York sex assault forum crosses boundaries

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Sexual assault can happen to anyone, anywhere, but in Queens health care and law enforcement agencies are striving to understand the different cultural responses to victims from the many groups of people who live in the country’s most ethnically diverse borough.

That was the message as more than 200 people discussed culture, gender, and sexual orientation issues at the “Sexual Assault Has No Boundaries” forum at York College last Thursday.

The annual spring conference, held by the Borough President’s Task Force Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, brought together counselors, police officers, students and communities members for discussions and workshops.

“Our job is to make it comfortable for all people from all backgrounds and cultures to come forward and tell their stories and seek help,” said task force co-chairwoman Fern Zagor.

The daylong event featured a panel discussion where representatives from South Asian, East Asian, lesbian and gay, and substance abuse organizations talked about the specific issues relating to a person’s background. For example, in many Asian cultures the family is often viewed as more important than the individual, said Jagruti Shah, from Mount Sinai Hospital’s Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention Program.

Sexual assault “becomes an issue of shame and they feel it’s better to resolve the issues within the family, but it doesn’t get resolved if the predator is in the family,” she said.

Language difficulties and unfamiliarity with the system can also pose problems for Asian victims or other immigrants, said Kaori Maraoka from the New York Asian Women’s Center.

“Suffering in silence is a valued virtue for women even in the modern society,” she said. “They don’t even know sometimes that they have the right to speak up.”

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender individuals may have to deal with revealing their sexual orientation to a counselor or police office on top of an assault, said Kate Jerman of Queens Pride House. A similar problem is faced by recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, who have to deal with their addiction and the assault, said Peter Wright, from Elmhurst Hospital Center’s chemical dependency services.

“These aren’t easy services to access in the first place and to add this on top of that can be overwhelming,” Jerman said.

The discussions also touched on the sex scandals plaguing the Catholic church. Zagor said one positive development that could come out of it is heightened awareness.

“If anything good can come out of this, it’s awareness of boys as well as girls who can be victims,” she said.

But Borough President Helen Marshall reminded the audience to reach out to all victims.

“Nothing can be more dehumanizing to a person than being assaulted sexually, particularly a woman,” she said. “Go away empowered and feel like you are in control, and get the word out to countless women in our borough.”

Less than 5 percent of all sexual assaults are committed by strangers, said Joellen Kunkel, deputy chief of detectives in Queens and the forum’s keynote speaker. She urged the audience to make sure they know to whom they are entrusting their children.

“There’s nothing you shouldn’t be able to talk to your kids about,” she said. “Do not be afraid to ask your kids questions.”

The task force was created 26 years ago, and began holding the conference 10 years ago, said Sherry Price, co-chairwoman of the task force. It meets the fourth Wednesday of the month at Borough Hall in Kew Gardens and is open to the public. She invited the audience to join the force to help identify issues relating to sexual assaults.

“We have to take care of everyone today,” she said. “It’s not just my job, it’s all of our jobs.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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