The following appeared in the Greenwich Time on October 21, 2017 and features comments from OperationsInc CEO David Lewis. To view the original article, please click here.
by Liz Skalka and R.A. Schuetz
For the last two weeks, a man has followed Quentin Ball, the new executive director of an organization that counsels survivors of sexual assault, everywhere she goes.
People throughout Fairfield County are eager to talk about disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein — and that’s fine with Ball.
Weinstein, who owns homes in Westport, faces two high-profile accusations of sexual impropriety in the town. Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o and comedian Sarah Ann Masse have come forth alleging Weinstein sexually harassed them at his Westport home, though the police department here has not opened an investigation regarding the allegations because neither has filed a complaint.
“I haven’t gone to any kind of event or function in the past couple of weeks without this being one of the principal topics of conversation,” Ball said, “which I think is incredibly encouraging.”
In August, Ball, 41, took over as head of The Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education, a nonprofit that last year reached more than 20,000 adults and children in lower Fairfield County with its prevention programs and counseled 160 sexual assault victims who called its anonymous hotline.
Ball hopes the dialogues sparked by allegations of sexual misconduct against Weinstein, including the #metoo campaign on social media, will encourage more victims to feel comfortable sharing stories of sexual assault, a term that covers sexual harassment and inappropriate touching, as well as rape and incest.
“I am profoundly hopeful and positive about the way people are coming out of the shadows and talking about things that have happened to them,” she said.
The tip of the iceberg
After The New York Times reported that actresses and women Weinstein had worked with accused him of sexual harassment and unwanted physical contact, David Lewis’s phone began to ring.
He was the CEO of OperationsInc, a Norwalk-based human resources company, and requests were pouring in from companies asking about training for sexual harassment prevention and awareness.
“My last two weeks, we’ve had more inquiries for harassment prevention and awareness training and diversity training than in the past two months,” he said.
In Lewis’s 31 years teaching about sexual harassment and investigating claims, he has come to learn that most workplaces have an issue. The incidents you hear about are only the tip of the iceberg.
“You have the incident, and what happens?” Lewis asked. “You have to be driven to the point where you feel like you have to say something. And then that has to register to the point where the public becomes aware of it. And that’s a very, very high bar.” He argues that there are millions of incidents of sexual harassement that take place every day.
When Elizabeth Comport, a rape survivor living in Norwalk, saw the #metoo campaign flood her social media stream, she also knew that many people weren’t sharing their stories.
“It could be a mom who has her kids as Facebook friends and isn’t comfortable with the kids knowing,” she said. “And so many of us actually have a rapist as a mutual friend on social media.”
Thinking of the isolation such survivors may feel in the face of so many stories, she added her own post to the stream of #metoo Facebook statuses. “If you want to say #metoo but don’t want to say it publicly you can private message me.”
She said the first response came within minutes.
Comport believes the number of #metoo posts only hints at the magnitude of the problem. “That’s not the actual number,” Comport said. “The number is far higher. And the people who aren’t counted because of their silence are just as important.”
Not only in the workplace
Beth Breeze’s first memory of sexual harassment took place long before she joined the workforce. It occurred when she was 8 years old.
The Norwalk resident still remembers waving out the school bus window to see who would wave back when she was an elementary school student in Westchester County. A man with salt-and-pepper hair saw her and took the opportunity to expose himself.
“At the time, I was just very confused,” Breeze said. “I didn’t have any brothers, so I didn’t quite understand what was happening until the kid behind me yelled, ‘Oh my God! He just showed his penis!’”
Kari Pesavento, who investigates children’s abuse in the greater Norwalk area, said such incidents are frighteningly common. Her organization, Children’s Connection, has provided services to 120 children throughout Norwalk, New Canaan, Wilton, Weston and Westport in the past year. “The national statistics are one in four girls and one in seven boys are victims of sexual abuse before their eighteenth birthday,” said Pesavento.
“People don’t talk about it,” she said. “They often talk about the symptoms of sexual violence in their lives — the eating disorders, the cutting. But they don’t talk about the actual sexual abuse, especially not in lower Fairfield County.”
When a child begins acting out of the norm — for example, becoming fearful of a family member or reverting to wetting the bed — Pesavento recommends paying attention and asking questions.
“I also promote body ownership,” the idea that no one has the right to people in any way that makes them uncomfortable, “at a very young age,” she said. “We tell kids that they have to obey adults and to be polite. But when it comes to this, we don’t want them to be polite.”
“How do we take this beyond a hashtag and into the real world?” asked Comport. “When #metoo disappears from your news feed, you have to continue to care. These things continue to happen.”
Ways to help range from listening to action. Comport suggested reading essays by survivors and advocating for education, “Whether it’s calling schools and asking that health and sex education involve teaching students about consent. Whether it’s calling colleges and asking that the freshman year seminar include self defense training to hopefully help the pandemic of college rape.”
She pointed out that sexual abuse happens to people of all genders and sexual orientations.
“What I hope everyone can agree on and start to acknowledge is that this violence affects us all,” she said. “It has never been acceptable, and by continuing to ignore and excuse it we are failing to honor our humanity.”
If you have experienced sexual abuse, you can call the Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education hotline 24 hours a day for a confidential conversation in English at (203) 329-2929 or in Spanish at (888) 568-8332.
“It’s never too late to get help,” said Pesavento. “It’s never too late to tell.”