DULUTH – Annie Counihan is on the front lines in the fight against sexual assault, and she's looking for allies.
"I'm a survivor myself, and talking to other survivors has broadened my horizons about how far we have to go," the University of Minnesota Duluth sophomore said. "It takes help to heal."
Counihan started the "Shatter the Silence" campaign on campus last semester, and last week she hosted an event to highlight resources and encourage bystanders to hold their friends accountable.
While free and confidential sexual assault resources for students already exist on campus (through the Women's Resource and Action Center and the nonprofit Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, or PAVSA), what Counihan wants is greater visibility for those resources and less stigma for survivors.
The 19-year-old from South St. Paul said this is just the start.
Counihan is talking with fraternities and the athletic department and is considering a TV ad during hockey games. She'd like to see unlimited mental health counseling for students, up from the current seven free sessions. She said posters and tables in the student center and other media will help drive home the message.
"By the end of the year, I would love to have it publicly known as a campuswide resource," Counihan said.
Just having the conversation is an important start, advocates say. Survivors benefit from having friends who will believe them, assure them it isn't their fault and support their choices, said Mary Faulkner with PAVSA.
"The theme around Shatter the Silence is important, because so much of that first disclosure can set a survivor's course," Faulkner said. "One thing I've seen that is great about this current generation of students is the focus on having good information and having it beforehand."
Sean Elmquist from the Duluth-based nonprofit Men as Peacemakers talked with students about standing up to friends at parties and "radical compassion" at last week's kickoff event. "Some of that [is] based around bystander techniques — 'If you see something, say something,' " he said.
Teaching bystander intervention on campus has proved effective at changing attitudes and preventing sexual assault, studies have shown, and Elmquist said his approach comes down to reversing alienation and building connection and community.
"Everyone — especially men, who are responsible for the vast majority of violence — has a role in reshaping the paradigm," he said.
Though it is not just men who perpetrate violence, and not just women who are victims, these are the most common cases. People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are also more likely to face assault or sexual assault in their lives, according to federal research.
Counihan, who is majoring in Hispanic studies and political science, plans to become an immigration lawyer. So why take on sexual assault, and why now?
"I'm in the right place at the right time," she said. "I'm really passionate about it, and I want to educate others."
It was the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh that propelled her into activism. "I really do think that was such a pivotal moment in our society about sexual assault," she said. " 'I believe her, I believe him' — that had everlasting effects on the stigma of sexual assault."
In Duluth, PAVSA has a 24-hour crisis line at 1-218-726-1931. The National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-800-656-4673 or online at ohl.rainn.org. Those who visit a local emergency room following an assault are entitled to free care, and an advocate will be dispatched, Faulkner said.
Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496