BERKELEY -- "Rape is rape. No is no." Sexual assault is never justified and the person assaulted is never to blame.

That was the clear consensus among the dozen or so participants at a sexual assault awareness workshop Oct. 12 at the south-of-campus Trinity United Methodist Church. Sponsors included Bay Area Women Against Rape; the Associated Students of the University of California; the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network; and Councilman Kriss Worthington's office.

"This is a culture that normalizes sexual assault," said workshop coordinator Ella Bastone, a UC Berkeley senior. "It's a culture that makes it OK for sexual assault to happen and makes it invisible when it happens."

In Berkeley, reported rapes jumped from 20 in 2011 to 39 in 2012; 18 were reported during the first six months of 2013, according to Berkeley police. (It's not clear how much the increase was due to more reporting or to a greater number of assaults.) Most of the incidents were perpetrated by someone known to the person who was assaulted.

A key element in stopping rape is bringing the subject out of the shadows, said Aquiela Lewis, a spoken word artist and survivor of both childhood and adult rape.

"I was raised not to tell anybody," Lewis said. "But if you keep it inside, you're not going to heal."

Lewis now speaks out about her trauma. Her healing began with writing. "I wrote out what I was feeling," she said, advising survivors, "Just start writing. It could be a word, a sentence. Sometimes you'll have those blocks when you can't write or you can't talk."

Bastone, trained as a rape crisis counselor, said the healing journey for survivors varies.

For some people, "reporting can be a really empowering journey," she said. But reporting may not be right for everyone because it means "having to relive those experiences as you go through the different bureaucratic avenues," she said.

A survivor may choose to advocate for others who have been assaulted. "It can be empowering to get involved in the activism," but the burden of educating the public shouldn't be placed only on the shoulders of survivors said Bastone, noting she has not personally experienced sexual assault.

Councilman Worthington said one way peers can address "rape culture" is by intervening before an assault occurs. At a party, for example, "if it seems like someone's being pressured, if it looks like someone's being forced and you're not sure, instead of ignoring it and walking in the other direction, you should intervene and make it clear that if somebody needs support, you're there to support them and that they can say yes or no," Worthington said.

Worthington's advocacy for rape survivors is not academic. As a teenage foster child, he was raped by an acquaintance of the family caring for him.

"It was one of the worst experiences of my entire life," Worthington said. "Being whipped and beaten (by foster parents) didn't hurt me anything like being raped did."

Worthington had no support at the time. "I was afraid to talk to anybody, to admit that it happened," he said. "I was afraid people were going to blame me; I was afraid of the guy who was doing it. It's one of the most horrible things that can happen to you short of death."

After seeing a younger foster child nude with the abuser, Worthington got up the nerve to tell his foster mother, who then kept the perpetrator away from the house.

Participants want to hold workshops throughout Berkeley. "It's a community health issue," Bastone said. "We need every single person to be engaged in the conversation." BAWAR's 24-hour sexual assault hotline is at 510-845-7273. To contact workshop participants, email Ella_Bastone@yahoo.com.

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