Before entering her teen years, Jennifer was led to believe that women were to submit themselves to men, that men were superior over women and women did not have any rights over men.
When she was 11, following her parents’ divorce, Jennifer and her mom moved to a larger Michigan city. With her mother working long hours, Jennifer relied mostly on herself and the beliefs to which she had grown accustomed.
“I was put in a jungle, trying to survive, and I ended up being victimized over and over again,” she said.
At age 11, Jennifer was dating a 21-year-old man — a relationship her mother condoned and encouraged because she thought her daughter would be safe with him, she said.
“I always went on my mother’s approval,” Jennifer said. “My mom had a different way of thinking.”
The relationship was tainted with forced sexual acts, domestic abuse and threats against Jennifer.
“I didn’t feel I had a voice,” she said. “I didn’t think I could get out of the relationship.”
The relationship lasted until Jennifer was 15 years old — only ending when the man was arrested for molesting a 3-year-old girl whom Jennifer had baby-sat.
Jennifer was four monthspregnant with the man’s baby when he was arrested and admitted to the molestation.
“It was devastating,” she said. “I remember the denial in my mind. I never believed that he would be a child molester. ... It was to the point where I knew I couldn’t trust him with my little girl.”
Breaking away from him was not an easy task for Jennifer — as he would stalk her and continue to pursue her following his release from prison.
Eventually, Jennifer was able to break free from that relationship, but was trapped in a warped world with multiple sexual abusers throughout much of her adulthood.
Two years ago, Jennifer feared for her life for the last time and went to the Center for Women in Transition in Grand Haven for help. She was 44.
“Some angel — I don’t know who — but somebody, somewhere, some God-sent person told me about it,” Jennifer said of the center. “It’s given me hope. It gave me choices. It’s saved my life and my children’s lives.”
Reaching out for help
CWIT, along with the Lakeshore Alliance Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, provide an outlet for women and children in Ottawa and Allegan counties who have been abused sexually or domestically. It’s a place where they can break down the abusive barriers and begin to heal.
“We provide sexual assault therapy services for anyone adolescent and older, regardless the age of when the assault occurred,” said Adrienne Bailey, a sexual assault therapist for CWIT.
CWIT has offices in Grand Haven, Holland and Allegan. It provides “survivors” with a 24-hour crisis hotline, emergency shelter, group therapy, legal advocacy and transitional services — such as housing and employment-related services. CWIT also has specially trained registered nurses that perform medical exams through its Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program.
Bailey explained that the most difficult decision sexual or domestic violence victims often face is getting the courage to tell someone about the abuse.
“One of the things that keep people from coming forward is that they have a sense of blaming themselves for the abuse,” she said. “So even coming forward and talking to someone — anyone, even someone like us — is a very hard thing. But we don’t blame them for the abuse and we don’t revictimize them.”
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in five women and one in 33 men have been raped or attempted raped in America. Someone in the United States is raped every 2.5 minutes.
The organization reports, however, that 62 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.
“Research consistently shows over half of sexual assaults in this state and nation are not reported to law enforcement officials,” said Kathy Hagenian, executive policy director of the Michigan Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence in Okemos. “In the long run, what we can do as a community and as advocacy organizations is to work to change the victim-blaming climate that unfortunately exists all to often in our communities surrounding the issue of sexual assault.”
In Ottawa County, there were 126 criminal sexual assault cases in reported in 2009, according to a state police incident crime report.
CWIT saw 63 survivors for sexual assault therapy last year, according to its annual report. The organization reports that 80 victims received walk-in treatments for sexual assault and 58 have undergone sexual assault exams through the Center’s S.A.N.E. program in 2010. When combined, CWIT has seen an 8.6-percent increase from 2009 in sexual assaults reported to them.
Bailey explained that some victims might knock on CWIT’s door three or four times — some even more — before they actually walk through for help.
“You’ll know when you’re ready and when you are ready to reach out,” she advises. “It’s about being able to go to someone and not leaving that big, dark secret that you keep inside yourself.”
In honor of April being Sexual Assault Awareness Month, CWIT has been hosting a variety of events and activities throughout the month. On Thursday, the D.E.L.T.A. Project, a prevention collaborative between CWIT and the LAADSV, partnered with Hope College’s Upward Bound Program to provide awareness of Denim Day, which is April 27.
Denim Day, in its 12th year, is a national organized effort following a 1999 Italian Supreme Court of Appeals decision in which a judge overturned the conviction of a rape case. The Italian judge ruled against the victim because the victim had worn tight jeans, and must have helped the perpetrator get them off, therefore consenting to the act, according to Denim Day USA’s website. Following the verdict, women in the Italian Parliament protested, wearing jeans to work.
“He was blaming her for what she wore — and that was her consent,” said Lesley Coghill, D.E.L.T.A. Project coordinator. “Our clothes do not consent for us. Jeans represent the fact that our clothes don’t represent us and that we should believe the victim — don’t blame the victim for what they wear.”
“A lot of times, we judge people by the way they dress and judge women by the jeans they wear,” Bailey said. “Denim Day is about saying, ‘No matter what you wear, no one deserves to be sexually assaulted.’”
On the road to healing
Jennifer, now 46, has been in CWIT counseling — first weekly, now bi-weekly — to help her live a life free from the shackles of sexual assault. She now recognizes the red flags of an abuser, and makes life choices that are “safe and healthy,” she said.
“They literally took my hand and walked me out from this dark part of my life,” a tearful Jennifer said of CWIT’s staff.
Jennifer, wearing a teal ribbon to promote Sexual Assault Awareness Month, protrudes confidence and self-worth. She said she no longer burdens herself with the shame of an assault.
“At times, I allowed myself to be a victim,” she said. “I’m learning now not to be a victim and learning that I am worth being protected. Now I can recognize (abuse) and saying ‘no’ and having it be a complete sentence. It’s OK for ‘no’ to be a complete sentence.”