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Perazzo: Sexual assault never not important issue

Thinking It Through

Perazzo: Sexual assault never not important issue

It takes courage to share a story of sexual assault.

Four years ago, Schenectady City Council President Leesa Perazzo stood in front of a small crowd and told them that she had once been the victim of sexual assault -- a rape that occurred at the age of 16.

She was speaking at the YWCA of NorthEastern New York's Take Back the Night March, an annual event that raises awareness of sexual and domestic violence. It was the first time Perazzo spoke publicly about the traumatic attack, and it wasn't easy. But she continues to share her story because she believes it's important -- that doing so can help other victims, and reduce the stigma around sexual violence.

"It's been many, many years," Perazzo, now 50, told me. "But it can still evoke a sense of vulnerability in me. . . . I don't look for speaking engagements, but I feel like I need to take these opportunities to share, so that people can learn, or relate."

This year's Take Back the Night March will be held tonight at 5:45 at the YWCA's Schenectady headquarters. The event will kick off with remarks from Perazzo and Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford.

The issue of sexual assault has been receiving a lot of attention of late, as a result of allegations that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump groped and kissed women against their will. But there's nothing new about sexual and domestic violence. For Perazzo and others involved in events such as Take Back the Night, sexual and domestic violence are ongoing, all-too-personal concerns.

"I can't stress to you how much I don't want to make this about politics," Perazzo told me, when I asked her if this year's Take Back the Night March seemed more urgent than in previous years. "This is an age-old issue. It's never not important."

Unlike many victims, Perazzo did report her sexual assault to the police. Her family was supportive. She went through the grand jury process, and her assailant -- an older acquaintance -- received five years' probation. The district attorney characterized the assault as a "he said-she said" situation, even though she had bruises and bite marks and there was an eyewitness.

The legal process might have been over, but Perazzo's emotional journey was only beginning.

High school, she said, was a struggle. She was haunted by guilt and a feeling of transparency -- a sense that people knew what had happened to her. She dropped out of college in the middle of her first semester.

"It took me about 10 years to seek help," Perazzo said.

What spurred her to do so was a movie that depicted a sexual assault identical to the one she had experienced. Watching the girl in the movie helped Perazzo "recognize myself as a victim for the first time," she said. She cried, and contacted a local rape crisis center. Through the center, she became involved in a group-therapy program, meeting regularly with two other women who had been sexually assaulted -- women she remains in contact with to this day.

Healing from sexual assault takes time, and it isn't unusual for victims to seek help years later, as Perazzo did.

Perazzo told me that she'd like to tell victims to "immediately seek help to process their guilt, because it is debilitating at times." But it's also important to realize that it's never too late to seek help, she said. "You need to do everything you can possibly do to forgive yourself," she said. "I think that's really hard for women. I think that's challenging."

One of the reasons there's still a stigma around sexual assault is because it isn't always discussed openly or candidly.

"We don't talk about this stuff," Perazzo said. "It's so uncomfortable to think of our sisters or our daughters being in these situations."

When sexual assault victims stand up and share their stories, it helps chip away at that stigma. Putting a face on the problem does more to educate people about it than statistics and studies ever will.

Perazzo said being sexually assaulted still affects her emotionally from time to time, but that she's much more at peace.

"It's not something to be ashamed of," she said. "It's a fact that has made me who I am."

"I feel like I'm at a good time in life."

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at sfoss@dailygazette.net or 395-3193. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.