Sexual Violence a Hot Topic on a Cold Night at Bay Avenue Community Center

Feb 07, 2018
Photo by: Victoria Ford

The Bay Avenue Community Center in Manahawkin was packed on a Tuesday night at the end of January. A table was piled high with pizzas, desserts and beverages. Rows of seats were filled with Stockton University students and members of the public, hoping to learn a thing or two about “Breaking the Silence: Sexual Violence in the Media and Your Rights.”

St. Francis Counseling Services staff, Stockton officials, representatives of the Ocean County Sexual Assault Response Team and Stafford Township police came together last week to give an informative presentation on sexual violence and the resources available to students and the community.

Starting things off was Meghan McAleer, LSW, from St. Francis Counseling Services. She went over such concepts as mass media, media literacy, sex versus gender, and how stereotypes about gender roles are perpetuated, how they impact society and how unrealistic expectations can lead to self-injurious or destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, eating disorders, crime, even suicide.

Sexual assault is clearly defined as any penetrative contact without the victim’s consent or a sexual act performed against their will. The New Jersey State Police defines sexual violence as “any form of unwanted, unwelcome or coercive sexual behavior.”

So, what is consent? In the simplest terms, consent is verbal permission to engage in a sexual act. But it gets a little more complicated.

McAleer showed a three-minute animated video that explains consent in the context of offering someone a cup of tea, i.e., sex. The narrator offers this advice: “Be aware they may not drink (the tea), and if they don’t drink it, then – and this is the important part – don’t make them drink it. Just because you made it doesn’t mean you are entitled to watch them drink it.”

And this gem: “Unconscious people don’t want tea.”

In New Jersey, the age of consent is 16, which means a 16-year-old can legally give consent to sex with an adult of any age. However, teens between the ages of 16 and 18 cannot consent to an adult in a position of authority, such as a teacher, supervisor or disciplinarian. For younger kids, a close-in-age exemption exists, wherein a teen between the ages of 13 and 15 can consent to sex with a partner up to four years older. No one younger than 13 can legally give consent.

Other instances in which consent is not legal, or is negated include: The actor is a relative; the act takes place during another crime such as robbery or kidnapping; the actor is armed with a weapon; the actor uses physical force or coercion; the victim sustains severe personal injury; or the victim was physically or cognitively impaired (that includes visual, speech or hearing impairment), unconscious, intoxicated or otherwise mentally or intellectually incapacitated and unable to understand what was happening. Also, prostitution, because it is illegal, is not considered consensual.

The take-home message from McAleer’s presentation was if messaging or content in the media offends, talk about it. Or, better yet, do something about it. Speak up or advocate; boycott products that advertise in ways that demean or exploit female sexuality; start a hashtag campaign against companies that do not stand for gender equality.

Ocean County’s Sexual Assault Response Team operates out of the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office but is coordinated by the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, according to SART coordinator and forensic nurse examiner Donna Velardi. All 21 counties have a SART in place and on call around the clock. The team is comprised of a rape care advocate, a registered nurse, a local law enforcement officer and/or a detective from the Special Victims Unit – the idea being that not just one entity can provide a full array of care, “so we all work together.” However, “it’s all victim-centered,” Velardi explained, which is to say that if a victim wants only one or two of the three team members present during an evaluation, those wishes are honored. The survivor/victim is in charge.

The team is equipped to handle any and all possible scenarios, Velardi said, with the top goal to minimize re-victimization in the process of evidence collection and prosecution. “We don’t force anything on anyone,” she emphasized.

Ocean County has four hospitals, and a team may be dispatched to any of them, regardless of the county or state in which the incident took place. If a victim is a minor, though, upon admission to an emergency room, law requires parents to be notified. Also, if the victim says a weapon was used, legally the crime must be reported, to protect others.

“In New Jersey, there is no statute of limitations on sexual assault, but you do need evidence to prosecute,” Velardi said. If a victim is not sure at the time of the incident whether she or he wants to pursue legal action, evidence can be held for five years.

Southern Ocean County’s 24-hour rape crisis services hotline is 609-494-1090. For more information, call the SART/FNE coordinator of the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office Special Victims Unit at 732-831-7989.

On behalf of the Stafford Township Police Department, Chief Thomas Dellane said the force works to uphold a high standard of compassionate, dignified care. The example he gave was the relatively new On Point program, instituted a year and a half ago, which puts a social worker on site at the station two days a week, to take referrals from officers about cases of substance abuse, hoarding, bullying or any other form of crisis they encounter in the regular course of their patrols. “We’re the gatekeepers,” Dellane said.

— Victoria Ford

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