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RDVIC still fighting sexual violence after 50-plus years

Sexual harassment, abuse, and assault happens every day, in every community. No gender, age, race or social group is unaffected by these crimes — anyone can experience or perpetrate sexual violence.

According to The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), sexual violence is any type of unwanted sexual contact, including words and actions of a sexual nature against a person’s will and without their consent. Perpetrators may use force, threats, manipulation or coercion to commit these acts.

April is recognized as National Sexual Assault Awareness Month which provides advocacy groups the opportunity to raise awareness of the problem as well as the factors concerning sexual assault.

For over 50 years — since 1973 — the Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center (RDVIC) of Monongalia, Preston, and Taylor counties has advocated for victims and survivors of sexual violence in our area by providing free and confidential emergency shelter, counseling, support groups, advocacy, community education and volunteer opportunities.

RDVIC was the first agency of its kind in West Virginia, and more than a half-century later, continues its mission to provide a community-based comprehensive service that advocates for the equal rights of all individuals to have control of their lives without violence or threat of violence.

“We were involved way back when, when we recognized there was a problem and didn’t realize how significant that problem had grown into,” said Virginia Hopkins, RDVIC cofounder and board member.

In the first few years of their existence, Hopkins said the group realized the state had “an absolutely horrible law — it was rape or nothing.”

Sexual touching wasn’t a crime. Domestic violence wasn’t a crime. Children weren’t really protected that much — it wasn’t against the law to molest boys and the age of consent for girls was 10.

“It was absolutely horrible,” Hopkins said.

In following years, the group worked to try to get some of these laws changed and gained the support of Judith Herndon, the only woman in the state senate at the time.

“A number of us testified before the senate judiciary committee that was going to act on this,” said Hopkins, who testified about the marital rape law at the time.

The group saw success and it became a crime in June 1976 for someone to commit a sexual offense against their spouse. Even though it was a reduced penalty — it was still a crime.

“That continued until about 2000,” Hopkins said. “And then for some reason they changed the law and put that back in.”

However, earlier this year, state lawmakers decided marriage would no longer be an excuse and the governor signed a law that changed the marital rape exception.

“I’m really pleased that finally they came around and have recognized that this is something that should not be excluded from a criminal act,” Hopkins said of the recent law change.

During sexual assault awareness month, Hopkins said they want to honor not only the issues that a victim has had to deal with but also the resilience of so many of their survivors.

“We want to educate ourselves and others as to where a person would turn if someone comes to them and says they’ve been a victim of sexual assault or sexual abuse,” she said.

“We want to provide support resources so that if there is sexual violence, the individual who was victimized or the friend or family member who has this information is aware of what they can do and where they can turn.”

In the event something like that happens, RDVIC has a 24-hour hotline with trained providers to speak with the victim.

They will then meet them in a safe place and support them if they seek medical help — which Hopkins said is always recommended.

RDVIC advocates will also accompany victims in any legal processes like interviews with law enforcement and support them through the whole court process if there are criminal charges.

“We’re very fortunate in Monongalia County that Morgantown Police Department has a soft interview room where victims are at least able to have a more-comfortable place to explain and discuss the trauma and experience they’ve had,” Hopkins said.

That soft interview room is named the Judy King Soft Interview Room after former RDVIC Director Judy King.

Ultimately, RDVIC wants to make sure survivors of sexual violence are first able to get to a safe place and then that they are assured and understand what happened to them is not their fault.

“It’s not unusual for a perpetrator to try to get in the person’s head to try to convince them that they asked for it, that they were drinking or somehow they deserved to be treated like this,” Hopkins said. “I’ve even had children be told that it was their fault they were abused.

“That is something we want to convince everyone that is not the case and there are individuals who are there, who care about them, and who will do all they can to see to it that they get the services they need.”

Healing from sexual violence is a long process and it can take a long time to help a person deal with what has happened to them. But RDVIC works to empower survivors, so they know they are stronger than they make realize, able to heal, and can at least get to a better place.

“It’s not something someone would ever forget or could ever not be part of them in most cases,” Hopkins said. “But certainly, to know there is an agency and really caring people who will be there for them, that’s something we’re glad we can do.”

Much of RDVIC’s success can be attributed to the staff and support from the community, Hopkins said.

“I have been amazed that somehow, someway, even though they have long hours and not real great financial compensation, we get some of the best people you could ever imagine who really are the champions of our agency. We just have really good support people,” she said.

“Because of that we also have a community that has gotten behind this agency for our whole time. We have been acknowledged and recognized as an agency that is different from some of the other agencies because our community was behind us when many other places had to fight for recognition and appreciation. We’ve been very fortunate to have enjoyed that and I think it’s helped us be a better agency.”

The community has a chance to show their support every year at the annual Walk with Survivors event, which was formerly known as Walk a Mile in Their Shoes. The walk serves not only as RDVIC’s annual fundraiser, but as a way to recognize and appreciate survivors as well as the individuals who provide support.

This year’s event will be held April 20 at the Morgantown Market Place Pavilion at 400 Spruce St. Registration will begin around 2:30 p.m. and the walk itself, which will circle up Spruce Street and down High Street, will begin around 3:30 p.m.

Hopkins warned the event is usually very popular, so arriving early to sign up is advised.

In addition to the walk there will be tables with information about the services provided by various local agencies, good food and various activities.

“It’s just an opportunity to get together and hear from our champions who have done work for us over the years,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins reminds everyone to always be aware of their surroundings, because anyone can be a victim — male, female, whatever their sexual orientation, race, employment, fame or lack of it — anyone can be victimized.

“Sexual assault and sexual abuse is still a major crime in our country,” she said. “Things have finally gotten to where it’s recognized as a crime and individuals are prosecuted.”

According to NSVRC, 1 in 5 women in the U.S. have experienced completed or attempted rape during their lifetime and nearly a quarter of men in the U.S. have experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime. This includes rape, being made to penetrate someone else, sexual coercion, or unwanted sexual contact.

Nationwide, 81% of women and 43% of men reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime.

The 2019 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct found that, at 33 of the nation’s major universities, almost 1 in 4 undergraduate women experienced sexual assault or misconduct.

“And the problem with children is just phenomenal,” Hopkins said.

“To understand what someone goes through. To put them in a position where they are able to at least be stronger and know that it’s not their fault and to know that they are being supported is something this agency has really been a blessing to our community for. This agency has made a difference for so many people.”

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