Fighting on All Fronts 

Anyone watching Missoula's headlines could be forgiven for thinking that the supposed Garden City is in fact a dark hotbed of sexual violence.

After all, there has been a rash of domestic incidents in the University of Montana's family housing complexes. Then, you have the attention-grabbing antics of Mike Haser, the glamour photographer and former publisher of Missoula Magazine recently convicted on multiple counts of molesting his clients.

Sensational cases-Haser's illegal insistence on "adjusting" photo subjects' anatomy, the tragic death of Josie Salois in University Villages in October, Thad Tidzump's third arrest for partner assault in the Villages last week-insure that domestic and sexual assault remain media fodder. But local activists and counselors say that Missoula's problem is really no worse than what women face across a nation where home-grown violence is a depressingly common fact of life.

UM Women’s Center’s Kate Kahan (center) shares a laugh with KBGA’s Eve Whitaker, Jordan Dobrovolny, Sonya Germann and Felicia Fowler (l-r) while recording a public service announcement for the week-long “Take Back the Night” campaign.
Photo by Chad Harder


"In Missoula, we're pretty much right in line with national statistics that say one in every three women will be a victim of domestic or sexual assault sometime in her lifetime," says Jamie Sowre, sexual assault services coordinator for the Missoula YWCA. "The community has been hit hard lately. The Haser case was something that affected a lot of people. But this is something we deal with day in and day out."

Even as the news perhaps trains a brighter-than-usual spotlight on such problems in Missoula, the broad, heterogeneous community of people and organizations combating violence against women gears up for its annual showcase. Take Back the Night, a week-long festival of consciousness-raising events, aims to focus intense, city-wide attention on a problem that takes its grinding toll all year long.

This year's edition of Take Back the Night, which begins with a festival-style concert on Saturday, April 24 and continues around town through Sunday, May 2, sees the event continue to grow in scope and constituency. Originally the signature project of a now-defunct activist and support center called Women's Place, TBTN sparked controversy for years as organizers struggled with questions over the proper role of men in the marches and public speak-outs that are the event's core.

Clashes over whether men would be allowed to participate alongside women often dominated public discussion about TBTN. Now, with the University Women's Center-a group with fine activist credentials of its own-in charge, efforts have been made to broaden the event's draw.

With that in mind, TBTN '99 embraces everything from Freedom Daze, a day-long music fest and crafts fair at Caras Park sponsored by the Missoula Human Rights Coalition, to a dance performance by UM's Mo-Trans company, to plays and multimedia presentations dramatizing the impacts of sexual violence.

"The great thing about Take Back is that it can appeal to a lot of different people in ways they're comfortable with," says Kate Kahan of the Women's Center. "If they want to go see the Mo-Trans dance performance, they can do that. If they want to go to Drawing the Shades, which is much more intense, they can do that too."

While Kahan and others emphasize the widespread, epidemic scale of the problem at hand, she notes that specific tragedies like Salois' death help give a human face to statistics. Even though University authorities say domestic incidents are no more common in student housing than anywhere else, Kahan says tightly packed, stressful places tend to breed trouble.

"I used to live in University family housing, and I can tell you that it gets pretty intense," she says. "The walls are thin, a lot of people are living in poverty and dealing with school and work. It's right in your face."

Take Back the Night attacks some of those root causes of violence on a number of fronts. With poetry readings, concerts and the traditional march and rally giving outlet to frustrations, some other events take a more soothing tack. The YWCA sponsors a Day of Peace and Pampering For Women, a program of free massages, meditation, aromatherapy, feng shui and the like. While the retreat may seem a little too New Age for some, Sowre explains that its aim is rock-solid serious.

"So often women are the caretakers and the givers," she says. "So rarely are they taken care of. It can really be a challenge for those who have suffered through domestic violence to recover and go on, and this event is looking to help that process a little bit."

Sowre, Kahan and others involved in organizing TBTN acknowledge that a one-week campaign can't bring an end to the sad routine of late-night police calls and shelter visits that consume too much of too many lives in America. They say, however, that if even a few people can begin healing during the week's events, an important mission will be accomplished.

"If people don't work on this stuff, it seems to come back to haunt them," Sowre says. "We might see them 20 years later and they could be struggling even then to maintain relationships and careers. This is at epidemic levels in this society. If this were a disease, we'd be saying, my god, we've got to do something."

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