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Washtenaw County becomes first in Michigan to "Start by Believing"

SafeHouse Center director Barbara Niess-May told us community is key in preventing domestic violence and protecting victims.

When someone is diagnosed with cancer or gets in a car accident, he or she is often surrounded by comfort, support and sympathy.

So why is it that a 14-year-old girl is raped and the attack videotaped, law enforcement responds by peppering her with hundreds of questions before charges are brought?

Its an injustice repeated over and over again, and it has led to a national campaign called “Start by Believing."

This week, Washtenaw County became the first in Michigan to be a Start by Believing county.

Barbara Niess-May is executive director of SafeHouse Center.

The Start by Believing campaign is based on the idea that not enough people talk about their sexual assaults.

Niess-May tells us that a lot of women don’t speak up about assault because they aren’t sure what sort of reaction to expect.

"I think it's because of the perception of support that they'll get after the assault,” she says. “Do they even believe what happened themselves? Or do they hold themselves accountable?”

She explains that society’s attitude toward sexual assault is in many ways normalized due to attitudes about gender and sexuality.

"Do they even believe what happened themselves? Or do they hold themselves accountable?"

"Take a look around us and think about some of the indicators of what success looks like or what professionalism looks like or what's important in our society. For example, watching NBC at 8:15 at night, and look at the roles that men and women are in in the commercials. Often men are in roles of being in authority or in charge or in control, and women are seen as less than. That's where rape culture starts for women,” she says.

“Then you move on to the fact  that women are treated like second-class citizens, and then you get into when you see advertisements of women being posed sexually suggestively.… That is where rape culture starts. It's all around us all day, every day.”

Niess-May tells us that she was sexually assaulted over 30 years ago, and didn’t know where to turn.

“I walked away ... not knowing what to do or who to talk to or how to even broach it, so I decided to say nothing,” she says.

"Several weeks later I was at a slumber party with my girlfriends,” Niess-May says. “We were probably watching Pretty in Pink and eating popcorn and talking about who we kissed, and I told a couple of them what had happened, and they just said 'wow,' and didn't say anything. And no one said that's sexual assault, no one said ... that's not the way it's supposed to be. And so I didn't say anything to anybody.”

She says she struggled for years to “figure out what was wrong with me,” and twice attempted to end her life. It wasn’t until much later in life that she recognized the unresolved trauma.

Start by Believing aims to create a climate and culture where women can feel comfortable talking openly about being a victim of a horrific crime.

"I found my calling in doing this work, and I've been doing this for over 20 years, supporting survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. Because they deserve to be heard, they deserve to be believed, and we should have no barriers for that 14-year-old who I was over 30 years ago,” she says.

Niess-May calls on elected officials, department heads and law enforcement to “set aside your doubts.”

“This is not about false reporting. This isn't about trying to catch somebody in a lie. This is about believing the court process to take place as it should in any other crime."

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