When one does work in the anti-sexual violence field, dealing with the reactions of family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers becomes just another part of what we do and the shocked and hesitant reactions become commonplace. Many of us, staff and volunteers included, get similar reactions when people find out where we work, what we do, and who we work with. Many of these reactions focus on the negative aspects of the job and ask questions like: ‘how could you do that everyday?’, ‘isn’t that depressing?’, or ‘do you hate all men now because of your job?’ Some of the more interesting reactions are the ones that employ an avoidance strategy as people will quickly change topics to the weather, a new movie, or anything else. However, a great number of responses are gratuitous and positive in nature thanking us for the work we do, the support we provide to survivors, and our ability to serve in a field that is so important. Typically, despite the initial reaction, most people will follow up and ask why we work in the sexual violence field and how we handle it. In an attempt to answer that question, I have gathered answers from staff and volunteers of BARCC on these important issues. I hope that it can give everyone insight on how people come to this field and the impact that being involved in rape crisis work has on us as individuals and professionals.
There are a wide variety of reasons that people enter the sexual violence field, some are extremely purposeful and others are quite accidental. Some are survivors themselves and want to focus on this work to create better services and experiences for other survivors and/or to help reduce rates of sexual violence through effective curriculums and programs. Others sought out positions specifically within a feminist or women’s organization but had a wider scope of interests or potential fields. Many people stated that they wanted to be in a position where they were able to advocate for someone in a difficult moment or time of crisis. People’s previous experience varies widely as some have come from the domestic violence field, women’s health, a social justice organization, and as a volunteer at a rape crisis center to name a few. A staff member or volunteer can fill a variety of roles at a rape crisis center and in the sexual violence field. Here at the BARCC, we have counseling services (individual/group), legal advocacy, a toxicology hotline, a couple 24-7 services (Hotline, MedAd), prevention and awareness services, and a development team. People’s skills, expertise, and daily jobs look very different and the way and frequency with which they interact with survivors and the community also varies. Even within this variance in roles and duties, staff and volunteers alike state that the overwhelming majority of experiences they have are positive.
Clinical and direct services staff are able to give survivors the time and space to find and develop their voice and courage. While several talked about how the topics and discussion can be raw and difficult, they tended to focus on how inspiring it can be to watch someone transform over the course of a hotline call, medical accompaniment, or a counseling session. Many clinical and direct services workers commented on the power of seeing someone discover and rely on their own internal resilience and feel privileged to be a part of this process. Individuals involved with legal and medical advocacy also reflected on how inspiring it is to see the clients they assist transition into a more empowered individual and return to normal life experiences such as dating, having children, returning to work or school, going to court, and developing a support network rather than letting the sexual violence define them.
Individuals who are involved in prevention services work within the different communities and try to change societal perceptions of survivors, rape culture, and sexual violence. Oftentimes, audiences are on edge when starting and it is amazing to watch this anxiety dissipate during the workshop. While in a facilitator role, one is challenging the mainstream opinions and conceptions of sexual violence, which can be a very difficult topic for most people. Seeing a person or audience understand what primary prevention and identify with how they can play a role is an inspiring and worthwhile moment. Prevention workers are able to see micro-communities and micro-societies change in front of their eyes, which makes the idea that society at large can transform for the better is achievable.
Naturally there are many negative and not-so-fabulous experiences with this work. It can be upsetting to watch a client struggling to find their voice, create an empowering support network, or navigate any of the systems (law enforcement, legal, housing, employment) necessary. Prevention workers frequently encounter pushback from audience members about their ability to influence the culture around them and their role in preventing sexual violence. It can be hard to see the direct impact you made sometimes. There are many factors outside of our control—availability of other services and resources and the responses of community and governmental agencies to requests—that can have a damaging impact on how helpful we can be. Budget cuts, especially in recent years, limit the amount we are able to and the amount that other community partners are able to do. This is difficult to cope with particularly since the number of people and populations seeking services may increase during this time.
In order to counter these negative interactions and incidents, staff and volunteers reflect on the rewards which are both simple and plentiful. Some examples included being genuinely thanked, seeing appreciation on someone’s face, having a positive impact, and recognizing how small accomplishments can build upon one another. In this field of work, a support environment is critical. Many people commented how important their co-workers were and how they were lucky to work in a field where there were so many smart, passionate, dedicated, and wonderful people. Staff and volunteers alike can expect to rely on each other for support on tough days and also day-to-day inspiration and connection. Self-care is extremely important in order to prevent the burn-out and compassion-fatigue of which we are all very aware. It is important to incorporate self-care into our regular schedule but also to recognize when it’s necessary to include extra techniques after an especially difficult or stressful day or week or month.
This is by no means a complete collection of reasons people come to and stay in this field. If anything, it demonstrates how the journey is different for everyone. What this compilation does demonstrate is that the vast majority of interactions with clients, responses to programming, and support from other staff/volunteers are extremely rewarding, inspiring, and positive. It shows that we do this work to make a better world for ourselves, survivors, communities, and each other. These experiences, in addition to other embedded rewards, are reason enough to stay in the sexual violence field, continue serving survivors and communities, and advocating for change!