The majority of sexual assaults are not committed by strangers, but by acquaintances, friends of friends, family members, boyfriends, often when drugs or alcohol are used to facilitate the attack.
"That's why bystander input is really important," said Julie Scherer, who works with victims of sexual assault through the YWCA in Springfield.
If there was one message to take away from the Sexual Assault Awareness Panel held Thursday morning in the Picknelly Dining Room, that was it. The majority of sexual assaults could be prevented if bystanders paid more attention and spoke up, but too often people don't want to get involved.
"We've got to intervene and advocate and ask, if only to give people the opportunity to say, I'm okay," said Kathleen Keogh, counselor with HCC Counseling Services, who served as the facilitator for the panel discussion that capped events at HCC recognizing Sexual Assault Awareness Week.
The week also included display tables of information with resources for victims of sexual assault, a free self-defense class in the courtyard, and a presentation by sexologist Megan Andelloux, who talked about healthy relationships.
"These are meant to bring the issue to our attention and educate us on how we can prevent sexual violence," said Keough. "It is an issue that is public health related. It is human rights related. It is social justice related. It affects all of us in some way."
The panel discussion began with a personal story from an HCC student who asked to remain anonymous. After trying to end a 20-year relationship with a partner who had never displayed any violent tendencies, she said he threatened to kill himself if she left. Several months later, he put a gun to her head and threatened to kill her too.
She talked her way out of the situation and survived, but her partner did not. He committed suicide.
HCC student Katy Germain talked from the bystander's point of view. She mentioned the "bystander effect," the idea, supported by research studies, that individuals are more likely to offer assistance to crime victims when they are alone, rather than in a group.
She talked about a close relative, a student at a nearby college campus, who was sexually assaulted by a guy who followed her back to her dorm room after she had been drinking, and an aunt who sought safety in a women's shelter after she separated from her abusive, drug-addicted husband of 30 years, a police detective.
Scherer, from the YWCA, talked about the services her office offers to victims of sexual assault, including counseling and response. "Many times we meet victims of sexual assault in emergency rooms," she said. "Our goal is to make sure they have control. We believe the survivor is the expert in the assault case. Our job is to provide options."
Carmen Nieves, community education coordinator from Womenshelter Companeras in Holyoke, talked about accountability. "Eighty percent of homicides happen when one partner decides to leave a relationship," she said. "With most fatalities, they leave a big trail and you only find out afterward."
In response to a question, she talked about the White Ribbon Campaign, started by men in Canada after a shooting where the hostages were segregated by gender and only the women killed. "We need men involved," she said. "We need men to stand up to other men and say, don't do this."
The discussion ended with Keough encouraging those in attendance to sign the bystanders pledge to support victims of sexual assault and work toward preventing future incidents. "I think we've got to unite and be a voice to end this behavior," she said.
Throughout the week, hundreds of HCC staff and students signed blue bystanders pledge flyers, which are now posted to the wall on the first floor of Donahue, outside the Student Activities office.
Photos: (Left) HCC counselor Kathleen Keough facilitated discussion during the Sexual Assault Awareness Panel. (Right) Panel member Carmen Nieves, from Womenshelter Companeras, talked about accountability.