I began volunteering at nia in January 2011, having seen a posting for East London Rape Crisis Information and Referral line workers whilst thumbing through the internet during particularly a gruelling job stretch of unemployment. I had no real idea what to expect when I got the call for an interview. How would my fairly intuition-based feminism, nurtured by more by punk records and theory than any active engagement with the women’s sector, measure to the expectations of this then-faceless organisation? Julia and I had been working on Hollaback London for a few years so I could talk convincingly about street harassment as one end of the ‘continuum of sexual violence’, a phrase I seemed to reel off daily when told we should take the odd grope as a compliment, but what did this really mean in practice? Would I crumble in uselessness?
Statistically I knew that I must know rape survivors. I knew, for myself, that I had a dark, confused ball of knowing inside me where I kept the memories of having been coerced into many things I didn’t want to happen, not really, in bed with boys, but I had smiled weakly and tried to get on with it, not screamed and run. And I knew the shadow of the stranger who had asked where my boyfriend was and tried to put his fingers inside me one hundred yards from my front door, and I still knew the sound of his footsteps when I walked in the dark anywhere, years later. But still, I didn’t think of myself as a survivor of anything much.
I arrived for the interview and was met by Anja, the volunteer coordinator, a Swedish woman of infallible enthusiasm whose orange undercut and facial piercings set me immediately at ease, as I’d bought an emergency cardigan to cover my tattoos in standard interview procedure (painted lady problems. ) If Anja’s two massive forearms daggers were okay, I’d probably be alright too.
And I was. It was definitely the first time I’ve ever been asked the question ‘Is rape ever a women’s fault?’ in an interview, and gave the easiest and most certain negative, almost shouted back, we fell about giggling. The subsequent three sessions of training were some of the most intense and thought-provoking days. Here I was with ten or eleven other strangers, women of every background, age, and class, hashing out ideas and grappling with our doubts and fears. We covered everything from case law to child protection, we worked together and faced head on the reality of rape and what it does to women and girls.
Early on in the first training session we went through nia’s values as they pertain to the East London Rape Crisis service they deliver. The strident and unabashed feminism of the management who addressed us felt markedly different to every other ‘induction’ where political persuasion is a no-go area. The service’s total autonomy from the police and social services was heartening to learn about. There are many other funded services which take raising the embarrassingly low rape reporting rate in this country as one of their key objectives, and means that the main pathway for women who need help might often be ‘go to the police station.’ Every element of the work went towards redressing the balance. Fundamental to this is the empowerment framework, which posits that, if this about advocating for women and girls who’ve had power robbed from them in the worst possible way, the process we use in doing that should also, in itself, contributing to giving that power back. So no pressure, no ‘advice’, no ‘you should do xyz’, just support and information to help someone make those decisions. This includes total confidentiality within the bounds of the law and no letters or contact to other organisations without client consent.
Of course, all this becomes less black and white when you learnt that many women feel like they can’t make big decisions in the aftermath, or see a clear path, and that helplessness and a need for real support are hugely important. Working through how you can really support someone without taking the reins away from them has been one of the biggest challenges in year since I finished this training and started working on the helpline. So many women who experience rape and sexual assault have their own reasons for being extremely wary of social services, the police and the council, ergo the system as a whole, yet when it comes to things like housing issues, which as we plunge into housing crisis and women are raped by their husbands, housing associations and councils have to be brought into the picture.
The training culminated in some role play, which was, far from being horrifically awkward, a great opportunity to put everything we had learnt into practice. Of course this is very different to the reality of sitting down at the desk and hearing that phone ring. You never know who you’re going to speak to, where they’re at or what they need, but just being able to hear these women’s stories and be resolutely on their side is huge. Sometimes it might be silence. Their home addresses are often places you have walked past many times. Their stories are never simple and always intertwined with a million issues. Sometimes it might be a woman who has been trafficked her for sex from thousands of miles away, or a teenage girl whose story is so sad its hard just to keep it together. But she is, and she has, and she’s sought help. Sometimes you’ll speak through a translator, sometimes you’ll complete each other sentences.
So far, I haven’t crumbled in uselessness. I’ve got a working knowledge of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, I can give a woman a run down of what happens in court, and I’ve seen some of my fellow volunteers move into the women’s sector full time. Of course I still freak out when the phone rings occasionally but we’re never alone. I live the other side of London to where the Information and Referral Line is based, so every evening after my shift I walk from there to the tube, and let my mind tune out to the low hum of the underground for half an hour. Then I walk from the tube to my house, the same route where years ago I heard those footsteps. Except now, when I think I start to hear them, I can tune out to the voices, the stories and the strength of all those women, whispering or outraged, in Turkish, Polish, English, living, breathing and surviving, regardless.
Originally published in Langdon Olgar Issue I