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COLUMN: He uses the story of his childhood sexual abuse to educate others

'I grew up never being ashamed of my story'
Posted at 7:31 AM, Apr 11, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-11 18:01:30-04

CINCINNATI -- Jamie Sivrais was just a boy when his dad started showing him pornography.

Gradually the pornography led to inappropriate touching.

After nearly three years, Sivrais' dad pressured him into oral sex. That's when Sivrais told his mom what was happening. His mom immediately labeled the behavior as sexual abuse, called his dad and told him they would be pursuing therapy and criminal charges.

"I didn't see it in my own situation," Sivrais said. "As I was going through it, I almost felt like, 'I can't let anybody know this because I'll get in trouble for watching this stuff.'"

Plus, he said, "It was my dad."

Fortunately for Sivrais, his mom made sure he got the counseling, love and support he needed after what had happened to him, and he never blamed himself for what his dad did. He is now 33, happily married and has a teenage stepson.

Fortunately for the rest of us, Sivrais uses his experience to help young people as a public education specialist for the Women's Crisis Center's Green Dot violence prevention strategy. The idea behind Green Dot is that violence -- whether it's sexual violence, child abuse, bullying or stalking -- affects all of us and that all of us have power as bystanders to help prevent it.

That responsibility that we all have to prevent violence before it starts will be an important theme of Take Back The Night 2017 scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. April 20 at Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine.

The event will feature a rally and march, the MUSE Women's Choir and a candlelight vigil. Even more importantly, it's a chance for people to come together to say "violence is not OK," said Christy Burch, director of prevention at Women's Crisis Center and emcee for this year's event.

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"It lets people know that people are out there who really care and have a connection to this," Burch said. "When you see 1,000 people or even 200 people or 150 people gather and say 'this isn't OK,' it's a very inspiring thing."

'The messenger really matters'

Sivrais will be there, too. A nonprofit organization that he launched in 2012 -- called A Voice For The Innocent -- is one of the sponsors of the April 20 event and will have a table set up to provide support for survivors of sex crimes and give them a safe place to tell their stories.

He knows how important those stories can be to survivors' healing.

For Sivrais, though, talking about what happened to him has been a powerful way to connect with the young people he educates through Green Dot.

The students at the high schools where Sivrais presents the Green Dot strategies really identify with his positive energy and authenticity, said Burch, who also is Sivrais' boss at Women's Crisis Center.

"People will run up to us and say, 'Where's the guy with all the Ninja Turtle tattoos? I wore Ninja Turtles just for him,'" Burch said. "The messenger really matters. And that's very, very important to us here at Women's Crisis Center. If we have the right people in front of these students that can really engage them and go on a journey with them, they can actually break down the barriers and can be heard by them."

Sivrais said sometimes students laugh quietly when he tells his story. He doesn't take it personally, though, because he knows it can be human nature to laugh when we're uncomfortable.

Jamie Sivrais, lower right, with students who take part in Green Dot violence prevention training.

Plus he can tell they're listening, which is half the battle.

As part of the Green Dot strategy, Sivrais works to convince young people that they have the power to prevent violence.

He trains them on how to recognize signs of dating violence and other types of violence and what they can do as bystanders.

"We start out saying, most people aren't doing this. Most people aren't hurting other people. Most people want to keep their friends and loved ones safe," he said.

He makes sure to wear clothes that show off the tattoos on his arms. He talks about the punk rock bands he used to play in. He even sometimes sprinkles a cuss word or two in his presentations.

"I have a different relationship with the students," he said. "I tend to talk about things maybe in more raw terms."

And for Sivrais, raw tends to work.

'Never being ashamed'

The most difficult part of the work, he said, can be convincing young people to step in to help even people they don't consider friends -- or even like. His argument is: Wouldn't they want bystanders to step in to help their sister or cousin or best friend, even if they didn't like them?

Servais likes to use the example of something that happened at the University of Kentucky, where the Green Dot strategy was developed.

A young woman was at a fraternity party and had way too much to drink. A young man was leading the drunken woman up to a bedroom, and another frat brother saw it happening. The frat brother wanted to intervene without starting a fight. So he walked up to the other guy and told him that his car was about to get towed.

Jamie Sivrais, near the monitor, presents Green Dot training to high school students.

The first guy raced outside to check his car, giving the second frat brother a chance to reunite the young woman with her friends and ask them to keep her safe.

When the first guy came back, confused because his car was fine, the second guy simply said, "Oh, sorry -- I thought that was your car."

"There are lots of ways to stop something from happening," Sivrais said.

I asked Sivrais if, looking back, he thought there were any bystanders who might have been able to help him before his dad's abuse escalated.

He said he remembers being in middle school and being involved in the high school play. It was a Friday, and a high school student told him to have a good weekend. Sivrais responded that he would be going to his dad's house, and his dad let him watch pornography.

The older student was confused, Sivrais said, but didn't see it as the warning sign that an adult probably would have.

The day he told his mom what was happening, he told his best friend first. But Sivrais said his best friend remembers things differently. His friend said Sivrais first told him what was happening a couple weeks earlier. At the time, his friend said, he didn't know what to do so he said and did nothing.

Sivrais doesn't hold any of that against anyone.

Instead he's teaching young people what to look for, what to do and how to respond.

"I grew up never being ashamed of my story," he said.

But he's hoping his work with Green Dot can help ensure that fewer people will have stories like his to tell.

Jamie Sivrais

More information about Take Back The Night 2017 is available online. Information about Women's Crisis Center and the Green Dot violence prevention strategy also is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.