April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Begun in 2001 by organizations working to prevent sexual assault, this month brings into focus cruel crimes that are everyday occurrences:
A soccer coach abuses a young girl over several years.
A teacher absconds to Mexico to avoid inquiry into his alleged molestation of a student.
A high schooler attending her homecoming dance is raped and beaten by several men as a group of more than a dozen watches.
But learning about such stories from the news media doesn't always add up to knowledge about the true dimensions of a problem.
In 2009, there were 88,097 forcible rapes in the United States, according to the FBI. That's a horrifyingly high number.
We need to educate people about sexual violence, and we need to work harder to prevent these crimes. Through education, we need to make everyone understand that sexual violence includes a spectrum of violations -- from harassment and unwanted touching to forcible rape.
And the danger is not so much from strangers. In fact, most victims -- 73 percent of adults and 90 percent of children -- know their attackers, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Sixty percent of assaults occur in the victim's home or in the home of a friend, relative or neighbor.
Sexual assaults -- rape, in particular -- are the crimes most underreported to the police for a variety of reasons. Despite a significant shift from blame-the-victim attitudes, some of that still lingers and so does shame and fear. Children, in particular, may be scared to expose their abuser, especially if it's a family member.
Reporting sexual crimes is also no guarantee of justice. One study cited by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center found that just half of reported sexual assaults lead to an arrest, and the probability of a rapist doing jail time is less than 20 percent.
What can any one person do?
This year, the message of Sexual Assault Awareness Month is "It's Time to Get Involved." Learning how to short circuit abusive situations before they begin, condemning behaviors and ideas that allow sexual violence to flourish and intervening safely if abuse occurs are responsibilities we can all take on.
The health and safety of our friends, relatives and neighbors depend on it.
Annette Fuentes is the author of the just-released book, "Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse" (Verso). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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