Count Us In: Building a Better Future for Women in the State of Oregon (LJP)

by Madi Welch

“As a young 14-year-old woman I feel very aware at all times, of my safety in my community.  I am aware of unwanted attention from men on the street.  I am scared to the point that I barely feel OK going on a walk alone.” -Anonymous, Eugene (Count Her In 23)

“When I was 12-years-old, I was raped by a stranger.  Soon after, my addiction to meth started.  I was in and out of youth correctional facilities and detention centers.  I never got the counseling I needed.   My way of coping was by doing drugs.  I still struggle with addiction and with many other issues.  But right now I am four months clean and sober and doing my very best.” -Anonymous, Medford (Count Her In 24)

In an unsuspecting corner of downtown Portland, in the basement of a residence hall covered with tangles of ivy, lies the core of women’s resources offered to urban students at Portland State University.  I walk down the steep steps of the PSU Women’s Resource Center, and as I reach the door, a tall woman in a long black jacket pushes it open and ushers me into the cheery, cozy atmosphere.

“Hello!” she says in an enthusiastic voice. 

I smile and thank her as I step in from the drizzling outdoors.

Inside the doors, the first thing to catch my eye is a massive painting behind the front desk.  Its shape is unclear at first, but I eventually make out a woman’s body curled in the center of the brightly painted swirls.  In front of the painting, a woman with short brown hair covered by a striped beanie, who I later learn is Lisa, leans back in an office chair discussing something involving dates and times and “I’ll get back to you’s.”  

She turns towards me and smiles, “I’ll be with you in a minute.”  

One part of the room is labeled “Peer Advocate Corner” in gold glitter paint and fairy lights; two women sit at a table bent over textbooks in another corner.  The mood of the room is relaxed and inviting, and I immediately feel comfortable.

I turn around to see Lisa has wrapped up her conversation; I quickly go over and introduce myself.  Soon, we are immersed in literal piles of pamphlets, resource lists, and documents–– all focused on building advocacy, support, and safety for women on campus.

*  *  *  

Over the last several years, individual and societal concerns about sexual violence have been splashed across the pages of newspapers and have increasingly emerged as a galvanizing issue on college campuses.   In the quest to improve the safety of our girls and women, there is an impulse to look towards a single solution to wipe away the problem, whether through prevention programs, improved law enforcement, or easier access to sexual health resources.  The truth, however, is that the societal structure that enables and encourages violence towards women and girls is just one part of an interconnected web of challenges facing half of Oregon’s population.  The scale and specificity of these issues are illustrated in great detail in the September 2016 publication by the Women’s Foundation of Oregon of Count Her In: A Report About Women and Girls in Oregon, the most comprehensive gender study in this state in almost twenty years.  Though the data on sexual and domestic violence is sobering, it also provides a compelling motivation to seek change in a range of areas including education, political advocacy, healthcare, and legal and economic rights, all of which will improve the safety and wellness of women and girls in our state.

Count Her In illustrates both the accomplishments made by women in Oregon and the significant social, legal, economic, and health challenges that still need to be addressed.  Areas of growth and contributions of women within the state are clear.  Oregon women, for example, vote at higher rates than Oregon men and women in other states, and the report states that fewer than 5% of the state’s violent crimes are committed by women.  Most positions and jobs in Oregon’s public education and health care are held by women, and they also donate more time and money to charities than men.  Women surpassed our state’s 2025 female college graduation rate goal eleven years early, in 2014 (Count Her In 3).

These are some remarkable accomplishments, and it would be easy to focus solely on this data without taking a moment to recognize that Oregon women still have significant gaps in other areas, particularly those over which they have less personal control.  Count Her In states that women of color in Oregon face “disproportionate barriers to success,” highlights that the gender wealth gap in Oregon is the biggest disparity in the United States, and shows that over half of Oregon’s female population, estimated at one million women and girls, have experienced sexual or domestic violence (Count Her In 4).  Looking at this data provides important information, but more significant is how these findings are used to create change.  The results of Count Her In give the citizens and politicians of Oregon an imperative message to make changes that will improve the safety and wellness of over half of our state’s citizens.

*  *  *

A guiding force for this work, Emily Evans is the passionate Executive Director of the Women’s Foundation of Oregon, an organization with roots that date back to 1885, though its current structure of building membership, providing community grants, and supporting statewide projects like Count Her In  is just two years old (Evans).  Sitting in her second-story office in the heart of Portland’s Old Town, I notice a dramatic shift from the clearly poverty-impacted streets below to her modern, glassed-in office in the Philanthropy Building.  Confident, organized, and professionally-dressed, Evans is as eager to talk about the personal and societal issues facing women as I am.

We begin our conversation by reviewing key data points in Count Her In, the foundation’s most influential creation.  Producing this report provides vital data to organizations, service providers, and advocacy groups working on behalf of women and children throughout the state, though Evans is also aware of the significance of this gap in information: “We never should have been in a twenty-year data blind.  We never should have gone a generation without knowing how the heck half the state was doing!”  I can quickly see that the political is also personal for her: she laughs in disbelief at this lapse in data.  Prior to this study, people looked around the state and noticed the individual efforts of women and girls, believing these anecdotal examples must mean an improvement in the status of women; however, the data directly confronted this belief.  As Evans explains, “The whole design of the report is that you were not supposed to be able to look at that page and look somebody in the eye and say that we do not have a problem.  It has been successful in that.  Immediately when people agree on the problem, the next two questions are: how did it get this way, and what can we do about it?”  

The answers to those questions are not simple; however, organizations like the Women’s Foundation of Oregon are committed to finding them.  “What the data is actually saying is that, in fact, half the state is really struggling with basic things like safety, economic security, access to leadership, and racism.”  Evans explains, “If you talk to anyone who is an expert in any one of these things, they will tell you that you cannot just deal with it in isolation.  They are locked in this constant cycle of cause and effect with one another, so you couldn’t possibly hope to just solve [one issue] without at least understanding that they are all locked in this reinforcing pattern that creates a series of systemic barriers.”

“Like the hydra in Greek Mythology?” I joke, referring to the terrifying, many-headed monster.

“Totally, like the hydra!” she exclaims, “You’re like, ‘Great, I solved this.  Oh shit, there’s 64 heads there!'”

Data can provide important information to drive changes in policy, but it is not enough to spark a movement.  As Evans describes the next step in the organization’s study, her commitment to making Count Her In a living document is clear, “What moves us as people are stories and faces and the perspectives based on lived experiences, so we wanted to get out and talk to women and girls and see if what we were hearing from the data was actually being experienced in communities, and if these issues were affecting women in communities.”  What she discovered, after traveling to fourteen different places throughout the state, holding sessions in Spanish, Somali, Russian, and English, reaching out to culturally specific organizations, and ensuring that she was hearing from women of all ages and life experiences is that “Women and girls are contributing an exceptional amount, and then they are facing all this adversity on the back end.”

“It is really ironic now in our current political situation that we have an older, white, straight man saying that the system has been rigged, when in fact, the system has been rigged against women and communities of color and queer people and everybody else who experiences disadvantages for a long time,”  Evans notes, as she talks about the power of data to drive meaningful change.  Although the data is distressing, she continues, “Any of these given outcomes is not based on a shortcoming of a woman or girl who is experiencing it, especially when you are talking about the numbers we are talking about.  When half the state is experiencing sexual assault, when a third of the state is economically fragile or has barriers to reproductive health, and when 70% of the women who we spoke to on the listening tour have faced a major mental health challenge, that is not some sort of personal failure.  When 70% of women in the state feel that way, that is something… that is endemic to that population and this place and this world that we have created around ourselves.”

*  *  *

Every day in this state, thousands of women experience some sort of violence, whether physical, verbal or sexual.  Starting at a young age, “Oregon girls are subject to nearly twice as much school-based harassment as Oregon boys,” with reports of at least 10% of the total population (Count Her In 23).  This stands in contrast with only 3% of the school-based male participants in this study who reported being harassed with “unwanted sexual comments or attention” (Count Her In 23).  While all forms of harassment are unacceptable, the particular harassment directed towards girls exerts an enormous impact on their academic lives, as well as their social and emotional health.

Sexual violence is present across all income levels, ethnic groups, and geographic communities (Count Her In 24).  There is no one group that is solely victim to violence; however, Native American women and women of color, along with women who struggle with disabilities and mental health, are attacked at higher rates (Count Her In 24).  Notably, a comparison included in the report displays sexual assault rates in Oregon compared to the rest of the United States— 27% of women in Oregon reported rape compared with 18% in the rest of the country, and 56% of Oregon women experienced a form of sexual assault other than rape compared to 45% in national data (Count Her In 24).  

These numbers are dramatic and demand attention.  Why are the rates so much higher in our state?  What is being done to support women, both in prevention and in treatment for these assaults?  While prevention is clearly a longer-term goal, support and treatment are vital as well.  Count Her In notes that many communities lack adequate numbers of trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, funding to process rape kits, and are generally poorly prepared to support sexual violence survivors.  Even if a survivor is able to get a proper examination, few communities in Oregon have enough support groups to aid the survivors and help them cope after a traumatizing event (Count Her In 24).  

* * *

As Oregon’s Youth Sexual Education Coordinator supporting the public health infrastructure throughout the state, Shelagh Johnson brings her full presence and fiery red hair to her statewide work.  Her job is to provide guidance to local public health agencies and to collaborate with her counterpart at the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) to partner, network, and connect with people and agencies who are either doing or helping other people do direct service.

The Youth Sexual Health Plan, passed in 2009, requires all Oregon schools to teach medically accurate sexual education, is yielding measurable results in reducing teen pregnancies, and is the guiding document for her work.  The plan claims that “A holistic approach to sexual health supports physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being in relation to sexuality. As a result, the plan recognizes and advocates policies that help reduce poverty, discrimination, gender inequities and gender role expectations, and cultural assumptions of heterosexuality” (Johnson).  Johnson states that she believes it is her job to “work the plan,” but what frustrates her is that even though Oregon has the best sexual education policy, it is not necessarily accessible across the state.  

“If sex ed was being done in schools and community settings and at homes, like it could be, should be, then people would understand concepts like consent.”  Johnson asserts, “[They] would be able to recognize healthy and unhealthy relationships, think about abuse, know what they want and what they do not want because those would just be common conversations that we have regarding gender stereotypes and relationships.”

Clearly, there is a long way to go.  Some agencies, however, are generating these conversations with internal, respected members of traditionally marginalized communities.  As Mariotta Gary-Smith, Multnomah County’s African American Sexual Health Equity Program educator, explains in a 2013 Portland Mercury article by Sarah Mirk,  “We’re doing work that requires some really deep soul searching. That’s not really what health care is usually about. […] You can’t come into communities of color and say, ‘This is what needs to happen, so we’re going to do this.’ […] What you need to do instead is go to the community and have them determine what’s important to them, so it’s relevant to their lives. For communities that have a history of being disenfranchised and defined by others, giving them a space to talk about what that’s like for them—and then they can frame what they want—is really important” (qtd. in Mirk).

Multnomah County Health Educator Molly Franks agrees, “In work on sexuality and health, it’s important that we talk about culture and I think we don’t often do it consciously. If we’re not doing it consciously, then we’re reflecting on the dominant culture, which is white. In this program (Cuidate), we call it out and talk about cultural values,” says Franks (qtd. in Mirk).  Multnomah County Health Department Director, Lillian Shirley, strongly agrees with this approach.  Shirley explains that the goal of programs including Opciones y Educación (OYE) and Cuidate is to “provide information and resources to teens and their parents and to break down barriers that prevent families from talking openly about sex and sexuality” (Shirley).  As an expert with a masters degree in public health, Shirley stresses the importance of discussions around sexuality within Latino culture, community members, and agencies which are hopeful to “promote sexual health in Latino communities by increasing open discussion of sexuality, homophobia, the traditional roles of men and women, and social issues that affect sexual health.” (Shirley)

Clearly, through Johnson’s work as well as other statewide and local efforts, prevention is a crucial part of improving sexual health across diverse communities.  As we continue our conversation, I press Johnson— if all of this prevention work is already enacted in Oregon, why does the data presented in Count Her In show such a concerning picture about the rate of sexual assaults for our state?  Johnson furrows her brow and then responds, “In general, Oregon is in the forefront because we are one of the first states who is thinking about how sexual assault is part of sex ed.  Our policy talks about consent, and it talks about child abuse prevention, and it talks about violence.  It has all of those elements now, so we are leading the way in that way.”  Upon further discussion, she is more forthright and bold in her argument, “Violence is about oppression.  If you look at the history of our state, it is just bathing in oppression.  I think it is less about the sex ed policy and more about generations of folks who have oppressed others, and a state which was built on oppression.  Some of that is remaining, whether it is violence against women, violence against people of color, violence against trans folks, whatever that looks like in different communities.”

Throughout my conversation with Johnson, the complexity of the problem grows for me.  The troubling rates of sexual assault in our state have no simple solutions, but they require forward movement in spite of this.  Johnson gives a practical example of this challenge,  “It is much easier to say that unintended pregnancy means they just need contraception… but it is so much more complicated than that, which is the same as violence against women.  [For example, there is a thought that] if we just teach them about healthy relationships, then they will not have intimate partner violence.  Well, that is not true.  Our lives are complex, and so are the answers,” she trails off, thoughtfully.

* * *

Back at Portland State University’s Women’s Resource Center, as volunteer Lisa and I continue discussing the epidemic rates of intimate violence directed towards women, Shelagh Johnson’s explanation of the complicated nature of a real solution returns to me.  There are so many organizations at work, so many people attacking this “hydra” to which Emily Evans refers.  The data itself tells a story, but building a genuine change requires progress on many, many fronts.  Certainly, efforts on college campuses are an important part of the picture.  Through “advancing social justice, ensuring access to personal empowerment for all women, and by working towards a safe and healthy campus,” the PSU Women’s Resource Center “advocates for the best educational and campus experience for all members of our community” (PSU Women’s Resource Center).  They offer a Leadership and Action program where students can volunteer, work on special events, or join one of many student-led activist groups, including the Body Politics Action Team, Women of Color Action Team, and Reproductive Justice Action Team.  The Center also provides  “Empowerment” and “Interpersonal Violence” programs, both of which offer additional support to women facing barriers at school, as well as in their intimate relationships.  And of course, the community lounge of the Center is accessible, welcoming, and safe for all students (PSU Women’s Resource Center).

In addition to the options available at the Women’s Resource Center, the PSU campus provides other support services, including the Center for Student Health and Counseling (SHAC), which accommodates students who seek confidential medical care and counseling with a trauma-informed sexual assault nurse and, if needed, forensic evidence collection.  Both the Women’s Resource Center and the Queer Resource Center offer confidential Interpersonal Violence (IPV) advocates.  An IPV advocate can work with a student to create a safety plan that can help to ensure they will be able to attend classes, participate in campus life, and adjust their academic and living arrangements as needed.  This plan may involve filing a Student Code of Conduct Complaint if the situation involves another PSU student.  Advocates also have the responsibility to be a confidential listener, to review reporting options with students, to support whatever decision they choose, and to provide them with connections to counseling, medical, or legal services regarding these decisions (PSU Women’s Resource Center).  

As Lisa and I hit the bottom of the pile of pamphlets, as well as the conclusion to our conversation, it is clear to me how much this center is doing to ensure their students feel not only safe on campus but supported.  The advocates here fully see the true value of their role as someone who witnesses and supports the survivor’s healing process.

* * *

I sit in the living room of Tami Kent, with Mocha, a territorial German Shepard nestled comfortably on my left and Timber, an energetic French Bulldog, tucked in on my right.  The high-pitched whirring of the hair dryer stops, and an energetic, smiling Kent skips down the stairs in a black t-shirt, “WILD FEMINIST” scrawled in bold, white lettering across the front.  Mom to three boys and revered as a popular author and innovative physical therapist focused on women’s reproductive health, Tami Kent is highly aware of and cautious about the prevalence of sexual trauma that many women may face in their lifetimes.  Her unique form of physical therapy alleviates pelvic pain by working with the muscles and the fascia to help align tissues in the body.  Healing pelvic pain, from diagnoses including prolapse to postpartum injuries, is vital to women maintaining full health, especially as they age (Kent).

“Because I have my hands on women, I always have to know their history first of all,” Kent explains.  As a physical therapist, knowing a patient’s history is important, and when working with women, this information can hold even greater significance.  

“So they tell me their reproductive history, have they had children, what is their birth control, and then have they had any trauma.  That is always a part of the history,” she notes, explaining further that when a person experiences a traumatic event, the body remembers it.  As Kent puts it, “The body is almost separate from our mind in that way;” when her hands are on a patient’s pelvis, she needs to know what traumatic response could emerge.  

Much of the work done by someone practicing women’s physical therapy is not directly related to sexual assault trauma; however, the topic often comes up while working with a woman.  Over the past twenty years of her practice, Tami Kent recognizes that more than half of women who come in for treatment have sexual trauma in their past, whether from earlier in her life or from a more recent event.  The most prevalent result that she sees with sexual assaults is that “women no longer feel good in their body, especially that part of their body.”  Tami compares her work to something like midwifery, not giving birth to a new human being but “helping bring them back into their root as a peaceful place.”

While Kent’s work is not always directly focused on the trauma, these experiences are an important part of what she heals.  As we are sitting on her couch, she pulls up some articles on her phone as examples of the prevalence of sexual violence directed towards women:  “For Many Women, Trump’s Locker Room Talk Brings Memories of Sexual Assault” and “Women Tweet Stories of Sexual Assault.”  These articles, and others discussing the tweet sent out by Kelly Oxford in response to Trump’s lewd comments about sexual assault pop up immediately on her feed.  “Tweet me the story of your first sexual assault. I’ll go first: 12 years old on a bus, and a guy rubbed against me,” she reads from her screen.   She sets down her phone and continues her explanation,  sharing that these stories show a connection between national news and the common themes of women’s individual experiences with sexual assault.  She leans back into the couch and shares her thoughts, “There is healing on the other side of an assault.  I guess one [aspect of healing] is knowing assaults are really common.  Two is being prepared, like let’s be prepared, let’s go in as buddies, and make sure nobody makes us a drink without watching.  These are the drug rapes that happen, and they are happening a lot.  I am seeing a lot of young women, twenty-somethings who have been on college campuses who have had a drug rape[…] a rape where they do not quite know what happened.  And those are really difficult to heal because it is kind of like surgery, you cannot quite remember and imagine if something violating happened in that state.  It is very traumatizing to the body.”

Stories like these give us the human impact of data that highlights the prevalence of sexual violence directed towards women, but what do we do about it?  And how does a person in the healing profession not give up hope when the same issues continue to emerge across the treatments of many women?  “What I think we do about it, and what I try to do in my life with the young people I touch is educate, educate, educate,” Kent asserts, “So I talk to my sons about it a lot.  I talk about consent, and I talk about violation.  I talk about just what does it mean, and I think bringing awareness so that nobody gets confused, I think raising awareness is helpful.”  

I ask Kent, as a healer, what she sees to be the most effective factors of the healing process.  She pauses for a moment before responding, “I think being witnessed.”  Kent continues in further explanation,  “I do not know if you have ever heard of that, but it means someone who will sit with you and be with you in that experience, so maybe they can hear the experience and they can love you through it and they can help you come to the other side of it.  It is kind of like a mother does; that is what healers do, too.  They sit close, they listen, they are with you in it, and they reassure you that it is not your fault, and that you are not alone.  Like this has happened to others, and you can come to the other side of it and be whole again.”  Restoring this sense of wholeness is, of course, central to healing individuals, as well as entire communities.

*  *  *

With the safety of our girls and women in our minds, there is an impulse to look towards a single solution to rid us of the problem, whether through prevention programs, improved law enforcement, or easier access to sexual health resources.  However, the societal structure that enables and encourages violence towards women and girls is just a part of an interconnected web of challenges facing half of Oregon’s population (Count Her In 4).  There is no one definite path towards a solution for the issues facing women around the state of Oregon.  We have resource centers doing their part and foundations gathering data and producing reports, such as Count Her In, to publicize the magnitude of the problem.  We have women like Emily Evans, Shelagh Johnson, and Tami Kent at the helm of organizations, fighting hard for preventative education and standing with survivors.  These resources are here to educate, protect, and support women with similar stories to those told by the women interviewed in Count Her In.  Sexual violence brings a great deal of issues that are complicated and require a range of systemic responses; thankfully, we are building a culture prepared to walk forward together.  There is a movement towards change, but for now, we’ve got work to do.

 

Works Cited

Count Her In. Rep. Women’s Foundation of Oregon, 2016. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

Evans, Emily. Personal Interview. 2 Nov. 2016.

Johnson, Shelagh. Personal Interview. 8 Nov. 2016.

Kent, Tami. Personal Interview. 30 Oct. 2016.

Mirk, Sarah. “The Empowerment Cure.” The Portland Mercury. n.p., 28 Aug. 2013. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

PSU Women’s Resource Center. Women’s Resource Center. Portland: PSU Women’s Resource Center, n.d. Print.

Shirley, Lillian. “Teens Benefit From Talking Openly About Sexuality With Their Families.” El Hispanic News. n.p., 3 May 2012. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

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