A few years ago, I had a startling conversation with a colleague as we sat together on an airplane. My friend is a gynecologist with a large practice in Manhattan and many of his patients are married to successful, wealthy men. During our talk, he mentioned that an increasing number of married patients are sexually abused by their husbands or, in the case of single women, by men they date.
He said they do not come to him for help. Instead, he sees the signs of abuse when they have their annual check-ups. In fact, there is little he can do for them because they do not admit to dysfunctional relationships and do not seek his intervention.
I realized right away that I, like many people, are wrong if we assume that victims of what is called "acquaintance rape" are women of any particular race or socioeconomic group.
Specialists at the Sexual Assault Recovery Center in Baltimore say it's difficult to know how many women are victims of this traumatizing behavior. However, they tend to be at high risk for psychological problems because they have difficulty talking about their situations and often have strong feelings of guilt.
In preparing this column, I was in touch with organizations around the country and I was reassured to find there is a network of agencies and researchers who are invested in bringing this issue to light.
Education is an important first step and the following vital information was provided by the center.
Q: What is "acquaintance rape"?
A: It is any forced or coerced sexual contact by someone you know. It includes hugging, touching, kissing or intercourse.
Q: Who are the women involved?
A: For a variety of reasons, many women are afraid to come forward. However, 85 percent of rape victims know their assailants.
Q: What are tips for reducing the chances of being a victim of acquaintance rape?
A: Trust your feelings. If something feels wrong it probably is, even it it's someone you know. Be on guard if someone:
* Doesn't listen or disregards what you are saying.
* Pressures, grabs, pushes or forces you to get their way.
* Is hostile when you don't go along with them.
* Causes discomfort by sitting or standing too close and enjoys your discomfort.
* Stares at or touches the sexual parts of your body.
Q: What should a woman do in those situations?
A: Be assertive.
* Be prepared to act quickly and early.
* Get angry when someone does something you don't want.
* Know that you have the right to sexual limits.
* Know and state your sexual limits.
* Say no when you mean no.
* Do not worry about hurting someone else's feelings. Your safety is more important.
Above all, you must keep in mind that no one has the right to overpower someone with force, coercion, threat or manipulation in order to get what they want.
What should you do if you need help? Call the Sexual Assault Recovery Center in Baltimore at 366-RAPE. It has a 24-hour hot line, in-person counseling, help with the legal and medical systems, information and referrals and communityeducation.
In Baltimore and Carroll counties the 24-hour hot line number is 828-6390. To join a counseling program in those counties, call the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center at 377-8111.
In Anne Arundel County, the hot line number is 222-7273.
Dr. Matanoski is a physician and professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.