and other Bradley Angle staff attended the conference to learn more about supporting survivors of different backgrounds who are experiencing sexual assault in relationships with domestic violence.
Hansen also looked forward to gathering with advocates who share similar experiences. Hansen said the past couple years have been challenging for the advocacy community because of a sometimes harsh national conversation about sexual and domestic violence.
“Working in the domestic violence / sexual assault arena has been really challenging lately because of the current environment and the interrogative and questioning way people are talking about it,” Hansen said. “Those of us in the work, many of us are survivors, too.”
Roshelle Cleland is the victim advocate for the Oregon Crime Victims Law Center. In her role, she helps sexual survivors with safety planning, navigating the justice system, and accessing legal resources.
When Cleland heard the event was free, she immediately registered. She was excited to learn more about a justice-themed victim’s advocacy workshop hosted by the Portland Police Bureau’s Sex Crimes Unit and the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office.
“Trainings for advocates cost money, and we’re a nonprofit. So a lot of the time, we don’t have funding for that,” she said. “Free events where we all can get together and see community partners are a great opportunity.”
Cleland said it’s important for everyone to learn about supporting survivors. And for those who couldn’t attend the conference, she offered the following:
“Reach out to your community partners. Learn more about victim blaming,” she said. “We should all support one another and especially support women right now, especially during this time in history.”
To learn more about the event, visit the Sexual Assault Awareness Month Conference website.