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Kansas City's 'Squad Of Sisters' Hopes To Reduce Threat Of Sexual Violence

File photo by Andrea Tudhope
KCUR 89.3
In the heart of Midtown Kansas City, Westport is a popular nightlife destination. Friday and Saturday nights draw immeasurable crowds. According to police, places that draw an influx of people are more prone to crime, including sexual assault.

On a typical Saturday night in Westport, there are hundreds of people milling around between bars like Harry’s and The Foundry. The crowds are thick between road blockades that contain the area, which isn’t to say anything about the crowds inside the bars. 

There’s a lot of noise, and a lot of drinking, but people say there’s a lot of something else going on.

"Rape culture is a really big problem in Westport," Helen Proctor says.

Proctor is a founding member of the Squad of Sisters, a new group dedicated to combating sexual violence in Kansas City. 

Credit Andrea Tudhope / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
After a Squad of Sisters meeting, group members Helen Proctor, back, and Ana Maldonado, front corner, have a family dinner with their housemates. The group meets every Sunday afternoon to make plans for expanding their reach within Kansas City.

In the spring, they started collecting anonymous stories for a zine, called "Worried About Westport." They ended up with more stories than they were able to include — harrowing tales of date rape, and multiple accounts detailing instances of street harassment. One story was submitted by members of the group.

Credit Andrea Tudhope / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
'Worried About Westport' was the first in a series of zines the Squad of Sisters plans to release. The easy, low-cost, photocopied medium proves effective for their mission of getting the word out.

"We were walking down the street and we heard this guy be like, 'I already slapped 30 asses tonight," member Ana Maldonado remembers.

He threatened to do the same to every woman without a man for the rest of the night before he eventually ran off. 

"We went up to a cop and told him about it, and he was like, 'Oh yeah, I saw the whole thing,' and just brushed it off," she says. "People just don't see a problem with it."

The problem, as the Squad of Sisters sees it, is in the culture of silence around sexual violence that allows it to happen. They want to see open dialogue and proper response from the police and law.

The police, for their part, face some difficulties when it comes to handling sexual assault.

"Many times we wait for victims to come to us to report," says Kansas City Police Department Captain Cindy Cotterman. "Is that a sexual offense to them or is that acceptable to them? It is their choice to decide."

Cotterman oversees the Central Patrol Division, which includes the Westport area. It’s heavily patrolled by dozens of security guards and police officers, which, according to Cotterman, has contributed to increased safety in the neighborhood. 

In Westport, from June 2014 to July of this year, there have only been 14 sexual offenses reported in Westport. An additional 19 are suspected to have originated there. That’s a total of 33 compared to nearly 600 reported in the Metro area during the same time frame.

But when asked if she is surprised to hear about the Squad of Sisters and their concern for Westport? Cotterman says, unfortunately no.

The police department estimates at least 50 percent of cases of sexual assault, sodomy and rape go unreported.

Credit Andrea Tudhope / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Multiple stories in the zine recount experiences of acquaintance rape. 'We know that a majority of victims are assaulted by someone they know,' says MOCSA's Jessie Hogan.

"Sexual violence can be such a personal issue," says Jessie Hogan, director of advocacy for the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault (MOCSA). "It can be that sometimes survivors feel reluctant to reach out to law enforcement or really to even talk to anyone about what's happened to them."

Compared to the nearly 300 sexual offenses reported to police in 2015 in Kansas City, MOCSA saw more than 700 requests from survivors seeking hospital advocacy immediately after an incident — a record-breaking number for the organization —  marking a 45% increase over the last five years. In addition, their 24-hour Crisis Line received over 3,600 calls.

Numbers aside, the incidents are common enough that many are taking action, even on a conversational level.

"If you hear a rape joke don't pass it off and laugh at it, confront that, why do you think that's funny?" Caitlin Corcoran says.

Credit Andrea Tudhope / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Caitlin Corcoran, general manager at Ca Va, considers her bar a safe space. She, along with other bar managers in the Westport area, keep in close communication with Westport Public Safety during and after business hours.

Corcoran is the general manager of Ça Va, a small champagne bar on the south end of Westport. She kicks someone out at least once a month for following a group of women or making them feel uncomfortable.

Like other bar owners in the area, she keeps in close contact with Westport Public Safety, calling them if someone needs an escort to their car. She considers this a responsibility.

"It's an extension of hospitality," Corcoran says.

She encourages her guests and staff to protect themselves. But there’s only so much she can do.

"It is never that individual's responsibility to prevent sexual assault from happening against them," Hogan says. "It's important for us not to always focus on tactics that require victims to prevent themselves from becoming victims, as opposed to community level actions that can be taken."

To put this into perspective, she says, consider the movement against drunk driving. If it had focused on how to avoid being hit by a drunk driver, it wouldn’t have worked.

"It really took people coming together and … recognizing that we all have a role in preventing it. including challenging the cultural acceptance of drunk driving."

And challenging a culture of sexual violence is what the Squad of Sisters is trying to do. Among other ideas, they’re developing a mobile advocacy team — volunteers would occupy Westport on the weekends in a traveling “safe space.” But their first step, is giving voice to the issue, in Westport, and beyond. 

Andrea Tudhope is a freelance reporter and producer for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @adtudhope.

Andrea Tudhope is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Kansas City, Missouri. She is currently coordinating producer for America Amplified, a national public media community engagement initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.