Lee Eggleston was 14, and still at school, when she first heard about the Rape Crisis movement in the late 1970s. She had joined a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) group in Thurrock, Essex, England, from which a group of women soon branched off, including her and Sheila Coates, a young mother of two.
“At one meeting,” Coates says, “all the women were talking about sexual violence, and it was quite a shock. We’d all known each other for some time, but no one was aware that everyone in the room had had something happen, be it flashing or rape. No one had told anybody.”
Soon afterward, they went on a group outing to a late-night showing at the local movie theater, wearing their CND badges. After the lights went down, the harassment began.
“The guys behind us started touching our hair, stroking our backs,” Coates says.
“One straddled me and said he wanted to fuck me with a cruise missile,” Eggleston says.
“In the end, this group of young guys was asked to leave,” Coates says, “and we thought, great, when we leave, they’ll be outside ... We were trying to work out how we were all going to get home, because these guys were so angry.”
Thankfully, nothing happened, but when the women met up again they started talking about how they would have been treated if it had. In all likelihood, they would have been asked why they were out in the middle of the night, what they had done to aggravate the men and what they were wearing.
Eggleston says this group experience was crucial because it made them understand sexual violence as something more than simply an attack on the individual, which could be solved with an individual response.
“The thread of our lives is that this is a collective experience,” she says.
A Rape Crisis center had been set up in London in 1976, and the Thurrock group contacted it, visited it and then decided to set up their own. They spent three years training and organizing, before opening on March 3, 1984, in a small room in a shared building. All the staff were volunteers. They had a telephone line for women in the area who had experienced sexual violence and although they advertised it, for the first six weeks there were very few calls, Coates says.
“We thought: ‘Oh well, no one wants to use us.’ And then — boosh — we were inundated,” she says.
They were surprised how many calls were from women who had experienced sexual abuse as children — these soon accounted for at least a third — and they had not realized how many would want to speak face to face. They counseled these women on the stairs, in the garden, in their cars. Women were contacting them from outside the local area, and in 1986 the name of the service widened to become South Essex Rape and Incest Crisis Centre (SERICC).
That is still its name today, and I meet Coates and Eggleston at the unassuming building that houses it; beautifully designed inside, with dedicated, sound-proofed counseling rooms. The pair continue to run SERICC and also Rape Crisis England and Wales, the umbrella organization that links more than 50 affiliated member centers. Coates is head of policy and strategy, while Eggleston is the chair.
It is 40 years since Rape Crisis began in the US, moving quickly to the UK, and the need for it is as pressing as ever. In its first year, SERICC took 50 or 60 calls. Last year, it took about 10,000, as well as undertaking 2,194 counseling sessions and 1,361 advocacy hours.