Northern Wilds Magazine
The CDC states sexual violence affects millions of individuals each year across the United States. | ROSIE SUN: UNSPLASH
Along the Shore

Shining a light: Advocacy for sexual violence survivors

Designated as sexual assault awareness month, April is a time dedicated to raising awareness, educating communities, and supporting victims and survivors of sexual violence.

Sexual violence can occur in person, or through the use of technology, but at its core, it involves any form of non-consensual sexual activity.

“Sexual violence is actually an umbrella. There’s a lot of different forms of it,” Lindsey Gau, the director of the Violence Prevention Center in Grand Marais, said. Gau said sexual violence stretches far beyond physical acts of rape, sexual harassment, or domestic abuse. It also includes verbal abuse, rape jokes, catcalling, stalking, the objectification of women, and unsolicited sexual images in the dating world.

Sexual violence is relatively common among men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC states sexual violence affects millions of individuals each year across the United States. National statistics from the CDC show over half of women and almost 1 in 3 men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetimes.

For towns along the North Shore of Lake Superior, like Grand Marais and Two Harbors, sexual violence has been fairly prevalent for many decades. However, Gau said in the last five years, the Violence Prevention Center has encountered an uptick in clients seeking support and services. In 2018, the Violence Prevention Center had 140 clients with 197 points of contact for the clients. Last year, in 2023, the Violence Prevention Center had 204 clients with 969 points of contact.

“Fifteen percent of those 204 clients primarily presenting victimization was sexual assault,” Gau said. While the clients seek out services for sexual assault, Gau said it is common for individuals to experience other aspects of sexual violence simultaneously. “It’s not uncommon for us to have clients with additional multiple different victimization types.”

Gau said she doesn’t believe the increase in clients in the past five years is directly attributed to the rise in people being sexually victimized but rather the expansion of outreach via social media, increased access to resources, and sexual violence conversations becoming more normalized in society.

“I think part of it too is all the different things that we do to get the Violence Prevention Center’s name out there and get folks aware of the services that are available,” Jessica Burks, the program advocate at the Violence Prevention Center, said.

Lindsey Gau & Jessica Burks at the Violence Prevention Center in Grand Marais. | KALLI HAWKINS

The small yet dedicated staff at the Violence Prevention Center offers a wide range of services to sexual violence victims, including legal and medical support, educational opportunities, support groups, emergency short-term lodging, food, clothing, and more.

“It’s so broad. We base it on the needs of the person and what they need for support,” Burks said. In addition, the Violence Prevention Center offers a 24-hour support line for anyone affected or subjected to sexual violence. The 24-hour support line is run by eight on-call trained volunteers. Gau said the Violence Prevention Center is always looking for more volunteers to help provide support and services.

In Two Harbors, Jean Sewell, the executive director at North Shore Horizons, also works with a small staff, but the services they provide have significant lasting impacts. “We provide assistance in the form of advocacy,” she said. “Our job is to advocate for you and what you want,” Sewell said. “We’re here to help you.”

North Shore Horizons services include legal advocacy, assistance filling out harassment restraining orders, accompanying clients to court, and providing education on living, nutrition, budgeting, and finding employment. “Things that can help you become more independent so that we don’t repeat the cycle and end up in a similar relationship choosing the same partner,” Sewell said.

In addition, North Shore Horizons provides six units of long-term supportive housing for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, where rent is prorated at 30 percent. Eventually, the renters transition into their own housing, but Sewell assures that “the support doesn’t end when they leave.” North Shore Horizons continues to be there every step of the way for sexual violence victims.

“Everyone deserves that opportunity to have a safe place to go and to say how they feel and what they think,” Sewell said. “My goal is to have a safe place for people to come regardless of what happened.”

During April, North Shore Horizons will increase its outreach efforts by distributing materials to businesses in Two Harbors and hosting a treasure sale at the Two Harbors Community Center. This event invites the public to donate to the organization supporting sexual assault awareness month.

In Grand Marais, the Violence Prevention Center will also focus on April activities and education to honor sexual assault awareness month. Burks said they will put teal ribbons on trees in Harbor Park. The ribbons will have a card attached with information about sexual violence resources and messages of support to victims and survivors. “This is our first time doing this, which I’m really excited about.”

Burks said various local businesses will also offer free Violence Prevention Center stickers. Lastly, the organization is partnering with the Grand Marais Library to highlight the film ‘Women Talking’ for the April film series. The event will occur on April 19, with doors opening at 5:30 p.m. “I’m really excited to see how it goes,” Burks said.

To learn more about the services at North Shore Horizons, call 218-834-5924, and for services at the Violence Prevention Center, call 218-387-1237.

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