National headlines spark conversation on sexual misconduct

A rush of reports about various types of alleged sexual misconducts by powerful figures in media, Hollywood, government and other industries recently has flooded headlines and newsfeeds nationwide.

It’s brought revelations of lawsuits settled by the accused, apologies, background checks into accusers, firings and calls for resignations. It’s also sparked numerous conversations about increased awareness.

Women who are community leaders, businesspeople and elected officials on the North Fork weighed in this week on the national discussion about sexual harassment and assault.

“It doesn’t matter who they are, famous or not famous, it should not happen, ever, to anybody — man or woman,” said Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate. “Sometimes we forget that can happen to guys, too.”

Sister Margaret said she suspects there isn’t a woman who hasn’t experienced some form a sexual harassment. Seeing that some people have chosen to speak up about their experiences suggests there’s “a little bit of empowerment” spreading, she said.

The hashtag #MeToo caught fire across social media in October, with people who’d been sexually harassed or assaulted sharing their stories or calling attention to the fact that they’d been victimized in some way.

Tijuana Fulford, founder of The Butterfly Effect Project, said she’s spoken to some of the girls who participate in the organization about the #MeToo movement and plans to hold a meeting on the topic called #DONTTRYIT. She said she wants the girls to know it’s important for their voices to be heard and that there are people who will help them speak out.

“Don’t try to hush my girls. Don’t try to take their voices, their innocence or dignity,” Ms. Fulford said.

Valerie Shelby, a co-chair of Southold Town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, pointed to the Women’s March at the beginning of the year, when a widespread demonstration advocated change on a number of issues affecting women. Women need to continue to push forward, she said.

“I think women have now taken the wheel and are saying, ‘You are no longer going to have control and we are speaking out and you have to listen,’ ” Ms. Shelby said in an email, noting that she was not speaking on behalf of the task force.

Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said that while she’s never experienced sexual harassment in the workplace or seen it in the places she’s worked, that does not mean it’s not prevalent elsewhere.

“I don’t think that there’s any room for it,” she said. “Women’s equality rights are something we’ve been fighting for from the glass ceiling all the way down to respect of opinions in the workforce.”

She said it’s important for ground rules to be established in a workplace so that lines are not crossed and interactions are kept professional.

Suffolk County’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner service offers forensic exams for sexual assault victims within the critical 96-hour window for the collection of physical evidence, In the last year, it has seen a 25 percent increase, according to Laurie Hulbert, executive director of the Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk. It’s up to the victims to choose to proceed with police, she said.

One of three SANE sites is located at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead.

In addition, VIBS reports what Ms. Hulbert called a “significant” increase in activity on its 24-hour victims hotline. Since June, VIBS hotline calls specific to rape increased by 24 percent and calls related to sexual assault rose by 37 percent, she said.

While Ms. Hulbert said she can’t definitively say that the growing number of victims coming forward publicly has affected the number of hotline calls, she said she hopes it communicates to others that it’s OK to do so and that resources are available to them when they do. It’s “encouraging” because sexual assault cases are under-reported, she said.

Ms. Hulbert said that every survivor is unique and that it’s not wrong if someone doesn’t feel compelled to publicly share their experience, as long as they know they are all supported.

“What’s comfortable for one survivor may not be for another, and that’s all OK,” she said. “What is empowering and healing for one may not be for another.”

Photo caption: The scene near the Capitol in January during the Women’s March on Washington. (Credit: Krysten Massa, file)

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