Older women are “reporting rape by care workers, health professionals,” Coates says. “It’s often quite recent sexual assault.”
When the centers started opening in the 1970s, they took calls from women who had been raped during World War II, who had never spoken about it before.
Kate Cook, co-author of Rape Crisis: Responding to Sexual Violence, who has volunteered on the helpline extensively over the years, says some of the most difficult calls “are the ones where someone is saying the least. They’re so upset, hurting so much, that it’s very hard for them to speak.”
Helen Jones, Cook’s co-author, volunteered at a center on Merseyside, northwest England, during the mid-1990s and says one of the most affecting calls she ever took was just a few minutes long, one Sunday afternoon.
“This voice said: ‘Hello, dear, I don’t know whether I’ve phoned the right number or not.’ So I said: ‘Well, this is Rape Crisis and it’s for people who have been sexually abused at any point in their lives.’ She said: ‘Yes, dear, that’ll be right. Well, you know, when I was little, when I was 12, my father did something he shouldn’t and he raped me.’ She was quite forthright about it. She said: ‘He raped me and I’ve never told anybody and I’m 80 years old now and I just wanted to tell somebody before I died.’ And so I said to her: ‘Well, I’m ever so glad that you phoned me and that I’m the person who you shared that with.’ And so she said: ‘Yes, so am I. Thank you, dear. Goodbye,’” Jones says.
Rape Crisis gives women the chance to speak about what happened to them, without judgment, without pressure to report to the police, and with a guarantee that they will be believed.
The movement started with women speaking about their experiences in consciousness-raising groups in the early 1970s, including one attended by Noreen Connell, who was then a member of New York Radical Feminists.
“Women remembered being raped or fondled when they were children ... and their parents had made light of it,” she says; the women did not see themselves as victims, so much as angry citizens.
“They felt they had been treated worse than the rapist, and grilled for the delight of police officers, and this seemed to be a common experience,” she says.
Rape became the subject of the first ever feminist speakout. At St Clement’s, a small church in Manhattan, in January 1971, 40 women stood before an audience of 300 and talked about their experiences. Some of the stories are collected in Rape: The First Sourcebook for Women, which Connell co-edited. They include a woman who was gang raped by three men, then chided by the police for being too coherent, too calm, when she reported it. Her demeanor meant they did not readily believe her. There was a woman raped by her husband; a woman whose teenage brother assaulted her and whose mother simply responded that the same thing had happened to her as a child, but worse, and she had learned to lock her bedroom door if her brother was home; a woman raped by an intruder, who was asked by the police precisely how long the man’s penis was, and told by the doctor she could not possibly have been raped as her vagina was not ripped. The last policeman this woman saw during the rape investigation asked her for a date.