By Marie Haka

According to the Women’s Crisis Center of Santa Cruz County, every five minutes a woman reports a sexual assault.

This alarming statistic has helped fuel a seven-year campaign to fight back against sexual violence.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month has been held in April every year since its inception in 2001. Recognizing this month is part of a coordinated effort by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) and other organizations to promote awareness about sexual assault and spread prevention messages.

Karen Baker is the project director of NSVRC, which opened in July 2000 as a national information and resource center relating to all aspects of sexual violence. Members of NSVRC’s staff said that targeting potential assaulters is the best way to prevent sexual violence.

“One thing that we feel strongly about is that the responsibility for ending violence be on responsible adults and on people that are perpetrating the crime,” Baker said. “Not putting responsibility on victims or potential victims.”

The resource center advocates programs that work with men and boys to try to change the way they think about and treat women. NSVRC also works with the media to try to transform cultural messages that are objectifying and degrading.

The Women’s Crisis Center (WCC) in Santa Cruz will also hold events in recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). The group placed a flag displaying sexual assault statistics in downtown Santa Cruz at Pacific Avenue and Cooper Street on April 1 in recognition of the countless victims of sexual assault, an action taken by rape crisis centers in cities around California.

On April 10 and 11 in downtown Santa Cruz, the WCC will be handing out free condoms that display definitions of consent and sexual assault statistics. The center is also co-sponsoring Denim Day, a protest against rape myths such as blaming the victims, which will be held at Quarry Plaza on April 23.

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Justice ranked Santa Cruz fourth for highest rate of reported rapes out of 448 cities in California.

Asucena Garcia, the prevention programs manager at the WCC of Santa Cruz County has discussed this report with the Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women. The groups acknowledge that sexual assault is a huge problem in Santa Cruz, but noted that reporting rates may be higher than in other cities because of resources available to local victims and the ongoing awareness campaigns that encourage people to report sexual assaults.

Garcia explained that the stigma around sexual assault discourages many victims from reporting the crime and seeking help. This makes spreading awareness a key factor in combating the issue.

“For sexual violence, many people normally feel afraid and embarrassed about telling,” Garcia said. “And if they do not know how to report it or get help it is more likely that people will not say anything. These crimes are happening all the time — it is just that people do not really speak up.”

In addition to national and local events, there will be many held at UC Santa Cruz.

Gillian Greensite is the director of UCSC’s Rape Prevention Education program, which educates the campus community about rape awareness and prevention and provides resources to anyone who has ever been raped. Rape Prevention Education will be hosting events such as free self-defense classes, educational workshops, and the fifth annual Denim Day.

College-aged students are disproportionately affected by sexual assault, Greensite explains, which is why raising awareness on campus is especially important.

“Rape is such a threatening subject,” Greensite said. “It is not something people really want to hear or talk about, but it impacts students so profoundly and the typical student-aged population is at the highest risk for rape of all age groups. While I hope that our campus is better than many, I know that it is still a serious problem, so we are trying to raise awareness and inspire people to join us to prevent rape in the long run.”

Greensite gives many suggestions for students who want to help prevent sexual assaults, which include targeting potential perpetrators and ways to lower their own risk of being attacked.

“The thing that students can do to prevent rape is to make sure that every sexual interaction is mutual and that they have consent,” Greensite said.

To help lower one’s chance of being raped, Greensite suggests taking a self-defense class, being aware of one’s surroundings and speaking out when made uncomfortable by someone. She added that it is important not to add guilt to survivors of sexual assault. Rape victims usually do all they can to prevent the attack, which is why Greensite tries to target potential perpetrators to break the cycle.

“I like to start with those who commit rape and get the message to that side of the equation,” Greensite said. “We do not want to blame the innocent party.”