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Brave local actors share stories of abuse

Several women recently came forward to relay testimonials about sexual harassment and assault in local community theater.

They shared these stories bravely, without hiding behind anonymity, demonstrating great courage and strength.

Certainly, they had to know going into this that there was a real possibility that, in cases like these, victims often become targets of doubt and harassment. Frankly, it’s easy to point fingers at accusers, especially when they come forward so many years after alleged sex abuse crimes occurred.

Our reporter Andy Gray first broke the story detailing his interview with four women making these very serious allegations, along with their attorney, about sexual abuse that happened behind the scenes in Mahoning Valley community theater when these women, then minors, were new on the scene and literally still children.

Selena Phillips, now 20, a Youngstown native who lives in Pittsburgh, on July 3 shared via social media explicit details of four men she says abused her when she was between the ages of 15 and 17. Other women followed by posting similar experiences.

Phillips and three other women — Grace Offerdahl, 21, of Youngstown and Pittsburgh; D’Ella Heschmeyer, 20, of Liberty; and Miranda Canacci, 20, of Youngstown — were the focus of the story we broke last week.

Offerdahl and Heschmeyer relayed similar experiences with one of the men accused of victimizing Phillips. Canacci said she was pursued by a man in his early 20s when she was 15. Her parents discovered the interactions before anything sexual happened, she said. She believes that’s the only reason she doesn’t have a similar story.

The women participated in an hourlong interview via Zoom with Gray, our entertainment writer who typically writes about theater topics that aren’t so dark or seedy in nature.

Gray, a skilled, veteran journalist, had no problem exploring the topic, handling it with just the correct mix of delicacy and hard-hitting journalism about unfathomable acts alleged to have occurred behind the scenes at local community theater where I, like many of you, have spent many Saturday nights.

It didn’t take long after the first story ran Tuesday for my phone to ring. On the other end was an older lady shouting at me about her disgust with women who make such claims years and years after incidents are alleged to have occurred.

The call lasted no more than 30 seconds because as I picked my jaw up from my desk and prepared to respond, she abruptly hung up.

I suspect other readers might have shared her thoughts, so I did a bit of research on the topic.

I found there are many often complicated reasons why sexual assault victims delay coming forward.

Many blame themselves. Others, incredibly, may not view the incident as a sex crime or illegal act.

In multiple studies, researchers found 60.4 percent of women, on average, did not recognize their experience as rape even though it fit the definition — an unwanted sexual experience obtained through force or the threat of force or a sexual experience they did not consent to because they were incapacitated.

Another study examined why teenagers experiencing unwanted sexual contact often trivialize those experiences or don’t report them.

Why? Because they are uncertain the incidents are real crimes or even worth reporting; and they experience adaptive indifference, described as “avoidance response that allows teens to do nothing, thereby remaining loyal to their friends, dating partners, schoolmates and peer groups.”

I suspect, as in this case, years later, these women come to realize the far-reaching effects of their experiences.

Today, of course, the ever-increasing #MeToo movement adds impetus to decisions to come forward.

The stories of these women already are effecting change in the local theater community, and the possibility of criminal prosecution now exists.

I salute them for their bravery. Coming forward, I suspect, was empowering to them, and in the end may help any mental or emotional wounds to heal.

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