HOTSEAT- Big shoes: Walking the Walk(er)

Walker Thornton

On a first date, Walker Thornton doesn't usually bring up what she does. Executive director of SARA doesn't sound too bad. Spelling out Sexual Assault Resource Agency can be... "off putting," she says. "They think I'm a feminist or don't like men."

Thornton likes men a lot, especially the ones who don women's shoes and parade the Downtown Mall as they will May 3 for Walk a Mile in her Shoes, a national campaign to raise money and awareness. "It's an effort to show understanding of how sexual violence impacts everyone," explains Thornton. 

Macho guys like a local rugby team show up in their uniforms and high heels, and some participants put on the panty hose, according to Thornton. "We have a great group of guys," she says.

She'd like to have more partnerships with men to end the violence of sexual assault. Rape centers started as grassroots efforts by women for women. "In the early years, men were seen as the enemy," she notes. 

Over the years, Thornton has seen more professionalism in the business, with better training and education.

What hasn't changed: "I'm constantly asked what women can do to prevent sexual assault," she says. "Not, what can we do as a community to help young men not commit sexual assault. We're still blaming women." 

Even a year ago when a young woman was assaulted on Grady Avenue, she had calls from the media asking what women can do to prevent attacks.

"If I go on TV and say don't go home late at night alone, don't talk on the cell phone, be aware of your surroundings, I fail to say, there's a man out there attacking women. That's victim-blaming, and it let's them off the hook. That's the same story from 30 years ago."

As a little girl growing up in the tiny town of Urbanna (home of the oyster festival), Thornton, the oldest of five, didn't dream of heading a rape center, but then, who does?

"I always wanted to work with children," she says. "I had an eccentric relative who was a school psychologist, and that's where I was headed."

She did the course work for a PhD in educational psychology, and then childbearing intervened. Volunteer work in Alabama led to the head job at Rape Response in 1991. 

When she moved to Charlottesville in 1999, Thornton was going through a divorce and opened a needlepoint shop called Threads. "I did not want a stressful job," she says. One of her customers was on the board of SARA, one thing led to another and she's headed SARA for three years now.

Besides the stigma of working for an organization with the word "sexual" in its name, another thing SARA has to deal with is confusion with SHE– Shelter for Help in Emergency, which deals with victims of domestic abuse. The clientele of both are abused women, and "it gets lumped in together," observes Thornton.

SARA served 800 assault survivors last year, and they can be women, men, and children. The statistics are roughly that one in four women gets raped and only 20 percent report it to the police, says Thornton. "We have a significant number of adults who say, 'I was raped 20 years ago, and I've never talked about it.'"

One of these days, Thornton is going to get back to the book she wanted to write when she moved to Charlottesville, and one of these days she hopes she'll be asked, "What can we as a community do to stop young men from sexual assault?"

Age: 54

Why here? I grew up in Virginia and went to UVA. I came to Charlottesville in 1999 and it felt like coming home. 

What's worst about living here? Overzealous land developers

Favorite hangout? Mudhouse on the Downtown Mall on a warm sunny day

Most overrated virtue? Well, I looked up the seven "heavenly" virtues: Chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. If I had to pick one, it'd be patience.  

People would be surprised to know: I'm a small-town girl, grew up in a town of about 500. 

What would you change about yourself? I'm a procrastinator; I'd like to change that.... one day. 

Proudest accomplishment? Honoring myself enough to begin pursuing my own dreams. 

People find most annoying about you: Probably my directness, or my sarcasm, or my...

Whom do you admire? I admire strong women who have chosen to forge their own paths, often contrary to traditional expectations for our gender.

Favorite book? As a new grandmother, Good Night Moon. I love to read and tend to have several going at a time. I prefer fiction to nonfiction, literature to fluff.

Subject that causes you to rant? Advertising that uses sex as a selling tool. 

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Being able to communicate with my friends and family with such ease: IM, email, Skype, social networking sites. 

Biggest 21st-century creep out? The increase in online pornography and Internet predators.

What do you drive? Lexus IS 250

In your car CD player right now: Taj Mahal's Maestro and Bela Fleck's Perpetual Motion 

Next journey? Coast of Spain, just waiting to find the ideal travel partner.  

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Almost got suspended from boarding school in 10th grade! It was my first experience with alcohol, and I had too much. I passed out in a dorm bathroom on the night of my first big dance and never made it to the dance.

Regret: Not understanding the fuller range of options available to me when I was in my teens and early 20s. I would have made a good lawyer. 

Favorite comfort food: Homemade mac and cheese

Always in your refrigerator: Organic low-fat milk, several good cheeses, crisp hard red apples and limes. Ben and Jerry's in the freezer. 

Must-see TV: NCIS or Lie To Me.  

Describe a perfect day. I'm at the beach with a good book. It's hot, but not searing with a light breeze to keep the bugs away. Water is slightly chilly, and the waves are perfect for body surfing. 

Walter Mitty fantasy: Coast of Spain, with that ideal travel partner. Picture an exotic villa on a bluff, overlooking the ocean, cloudless days, azure seas.  

Who'd play you in the movie? Helen Mirren

Most embarrassing moment? So many... and I'd just be re-embarrassing myself in the process. 

Best advice you ever got? Count to 10 before you speak. I need to practice it more often. 

Favorite bumper sticker? Never had one.