Let’s Talk About Care, Concern, and Consent

by Maggie Chipman

“LET’S talk about sex,” a classmate’s mom proclaimed as she stood in front of me and my soon to be graduating class.  It was a hot May afternoon, when Stacy Garrity walked into my all-girls Catholic high school to broach a topic we had never openly discussed. “Sexual assault is a real thing, and I’m here to do what I can to help protect you,” Garrity said frankly. And so we sat, in awe of realities which had never been revealed to us sheltered school children. Our lack of knowledge was the object of Garrity’s motivation. She believes education is necessary to prevent evil. This theme is recognizable throughout her rhetoric, whether she is speaking  as a nurse, a teacher, or a mom.

Garrity answers my FaceTime call right on schedule; we’ve been texting all week in anticipation of this conversation. This speaks to how she views her role in the fight against sexual assault. She distributes her phone number liberally and with a sense of immediacy; availability is her primary currency. “Hi sweetie! It’s so good to see you!” she exclaims. Garrity immediately evokes a sense of comfort and acceptance in conversation, a comfortability which she consciously cultivates as part of her approach to healthcare.

Garrity, however, did not always have her eyes set on pursuing a career in healthcare; rather, she entered college planning to pursue a degree in early childhood education. Upon my asking why she did not continue with this track, she laughs. “In-the-classroom experience was an early part of my coursework… I was someone who always wanted to have a family, and I knew I would not have the patience for my own kids after all those years.” Needing a new career, Garrity made a hasty decision to pursue nursing, with no other thought than: “That sounds kinda cool.” She was drawn to engagement in public service, as her fire-chief father was. Thrust into the realities of the healthcare world early on, part of her initial training in nursing involved working as a student nurse in an ER. This was her first experience with sexual assault.

“There was a girl, only a few years younger than I was…. I don’t want to get into too many details but… well, she had been pistol whipped.” As Garrity recalls the incident which drew her to her career specialization, every detail is as vivid as it was twenty-seven years ago. She felt as though the management of this patient was somewhat “imperfect,” and dedicated her life to improving medical treatment for women in emergency circumstances. This first took form when Garrity worked as a nurse in a high-risk pregnancy unit. Garrity’s work continued as she got her graduate degree, doing research on sexual assault and domestic violence. After this, Garrity spent seven years working as a sexual assault nurse. As she was doing this, she was wearing another of her many hats: mother, to a son and a daughter.

It is easy to recognize someone for his or her occupational expertise and forget about the other human and emotional aspects of a person’s life. Navigating the world in which she both saw sexual assault regularly and was in the process of raising a young girl and boy was difficult. I glean this from my own observation, but Garrity’s upbeat attitude never falters. She chose to focus less on inherent parental fear and more on educating her children about sexual assault. This is not the most conventional approach. “To quote my son,” Garrity explains, “And he says this all the time, ‘Mom, we don’t have a normal family’. I’ve been really open about what we talk about because I think having factual information is important and being able to talk about things without being fearful. I try to normalize human relationships, or the way you interact with people because I think that’s where a lot of the breakdown comes from that leads to this bad behavior.” Garrity believes that education is the key to decreasing sexual assault. For example, a point she stressed to our senior class last May, and again during our November chat, is that “People who sexually assault don’t do it because they don’t have access to free and consensual sex; it’s about power and control.” Despite the fact that one in every five women is a rape victim, Garrity has a stubborn refusal to accept any form of assault as “normal.”

This statistic shifts our conversation to a related issue in society today: the vilifying of society’s boys. She remarks on the standard blaming of men in circumstances of sexual harassment and assault and how young boys are told constantly that they are characteristic wrongdoers without education on topics of prevention. “I wish some all-boys high school would say to me, ‘Come, talk about this!’ because I think it’s only fair.” She argues that it is the sheer lack of education which enables boys to engage in behavior harmful to both sexes. With her own teenage son in mind, Garrity has engaged in a plethora of research on the topic, and is disappointed to see that opportunities for education on sexuality and consent are minimal for adolescent males. In a matter-of-fact tone, she explains, “If the boys don’t have that same type of information, it’s like trying to teach only one person how to dance and then expecting them to do it well together… well that’s not fair.” She strikes a rare balance between idealism and realism, realizing the inequality of the situation yet working toward providing real and attainable solutions.

In addition to working toward preventing sexual assault, Garrity is well trained in managing and treating it. After her years of nursing, she has more recently turned her expertise and efforts toward a new task: setting up national telemedicine centers. These centers, of which there are six, including one at Pennsylvania State University which she worked with closely, provide real time support to emergency rooms in order to help patients that have been sexually assaulted. This is done through video calling and other technologies. Garrity, who served as the Education and Outreach Manager of The National TeleNursing Center for two years and the Director from January 2015 to June 2016, was personally involved in writing protocol and setting up procedure for the centers. In February of 2016, she and her team were invited to speak at the White House on their efforts, an event which she describes as, “Really validating… probably the crowning moment of my career thus far.” Garrity is excited to see a national conversation develop regarding sexual assault, and likewise, recognition for the many recent efforts toward preventing it.

However, despite her personal belief that sex education is a valuable safety measure, Garrity acknowledges that differing opinions exist on this issue for a reason. “[Discussion of healthy relationships and sex] is dependent on everyone’s individual set of morals and values and ethics. It depends on your family, your religion.” Garrity seeks to simply educate on the evils that come with this topic, and the awareness of potential dangers, providing her audiences with the tools for “self awareness… being aware of your surroundings, being aware of how to help yourself and your community.” Giving talks such as the one I received as a senior in high school, or providing guest lectures at Boston College’s Connell School of Nursing, where she previously taught for eleven years, are a few of the ways Garrity believes she can contribute to creating a safer world. What Garrity hopes is not necessarily to bring the topic of sex into classrooms or  homes, but rather the topics of care, concern, and consent.