Dispelling the myths about sexual assault (w/video)

A moment came when Becky Fein realized she needed to step up and do what she has asked others to do in front of the camera - tell her own story.|

A moment came when Becky Fein realized she needed to step up and do what she has asked others to do in front of the camera.

Three years into a project filming video profiles of people who have suffered, survived and triumphed over sexual assault, the Monte Rio native told her own story.

And in that process, she confronted a decision she made when years ago a hostel employee slipped into the room where she was staying and assaulted her. Facing absolute terror, she grabbed a condom and demanded he use it.

'My first draft didn't have that detail,' Fein said. 'Then I realized it needed to be in my story. It represented a myth that needs to be busted.'

Fein's Power Voices Project aims to shatter myths about sexual assault, including who it involves and what forms it takes. Just as important to 28-year-old Fein, an adjunct teacher with Santa Rosa Junior College's health education department, was to change perceptions of the 'victims' by showcasing the resiliency of people who have endured rape, abuse, molestation, intimate-partner violence and the wide array of experiences that fall under the term sexual assault.

Since 2011, Fein has created six short video profiles and conducted interviews for her seventh video profile last week. A psychologist, a teacher, a project manager and others tell their stories in front of a camera, using their own names, talking about some of the hardest experiences in their lives.

The mere act of talking publicly about being sexually assaulted is an act of defiance against the stigma that often accompanies these crimes, Fein said.

Sexual assault is among the most prevalent crimes, and it disproportionately effects women. National surveys suggest as many as one in five women have experienced rape or attempted rape.

But perpetrators rarely see a day in court.

Fein said she didn't file charges against her assailant because it took her a while to accept that she had been raped. She continued her journey soon after, while still processing what had happened at the hostel.

Out of every 100 rapes or sexual assaults, only about 35 were reported to law enforcement in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's national criminal victimization survey. While that number has gone up nearly 19 percent since 2004, it still means perpetrators faced no criminal consequences in about 65 percent of assaults.

'Unless those of us who have gone through it are able to take a deep breath and speak out, it will go on being unnoticed,' Stephanie Hamilton-Oravetz said.

Hamilton-Oravetz, 57, is a Santa Rosa psychologist and photographer who chanced upon one of Fein's Powerful Voices videos online. She said she was stunned to hear someone speak so boldly about her experience and describe some of the same worries about how she might be viewed by others.

Why didn't you fight back? Why did the abuse last so long? Why didn't you tell someone? Why didn't you stop this from happening?

All of these questions apply to the self-doubt that for four decades prevented Hamilton-Oravetz from talking about the brutal sexual abuse she suffered as a child.

So she surprised herself when, after watching one of the Powerful Voices videos, she started writing an email to Fein and hit send even before she finished typing a sentence.

'My unconscious was saying, 'Really, you are ready,' and I sent this panicky, half-finished email,' Hamilton-Oravetz said.

Her video interview was posted online in October, about four months after that email.

In the video, the camera zooms in on a photograph of Hamilton-Oravetz as a sweet, doe-eyed 5-year-old child holding a koala. She says in the film, 'When I look at it I think, this is the last time I was clean.'

Hamilton-Oravetz said the photograph was taken just before her father began sexually abusing her. The abuse continued until age 16. Her father killed himself two years later, she said. She left Australia after being accepted to Stanford University.

She told very few people about her abuse until last year.

An amateur photographer who has shown her work in local galleries, Hamilton-Oravetz last year embarked on a collaborative project with Petaluma photographer Gary Kaplan, addressing her abuse with photos that recreate some of the most painful, intrusive images of her abuse to help exorcise them from her mind.

The result is subtle, intimate pictures that show the loneliness and terror of her experience. In one, she is wrapped in a towel with her head pressed against a wall. In another, her wrists show red marks where they had been bound. (See them by clicking here.)

In the film, Hamilton-Oravetz said, 'For the first time I could see ... this wasn't what I wanted, this wasn't what I wanted, this wasn't what I asked for, this was not my responsibility. It was so clear.'

She is one of seven people so far who have asked to participate in the Powerful Voices project. When Fein started the project with a friend, Frances McCorkle, in 2011, they decided it was essential that interviewees initiate the process.

Fein, who has since taken over the project on her own, has spent much of the last decade involved in sexual health and education.

The 2004 El Molino graduate has volunteered for a rape crisis hotline, worked as a peer educator at UC Davis and created her own sexual health focus while earning a Masters in public health at Columbia University in New York City.

Fein said she redesigned a Jeopardy game about sexual health for middle and high school students for West County Health Centers. She has directed performances of Eve Ensler's 'The Vagina Monologues' for the past five years, three in Santa Rosa.

She also has built what started as a side project with a friend into a nonprofit endeavor with a board of directors. She is now working on the project full time, and her next steps are to apply for grants and begin building a curriculum college-level teachers can use in conjunction with her films to discuss sexual assault.

Chris Castillo, executive director of Verity, Sonoma County's rape crisis and trauma center, said that she has been excited to see the project get off the ground.

'Using your voice can be part of the healing process,' Castillo said. 'If we understand the commonalities around (sexual assault), it may help those survivors survive a little better, heal a little quicker and love themselves.'

For Fein, educating the public about the realities and complexities of sexual assault is essential to preventing future crimes. Bystander intervention is discussed as one of the most effective ways of prevention, she said.

'It's about keeping an eye on each other,' Fein said.

She also hopes to remove a near-universal obstacle people face in the aftermath: Shame.

For Fein, talking publicly about demanding her attacker use a condom brought great anxiety that she might be judged, that others might misunderstand it as complicit consent. But it was not.

Hamilton-Oravetz knows this better than most and she applauded Fein for bravely talking about her experience.

'I said this will be the single most important thing you could possibly have said,' Hamilton-Oravetz said. 'You have absolutely demonstrated that there was a protective core of you that took over. That did not mean consent. People absolutely need to understand this.'

For more information about the Powerful Voices Project, visit powerfulvoicesproject.com.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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