It is 4:03 a.m., and my silver Ford speeds down the freeway during one of the heaviest rainstorms this winter. Sheets of water blanket the asphalt and, occasionally, the car hydroplanes. We are meant to respond to calls within 20 minutes; I glance at the clock and note that 14 minutes have passed. Not a single car shares my journey down the 101, but I don’t notice the solitude. I am too nervous about what the next few hours will bring.
I have gone through 60 hours of training as a Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center advocate and I have state certification. But that was over four months ago – I barely even remember now what led me to this point. The first evening when I walked into the center’s small cottage on Milpas Street, I had no clear idea of what advocacy training would entail. All I knew was that finding the time would be tough – three hours, twice a week and all day Saturday, for about five weeks. At this moment, however, after just receiving my first call, those 60 hours seem overwhelmingly insufficient. I should have paid more attention. Now I have someone relying on my knowledge, and my mind is completely blank.
I remember my training coordinator reassuring new advocates they would get the first call they were meant to get. This manages to allay some of the anxiety, and my thoughts begin to focus as I pull up outside the Cottage Hospital emergency room.
Walking through the front reception, I try to remember the layout of the hospital and make my way back to the tiny “blue” room where I will meet with the other crisis advocate and the survivor. Two police officers pace the hallway and nod a somewhat strained greeting as I pass by. Since the founding of SBRCC in 1974, its relationship with local law enforcement has traditionally been tenuous. Not so much from a lack of respect for each other, but rather a misunderstanding of the other’s role. Law enforcement focuses, as it should, on catching the perpetrator. However, this may not always be what the survivor needs to heal. SBRCC empowers survivors to make their own choice about whether to report the assault. Unfortunately, this often leads to tension between the two organizations.
In recent years, increased cooperation and communication has led to a much closer and more congenial working relationship. This has been due, in part, to the creation of the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART). If a survivor reports a sexual assault within 72 hours and a medical/legal exam is indicated, law enforcement may proceed with a SART exam to gather physical evidence. If this occurs, law enforcement is required to call out both a specialized nurse examiner and a rape crisis advocate.
It was a SART call that woke me at 3:49 this morning. Now the sight of uniformed cops and medical personnel drives home the seriousness of the situation, and I adopt a much more professional air. I have a job to do, and my job is to support the survivor. All that concerns me now is my ability to fulfill this role. Even so, I pause briefly at the door to the meeting room and take a deep breath.
An episode of “The Practice” comes to mind. A character on the show becomes a rape crisis advocate, with seemingly no training, and goes out on her first hospital call. When she arrives, the survivor is alone in a darkened room. She lies helpless on a hospital bed, beaten so badly that the advocate cannot even look at her; instead she bursts into tears and runs out of the room. The episode enraged me when I saw it; the sensationalized portrayal of the survivor – a nameless, faceless victim, stripped of her own humanity – and the advocate – a weak and completely ill-equipped observer. But now, a similar fear grips me. I may be completely unprepared for what I am about to experience.
I knock and enter the room. The other advocate is not there – I am alone with the young woman and her mother. The anxiety returns: I feel that both of them must be able to sense my inexperience. The girl is curled up on a sofa much too small to lie down on. The room seems much too small to fit us all in, or at least, much too small to fit me in. Immediately I feel like a voyeur, a spectator in the most painful moment of this woman’s life. I want to apologize for the intrusion and quietly back out, closing the door behind me.
Instead I swallow hard, introduce myself and tell her why I am here. She looks at me blankly through tear-soaked eyes, but tolerates my presence. Her mother sits across from her, handing her Kleenex. She speaks to her daughter in a soothing, melodic tone and smoothes unruly locks of hair. They obviously have a very close bond. Strong support will be vital in the months and years ahead. Emotional scars don’t heal as quickly as physical ones.
This young woman is no anonymous victim. She could be anyone’s daughter, sister or best friend. Her humanity could never have been more apparent. Nor could her strength. I start to feel a knot form in the back of my throat and the first prick of tears sting my eyes. She is shivering, and I ask if she would like a blanket. She nods; I welcome the excuse to leave and gather myself together.
But then again, it’s not about me. Who cares how I feel? My role is to support her through this experience, not to be worried about whether I can fix what has happened.
I remember speaking to Suzanne Good, another advocate from my training class, about what she expected when she volunteered to work with survivors of sexual assault.
“I didn’t think that I would change their entire life. It is incredible just to be able to help them in the moment, make them feel a little better and even have them look inside themselves for strength,” she said. “It is really about them; it’s not really about us. It is just us giving them the tools to work with.”
I try to keep this in mind while I search for a warm blanket. One of the officers helps me – perhaps he too is searching for a way to feel useful. Returning to the room, I feel much calmer and am relieved to find the more experienced advocate talking to the young woman and her mother. I take my lead from her.
Soon we move from the emergency room to the SART cottage, a much less clinical environment, where the nurse examiner interviews the survivor before performing the physical exam. The entire process – from when the initial call came in, to when we left the cottage – takes about five hours. Plenty of time for me to wonder whether I had really made an impact.
Rapists aren’t born; they are created. We live in a rape culture with a system of beliefs and traditions that support and encourage male violence against women. Our society is infatuated with the link between sex and violence. The media romanticizes it. Violence is sexy and sexuality is violent. Men and women are portrayed as sexual adversaries. The more willful and independent a woman is, the more she needs to be forcefully overpowered, and the more erotic the chase. Yet, television and film can only act as a mirror for society’s own entrenched ideas.
It may be less acceptable in today’s society to openly blame a survivor of sexual assault. Maybe you won’t hear too many people say the survivor was asking to be raped because of the way she was dressed, but many of these destructive myths and attitudes are still pervasive. That morning, one of the officers said to me – in my capacity as an advocate – at least the survivor will have learned a lesson about who she can trust. I’m sure he would not have said that to me as a journalist. It is by no means the official law enforcement attitude, and the majority of officers are extremely careful not to blame survivors. But this officer’s comment made me wonder whether we had been talking to the same traumatized young woman.
I had once spoken to Jeff Espineli about his thoughts on our role as advocates. Jeff also took the Fall 2000 training. He was the only male in our group of eight. As such, he has unique insight into male cultural attitudes toward rape. Jeff now volunteers as a speaker to go out and educate all sectors of the community about sexual assault. He believes that no matter how frustrated we get, there is no choice but to continue chipping away at the rape culture.
“There are times when you have just had a crisis call and then all of a sudden you are walking down the street and you hear a catcall or you read a magazine. It is almost like you are fighting a losing battle,” he said. “But if we don’t change society, who will? A lot of people may think this is a lost cause, but we have to fight these battles; they’re there, we can’t deny them.”
The sun had already come up by the time I left the SART cottage that morning. I had no real sense of closure. The perpetrator was arrested, but trials take a long time. And the process of healing for this young woman will take even longer. She thanked me for what I had done, but I could have just as easily thanked her for what she had done.