On March 8, International Women’s Day, a father-like friend of mine sent me (and his other female friends) an email: “A salute to you on your day, at the same time that I rale at the notion of 'a day.' Yours are 24/7 lives, 365 day years, and a sisterhood. You are so much more than [a] Woman’s Day. I, for one, am the beneficiary.”

I feel the same about Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day — appreciation of your loved ones should never be taken for granted — and, more recently, April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month — reaching out to victims and preventing abuse should be a no brainer — every day.

Unfortunately, it isn’t.

Every day women, men, and children suffer the pain and trauma of sexual assault. In fact, over the past few years in Hood River County, there has been a 23 percent increase in sexual abuse among 17-year-olds and under. Our Hood River shelter (Helping Hands Against Violence) is often filled to the brim with survivors and their kids searching for solace. We support a 24/7 crisis line, and like clockwork — every week — a young girl calls in to talk to someone who listens and believes her.

It does happen. Here.

Off hours, folks pull me aside and ask, “Where are most of the women from?” It’s a loaded question. They want me to tell them it doesn’t happen in Hood River, where fixers sell for $350K, where our “homeless” live in Sprinter vans, and where — when there is too much snow to get to work, you can always get to the ski area. They want me to tell them our clients are from Malheur County, or Portland. I don’t.

She is your neighbor. She is your barista. She’s on your kid’s basketball team.

Recently, when a prevention specialist was talking with high schoolers about what they wouldn’t want to see in their boyfriend or a girlfriend, a girl replied, “I don’t want a boyfriend who’s addicted to porn.” When asked what they felt about sex, another gal replied, “I’ve got to learn how to take it.” Porn, it turns out, has been normalized — inflicting pain and degrading another person is depicted as sexy.

It’s not — but too many of our youth don’t know the difference.

Fact is, most kids today have 24/7 access to hardcore porn in the palm of their hands. According to researcher Cordelia Anderson, M.A., the average age a child watches his/her first porn is now 10. Case study after case study confirm that an increase in porn use is directly related to an increase in sexual assault. Today, states Ms. Anderson, “teens — and ‘tweens — are learning from pornography to become both compliant victims and willing abusers.” And when porn becomes the norm, everyone loses.

So let April be a reminder that sexual assault happens here, there, and everywhere — regardless of age, gender, importance of your position, or the size of your iPhone. Awareness is the first step toward prevention.

Perhaps that is why, in 2010, President Obama proclaimed April to be Sexual Assault Awareness Month: “From verbal harassment, and intimidation to molestation and rape, this crime occurs far too frequently, goes unreported far too often, and leaves long-lasting physical and emotional scars.”

Consequently, Hood River has declared April 2-8 Sexual Assault Awareness Week with activities throughout the high school and the community. It’s one step in the right direction to help kids — and the community — understand what a healthy relationship is — and what to do when it’s not.

• Be aware: Many teens think it is normal to compromise their own beliefs to please a partner. One in five high school girls is physically or sexually hurt by a dating partner. Only 33 percent of teens who have been in or known about an abusive dating relationship report having told anyone about it.

• Speak up: when something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t.

• Find your inner-strength: intervene when needed.

• Praise: when someone does the right thing, let them know.

Need more? Google “prevent sexual assault.” But the reality is, when someone needs your support, it might not be in April, and you won’t be in the mind space to Google anything. Just trust your gut, and do the right thing every day.

Stephanie Irving is executive director of Helping Hands Against Violence, Inc.

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