The first rape crisis centers emerged in the early 1970s out of recognition that rape was (and still is) very pervasive, as well as the realization that rape victims living in a patriarchal or male-dominated society were not receiving appropriate support or services. Soon after the first rape crisis center, Bay Area Women Against Rape, opened in the San Francisco area in 1971, centers opened in other cities, including Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Boston. Rape crisis centers tended to be formed by one woman or by a small group of women frustrated with the treatment of rape victims by the general public, police, medical practitioners, and legal personnel. Volunteers collectively ran early centers without monetary support from state or government agencies. Their budgets relied on fundraising and donations; sometimes the centers were located in the homes of volunteers.
Rape crisis centers offered a variety of direct services to victims, including hotline counseling and victim accompaniments to emergency rooms, police stations, and court, if necessary. In addition, early rape crisis centers focused on eliminating rape and securing legal changes that would give rape victims more rights and protection, mobilizing efforts for social change, and educating the community about rape. The link between direct services to victims and political activism was most obvious during these beginning stages of rape crisis centers.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, rape crisis centers began to change as original founders and volunteers, burned out from years of grassroots activism, left. New members joined rape crisis centers, bringing different ideologies and accepting state and federal monetary aid. Since government agencies discouraged radical activism, rape crisis centers had to reduce their level of political activism when they began to receive public funding. In addition, rape crisis centers became more professional, hiring paid staff and formally training all staff and volunteers. Currently, most states require individuals who volunteer at rape crisis centers as counselors or advocates to have 40–50 hours of specialized training. Training may focus on facts and myths about rape and victims, state laws, ways to support victims and significant others immediately after rape, and strategies to advocate for victims during police interviews, medical procedures, and court proceedings. Rape crisis centers also now collaborate with other institutions, such as the medical, criminal justice, and legal systems. Originally, because volunteers viewed these systems as causes of women’s subordination and as sources of revictimization for rape victims, collaboration was nonexistent. Instead of working with other institutions to facilitate change as they do now, rape crisis centers criticized institutions for the mistreatment of rape victims.
Although the structure and sources of funding have changed, core services offered have remained constant. Most rape crisis centers offer the following: 24-hour crisis hotlines; crisis intervention; short-term face-to-face counseling for victims and significant others; medical, mental health, and legal information and referrals; advocacy when accompanying victims to emergency rooms, hospitals, police stations, and legal proceedings; and outreach and education to professionals, community members, and middle school, high school, and college students. Although some rape crisis centers provide long-term counseling, most focus on the victim’s needs immediately after the rape and refer victims to other counselors who can help them for longer periods of time.
When providing direct services to victims, rape crisis centers recognize the importance of returning a sense of power to the victim. Some centers offer resources and services in Spanish and other languages and offer specialized services for male victims, teenage victims, victims under the age of 12 years, elderly victims, disabled victims, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered victims. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have centers that offer services to rape victims. Information about rape crisis centers in all states is available by contacting the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). RAINN began in 1994 and is the largest antisexual assault organization in the United States.
Most centers no longer include elimination of rape as a stated goal. It is unclear whether this results from inability to engage in political activism because of funding sources or because members of the rape crisis movement no longer believe that the elimination of rape is possible. Political activism and protest, which were common in the early to mid-1970s, have been replaced with education and outreach in the form of public speaking engagements and various other methods to raise community awareness of rape and its prevention. Rape crisis centers spend a considerable amount of time educating other agencies and institutions about rape, the need for specialized services for rape victims, and the best way to treat rape victims. The current understanding is that increased collaboration between various agencies and institutions will lead to improvement in the treatment of victims and the services available to them.
- Campbell, R., Baker, C. K., & Mazurek, T. L. (1998). Remaining radical? Organizational predictors of rape crisis centers’ social change initiatives. American Journal of Community Psychology, 26, 457–483.
- Campbell, R., & Martin, P. Y. (2002). Services for sexual assault survivors: The role of rape crisis centers. In R. M. Holmes & S. T. Holmes (Eds.), Current perspectives on sex crimes (pp. 254–266). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Martin, P. Y. (2005). Rape work: Victims, gender, and emotions in organization and community context. New York: Routledge.
- Matthews, N. (1994). Confronting rape: The feminist antirape movement and the state. London: Routledge.
- Wasco, S. M., Campbell, R., Howard, A., Mason, G. E., Staggs, S. L., Schewe, P. A., et al. (2004). A statewide evaluation of services provided to rape survivors. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 19, 252–263.
- Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: https://www.rainn.org/
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