Guest opinion by Donald Wertheimer: The issue of assault against women tends to be so often underplayed that itís very difficult to have a real sense of in fact what may be going on around us.

There has been a spate of sexual assaults and threats against women in Ashland over the last few months. More accurately, there have been a number of such incidents that have been somewhat publicized in that time. In reality, none of us knows how many others of which we are generally unaware may have occurred. The issue of assault against women tends to be so often underplayed that it's very difficult to have a real sense of in fact what may be going on around us.

One might think that, at this stage in our history, it would no longer be necessary for women to raise the issue and demand, yet again, that our society pays attention — that there is, yet again, the need to organize a rally in an attempt to raise public awareness and eliminate this scourge from our lives.

Why is there no rising up of public indignation that women cannot walk without fear of assault even in the streets of a town as enlightened as Ashland and even during the middle of the day? Why is there no general sense of outrage among our populace? Or, if that outrage does exist in the hearts of many of the town's residents, why is the response so muted that some of our community's women (with some male supporters) are driven to challenge the seeming indifference in an effort to generate a public awakening?

These may seem like rhetorical questions, but they are not. They are questions that I ask myself, not just in consequence of the most recent incidents in our town, but in general, since I've became aware of the almost unimaginable pervasiveness of such violent abuse in our country, most of which seems to be unknown to most of our citizenry, as it was to me until recently.

In fact, the degree of sexual assault is so extensive that it may be beyond what many of us can readily assimilate. When we are hit by the reality of the great numbers of victims, it may seem too outrageous for us to fathom. Or perhaps, it is too much in variance with the lofty self-image we have of ourselves as an uplifted and moral society. That disconnect may be one reason why sexual assault tends to continually sink so deeply below the radar. Our hearts and minds might find it just too much to bear and thus leap to, "It just couldn't be that bad."

But, it is. Those professionals who have studied this issue have found that, by the age of 18, an incredible one in four girls has been sexually assaulted. In other words, if you walk into a room with 100 women present, you can assume that at least 25(!) of them have been the victims of such assault.

Because that is so shocking a concept, it may be understandable that some folks may go into a defensive mental posture and, so, rush to the assumption that, if true, it must be happening among those other people — the ones we can conjure up in our minds as being unlike those in our own community. Well, no easy way out there either. All such studies indicate that these events occur across all socio-economic boundaries. In fact, I've recently read that it may be more pervasive in upscale populations.

So, with such awful numbers in mind, we can consider another possibility for the general under-attention to this widespread, almost invisible epidemic around us — something that may be as difficult to take in as the statistic mentioned above. That is, it stands to reason that, if so many women and girls have been and are being victimized, there must be a substantial portion of our population doing the victimization. Whatever that actual percentage may be — and I don't know if anyone has tried to estimate it — it would have to be substantial enough to decrease the number of hoped-for male supporters of efforts to end these outrages.

I could go on conjecturing, but it's not my purpose to suggest that I have all the answers or that my suppositions are unassailable. However, of one thing I am certain. It is that only when a critical mass of citizens rises up to insist that a pervasive wrong no longer be tolerated do those offenses begin to be purged from our society.

It is way beyond time for us, women and men, to step forward and demand a widespread change in our society's mentality toward sexual abuse, to end the taboo against broadly and loudly admitting to and condemning its pervasiveness and to take active action to put such changes into practical effect. There are several initiatives now being pursued in the community. Please seek them out, become involved and lend your direct support.

Donald Wertheimer has lived in Ashland since February 2002. He is a volunteer with CASA.