Rape Crisis centers breaking the silence

Forty years ago, no one revealed or discussed sexual violence in Britain. However, the pioneering women of Rape Crisis changed all that. What more can be done?

By Kira Cochrane  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Sat, Dec 22, 2012 - Page 9

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.

The latter are necessary, Coates says, because “when women contact us, a lot of them have complex needs, which can be around rent arrears, eviction, debt, child protection issues, children in care, learning difficulties, drug and alcohol problems and complex, long-term mental health issues. All that has to be stabilized before you can engage in counseling.”

They are currently working on a project that addresses the problems facing women with learning disabilities, who are “not getting any justice at all,” she says.

“They report, but it doesn’t go to court because it’s assumed they’re not going to make a good witness,” she says.

Last year and this year, the national Rape Crisis helpline — largely unfunded, and staffed by volunteers — took more than 53,000 calls. This year, between April and September alone, individual Rape Crisis centers and the national helpline combined have taken 63,000 calls. That was before the Jimmy Savile story broke. The late DJ and BBC TV presenter is suspected of sexually abusing children over decades and an ITV documentary about his alleged crimes, Exposure, was shown on Oct. 3. Afterward calls to Rape Crisis spiked by 80 percent.

That was not a shock. They see a rush of calls whenever sexual violence is mentioned in the media. However, what makes the last few months especially significant, Eggleston says, is that “you can turn on the TV and sexual violence is the top three stories [on the news]. I don’t think that’s ever happened in our 40-year history.”

The effect on those who have been abused is obvious in the police figures reported last week: a fourfold increase in reports to the London Metropolitan Police’s child abuse investigation teams; a 100 percent increase in reports to Operation Sapphire, the force’s specialist rape investigation team, compared with this period last year.

Often adult women do not report to the police or speak to anyone about their experience “until there’s a trigger in their life,” Eggleston says.

“It could be the birth of a grandchild, or their own child, it could be that their child reaches the age they were when it happened, or they might have knowledge of the offender being around children. Sometimes it’s exactly what has happened with Savile, where there’s the death of the offender and women feel free to speak,” she says.

Rape Crisis centers have always provided women-only space; not necessarily “dedicated space,” Eggleston says, “but at certain times of day.”

Women tell them this is important, that it is easier for them to call in the knowledge that another woman will answer. However, three-quarters of the centers in England and Wales work with men and boys too — both survivors of sexual violence and those supporting women survivors — and all are happy to refer people of any gender to specialist services that can help.

Over the years, SERICC has had to shift the age of those they work with downward from 13 to four, “and we’re saying we can’t work with anyone younger,” Coates says.

“We have had referrals of a mother with a three-month-old baby, and a year-old baby, and we can work with the mother, but we don’t know how to work with the child. You can’t,” she says.

At the other end of the age range, they have worked with women in their 80s and 90s, up to 94-years-old.

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.

The writer Susan Brownmiller helped organize the speakout, and says she found it astonishing. She went on to speak at the New York Radical Feminist Conference on Rape in April 1971, and then to write the groundbreaking book Against Our Will. When it was published in the mid-1970s, “it was reviewed in the Sunday Times,” she says, “and the reviewer said: ‘This is a book by an American journalist about an American crime.’”

This outlook was echoed by other British critics.

One of the first Rape Crisis centers opened in Washington in July 1972. Liz O’Sullivan was involved in setting it up, and says they were surprised by the stories of incest, domestic violence and marital rape.

“When you look at movements,” she says, “they permeate the whole society, so they change the dialogue.”

The conversations that arose through Rape Crisis allowed for the broadening of definitions of sexual assault and rape, to recognize the gamut of offenses and how they affected different groups. In 1980, for instance, as recorded in Maria Bevacqua’s book Rape on the Public Agenda, the Washington Rape Crisis center hosted the first National Conference on Third World Women and Violence; the center also worked with men who were incarcerated locally, who had formed a group called Prisoners Against Rape.

In the 40 years since the movement started, rape in marriage has been recognized in law in the UK, and oral and anal penetration have been included in the definition of rape — the latter as a result of strong, successful lobbying from gay rights groups. However, the chances of victims being believed, getting proper support and securing justice remain low. According to the Home Office, more than 300,000 women in England and Wales are sexually assaulted and 60,000 raped each year, yet a report by Baroness Stern in 2010 estimated only 11 percent of rapes came to the attention of the police. Of those rapes that are reported, a very small proportion — usually quoted at around 6 percent — end in a conviction on that charge. This is largely due to cases failing to get as far as court. Of those that do reach court, 62.5 percent end in a conviction of rape, serious sexual assault or a violent crime, and 40 percent in a conviction of rape. However, the process is so lengthy, and so bruising, that many of those who report drop out and others have their case dropped by the authorities.

Jan McLeod started volunteering at Rape Crisis Glasgow in the late 1970s, when she was still a student, and is now on Rape Crisis Scotland’s board of directors.

She says that, back then, the police often aggressively questioned women who reported rape and would justify this by saying: “We have to be tough, because they’ll get asked worse in court.”

There was some truth in this. She remembers circulating a petition regarding “the situation of a young woman who had been raped, it must have been by more than one man, inside a motor vehicle. The jury made her re-enact it, because the defense was saying it would be impossible for one person to rape another in this confined space. So they actually, in the trial, made her get into the back of the same car, and lie in the position.”

In 1982, Roger Graef’s BBC documentary A Complaint of Rape caused a furor regarding the treatment of rape complainants; the fly-on-the-wall program showed a woman reporting a rape by two men, to which police responded with aggression and incredulity.

This is “the biggest lot of bollocks I’ve ever heard,” one said.

The woman was accused of being a willing party, of not being upset enough, was asked if she had ever “been on the game” and how many sexual partners she had had.

In its wake, it was no surprise to Eggleston and Coates in 1984 that most women did not want to report. When they supported those who complained, “the police could be quite antagonistic,” Coates says.

However, that began to change. These days, they often work closely with the police, and have had good experiences.

However, “I think it’s still a bit luck of the draw,” Coates says. “There are some officers who are fantastic, others who are not.”

That was demonstrated in recent cases involving the Metropolitan Police’s Sapphire unit, supposedly the gold standard for rape investigation. In September, Detective Constable Ryan Coleman-Farrow pleaded guilty to 13 counts of misconduct after failing to investigate 10 rape cases and three sexual assaults. They included a 96-year-old woman allegedly raped by her son. Last week, in a separate case, the force paid out £15,000 (US$24,400) to a woman who reported a rape in 2005, when she was 15, after it was claimed a Sapphire officer had failed to investigate properly.


Still, if women did not feel confident reporting to the police, Eggleston says, the numbers would be even lower at that stage. What can be more problematic is the journey to court, which can easily take two years, “and we’re saying unless that changes, the attrition rate will never change.”

SERICC supported a 13-year-old girl last year, who reported her case to the police in September. It was not until Christmas Day that they finally interviewed her.

Four years ago, Rape Crisis England and Wales faced a crisis of its own; 30 affiliated centers had closed since 1984, down from 68 to 38 in all. Of those left, 69 percent did not have sustainable funding. To the surprise of Eggleston and Coates, that picture changed when the coalition government came to power. Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats promised up to 15 new Rape Crisis centers before the last general election and by the end of January they will have delivered. That figure does not include the three new centers that have opened in London; and three-year funding has also been set up to make all the existing centers sustainable.

In those terms, the picture has improved. However, the national organization, Rape Crisis England and Wales, is seriously underfunded, as is the national helpline, which runs on a voluntary basis. There is no money for the very basics you would expect, such as the ability to expand the hours the phone lines stay open, reduce the waiting lists for counseling sessions and reduce the postcode lottery for services CSS Wales, for example, has only one affiliated center. There is certainly no funding for the campaigns they would love to run, which could target public attitudes.

In 2005, an Amnesty International poll found 26 percent of people thought a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing revealing clothing; 22 percent held the same view if a woman had had many sexual partners. In 2010, a survey by Haven, a service for people who have been raped, found a third of women polled thought a victim bore some responsibility if they had gone to their attacker’s house for a drink.

When they try to raise money, the donations are generally minimal. They suspect this might be partly because people assume the organization is fully funded already, but the issue seems to go deeper. The organizers of some of the country’s major telethons have told them donations plummet when they run segments on violence against women.

They need more people to volunteer, and not just for the helplines, but accountants, solicitors, journalists and other professionals who could support management teams. They are trying to train women so they understand the history of the movement, so the torch can be passed to staff who continue its ethos. I wonder if the work ever upsets them. Eggleston says every woman who comes in is a survivor.

“They’ve got to the door, and that fills us with hope,” she says.

Sometimes, McLeod says, “you can see the change in a woman who comes to speak to you, just instantaneously, where she thinks, it’s not just me, there are other people in the world who know what I’m talking about.”

Back in the early 1970s, when rape — and certainly child sexual abuse — was barely ever spoken about, the birth of the Rape Crisis movement felt as if “the world had cracked open,” Connell says.

“Now institutions such as the Catholic Church are being revealed, there’s the BBC scandal, and in the US there was Penn State, a college where they tolerated a pederast [football coach], and an assistant coach actually saw him raping a child,” she says.

Savile has been accused of 31 rapes, seven men have been questioned as part of the ongoing investigation, Operation Yewtree, and there is a stream of allegations regarding the late MP Cyril Smith. Could this be a watershed moment?

“I hope so,” Coates says.

She has tried, in the past, to raise the subject of adults who were sexually assaulted as children, “and no one’s ever wanted to listen. Now they are. But whether that is sustained or not, I don’t know. It will be interesting to look back in a year, 18 months, and ask: Has anything actually changed?”