Over the last year, my family experienced firsthand the issue of sexual assault when my niece was raped. It was her senior prom night -- a night many young women look back on with fond memories. It turned out to be a night that impacted a beautiful young life and our family in a way that is difficult to fully express.
That night after the dance, she passed out at an after party. Several other students were in the room while my niece, who was incapacitated, was sexually assaulted. Two of her friends tried to intervene, and managed to pull one of the two boys away.
Those two courageous girls, and my niece, were later publicly criticized for bringing scandal on the town, reporting the assault to police and "ruining the lives of those two boys."
The viciousness of their accusations -- blaming my niece, mocking and shaming her defenders -- demonstrates how very misguided our society is when it comes to sexual assault.
After my niece's rape, our small community became divided. Many stood with her. Some defended those who assaulted her. It was a reaction I could never have predicted; a cruel reality that my niece and other victims of sexual violence have to face every day.
When will we stop putting blame on victims and instead, collectively stand up to abusers? When will we stop looking the other way, encouraging silence? When will we let it be known that rape and sexual violence in all its forms will not be tolerated?
The time for action is now. It's time to change the culture in our country and talk about sexual assault openly in classrooms, offices, on social media and at the kitchen table.
This April, in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I hope that you will join me and countless others across the country and around the world to speak out to end domestic violence and sexual assault.
A new symbol - a blue circle that I wear as a pin -- called NO MORE is designed to galvanize greater awareness and action to end domestic violence and sexual assault. Sexual violence is a crime that people would prefer to belittle or ignore, where the victim is often blamed for the crime and therefore has to experience ongoing trauma and shame, along with the initial violence itself.
Changing how we as a society view sexual assault is the first step to determining ways to end it. Education is key. Bystanders need to understand how their actions can make a difference in preventing this violence. Organizations like the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, Men Can Stop Rape and the Avon Foundation for Women are just a few of the many working to educate the public about this issue. You can find a great deal of information about these organizations and others at www.NOMORE.org. More than that you can learn how to initiate conversations about sexual assault prevention, conversations that may save the people you love from having to go through what my niece went through.
My niece and I are committed to keeping sexual assault at the forefront of public concern. Talking about sexual violence openly is the first step to ending it, and that's why I'm saying NO MORE. I'm saying NO MORE because when I asked my niece what she would say if she had the opportunity to stand before the House of Representatives and tell the country why "NO MORE," she said, "Because there are no excuses." She's right. There are no excuses.
By wearing this symbol and sharing it on social media, we can send the message that the extent of sexual violence in our society is a problem that impacts us all, and we all have the responsibility to be a part of the conversation aiming to end it.