NEW BRITAIN–Cathy Malloy, Connecticut’s new first lady, spent more than a decade running a rape crisis center, but often, acquaintances get the details wrong.

“People introduce me all the time: ‘Here’s Cathy Malloy, the executive director of a domestic violence crisis center,’” she said. “You feel very odd having to say, ‘No, no, it’s sexual assault,’ because then people say, ‘Ok, see you later.’”

Cathy Malloy 6-16-11

Cathy Malloy

“They don’t want to be talking about it. They don’t really want to be that educated about it. It’s very difficult. Who wants to talk about sexual assault in a social setting?”

Malloy wants people to talk about it. She recently hosted the directors of the state’s sexual assault crisis programs at the Governor’s Residence to develop a strategy for raising awareness, and she plans to use her role as first lady to advocate for victims and those who support them.

“This is a really important issue that keeps being put on the back burner,” she told an audience Thursday at the annual meeting of the YWCA New Britain, which provides sexual assault crisis services to 43 towns. “And I’m hoping that in my new role, I’m going to either push it up a little bit on the stove or at least make it even with some of the other issues.”

The event provided something of a bridge between Malloy’s professional life and her role as first lady. Thursday was her last day as executive director of the Stamford-based Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education. The Malloys’ Stamford house is on the market, and Cathy Malloy is making the transition to becoming a fulltime Hartford resident.

That includes job hunting, which she says is not exactly a pleasant process when you’re married to the governor. Some would-be employers have wondered how she could do the job, or asked, “Isn’t being the governor’s wife a fulltime job?”

“It’s not 1955, where we’re at the residence with white gloves and serving tea,” said Malloy, who plans to work fulltime, like many states’ first spouses, and is eyeing jobs involving the arts or youth. “The residences run themselves, and in these days, there’s no spouse that’s defined by the governor’s job.”

She figures some of the questions come from her being relatively unknown, professionally, in the Hartford area.

“My husband was the mayor of Stamford for 14 years, and I maintained my own identity and had my own job and career,” she said. “Nobody in Lower Fairfield County would ever ask me that ever, because they know me.”

Malloy, who met her husband when they were students at Boston College, worked as a restaurant executive and vice president of development for United Way of Greenwich and Stamford before being hired to run a rape crisis center that serves eight towns. She said she was hired for her business experience, to help what was a struggling nonprofit.

At the time, she said, her awareness of sexual assault issues was “zero.” Learning about them was “shocking.”

Figures vary, but advocates cite estimates that one in three women and one in six men have been sexually abused or assaulted, many before age 18. A 2000 study found that nearly one in five Connecticut residents had experienced sexual assault or abuse.

“When you look at the numbers, there had to have been at least a handful of survivors here,” Malloy said after her speech Thursday. While she will attend events for other causes, her public speaking as first lady will be focused on sexual assault.

“This issue needs a voice,” she said.

Malloy said children need to be taught that they should speak up if they don’t like something that’s happening to them. Young people and adults should understand that sending unwanted explicit pictures over the Internet or phone is a form of sexual assault. And people need to stop second-guessing victims and realize how prevalent sexual assault is.

In Lower Fairfield County, some people who learned she ran a rape crisis center would ask where and, when she told them, ask, “Oh, it happens here?”

“People really think it’s a low socioeconomic status, minority problem,” Malloy said. “And yet, some of the most affluent communities have incredibly high incest rates. It’s nothing to do with [socioeconomic status].”

There needs to be a way to talk about sexual assault, she said, noting that domestic violence, a horrific crime, now gets discussed in graphic detail at luncheons.

Those who work with victims take measures to ensure confidentiality, something considered critical to ensuring that people feel comfortable coming forward. Malloy’s center in Stamford made a point of not using brochures or appeals that included people’s photographs, to make sure no one avoided seeking help out of fear that his or her picture would be taken.

But even the work of people “in the movement” to protect victims could inadvertently contribute to the stigma, she said.

“I think by keeping it under the rug we sort of maybe still put some onus onto the victims, that it might be somehow their fault, and that’s not right,” she said. “If we could get the victims to feel that it’s not their fault, they did nothing wrong, then maybe they’d feel better about their names being out there. But we’re a long way from that.”

Malloy is concerned about the effects the economy will have on the nonprofit sexual assault crisis programs, which provide counseling, education, advocacy and 24-hour crisis services.

There’s talk of combining agencies with those that serve victims of domestic violence, but she said the client base is not the same. An independent agency like the one she ran can be more accessible to men and to gays and lesbians who might not feel as comfortable visiting an agency that has other functions, she said.

Those who work in the field are excited to have an advocate in the governor’s residence–or two. Kathie DeVeau, sexual assault crisis services director for the YWCA New Britain, said she has been fond of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy since he was mayor and supported an art show related to sexual assault at Stamford city hall. The governor spoke at a conference about sexual assault Thursday.

“I’ve been talking about this for a long time and nobody really wanted to talk about it,” DeVeau said. “And Cathy’s going to make people talk about it.”

A statewide, confidential sexual assault hotline is available at 1-888-999-5545.

Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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