Devon Rape Crisis: “It’s about giving people their lives back”

Exeposé Features Issue 657, Page 10 (26 September 2016) and Exeposé Features online (1 October 2016)

There is literally nothing about this building in central Exeter that suggests I’m at the right address. Giving the email from Fee Scott another quick glance, I reach for the doorbell then draw back, doubting myself again. No, this is definitely the place. After a couple more minutes of dithering, I’m struck by a thought: how many other women have stood right where I am now, wondering whether to press that doorbell?

A few seconds later, I’ve been buzzed up to the home of Devon Rape Crisis. And after a few flights of stairs, one thing’s clear: pressing that doorbell could be one of the best decisions a woman who’s suffered sexual assault could ever gather the courage to make.

“It’s just hugely important that people feel safe,” Scott explains. “If you’ve experienced rape or childhood sexual abuse, you’ve had experiences of extreme unsafety – so before we do anything else, we have to make it safe. Whether that’s because it’s anonymous, it’s a private address, whether that’s because once you’re inside it’s a really nice space we’ve got here…”

I have to agree. If anywhere feels like a safe place, it’s here.

When I sit down with Scott, the first thing she does is slip off her shoes to get comfy, curling up crosslegged on the armchair. She might be Chief Executive Officer of the charity, but in this room she’s simply a caring face; a listening ear; and someone you just instinctively trust – which is good, because many of the women who sit in this chair will have been through some horrific experiences.

For the past five years, Devon Rape Crisis has been helping women cope with the devastating effects of rape and sexual assault.  Founded in 2011 as part of the coalition government’s commitment to increasing support for victims of sexual violence, it’s one of 15 centres across the UK. Funded by the Ministry of Justice, alongside several generous patrons and public fundraising campaigns, it now boasts a team of nine staff, across three offices – in Exeter, Barnstaple and Torquay.

“For the majority of students, contact would be here,” Scott explains. Why are we talking about students today? Because last year, over a third of those contacting DRCS were between 18 and 24. “We opened our young people’s counselling service last year and we’ve had a lot of people through our door since then,” Scott says. “So far only female students, although we’re open to young men.” As this is a female-only space, male sufferers are supported at a separate address in Exeter. I ask what kinds of things students report – is it childhood abuse or more recent traumas? “It’s a mixture,” she admits, “but I’d say that for students, most of it has happened since they’ve been at university.”

There’s a pause while this sinks in. “It’s sad, really,” is all I can say – but it hardly scratches the surface. “It is” she nods gravely. “I mean, we’re talking about young people with the whole of their lives ahead of them, who – because of what’s happened – find it difficult to get on with their lives. University should be open, free, exciting, joyful, challenging… and this stops them making use of all the opportunities at university. And that is desperately sad.”

So how do students get in touch? And what happens when they do? “Anybody can refer themselves for our face-toface services, or other people can refer them,” Scott explains. “For example, the Wellbeing Centre is a really good source of referrals and signposting.” These students often need more than the support currently offered by the on-campus centre. “If you were abused as a child, you need more than six sessions to start working on that,” she stresses.

But equally, it’s always up to the sufferer how long they stay with DRCS. “We meet people initially for an assessment,” Scott says, “and as much as possible, it’s a twoway thing. So we’re fi guring out: are we the right people to offer you support? And we hope that people are figuring out: is this an organisation I feel comfortable and safe with?” If the answers are yes, counselling starts within a couple of weeks. “If you want to come once, that’s fi ne,” Scott tells me. “If you want to come for eight sessions, then decide you’re done – or you’re thinking, my exams are coming up and I can’t think about this right now, that’s also fine,” she smiles. “We just work with people.”

For young people, it’s mostly a one-on-one counselling service – although DRCS also offers practical support. “Sometimes, a really terrifying place for people to visit is the dentist,” Scott explains. “So we’ve got people who can go with you.” The team also offers an advocacy service, supporting people with things like housing and university issues. “If people don’t know how to speak to those organisations, we can go along with them.” Scott’s also keen to talk about the team’s EMDR treatment (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing), which alters the way traumatic memories are stored in the brain. “It’s a really powerful trauma intervention,” she explains, “helpful for people experiencing nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks.”

If you want to report sexual violence, DRCS can also help with that – although they never force anyone to do this. “A lot of women don’t report, and we haven’t got an agenda about reporting,” Scott explains. “If someone wants to, we will back them all the way. We’ll go to the police station with them, phone up with them, we’ll stick with them until the trial… But at the moment, most women don’t sit here and say “I want to report.” So we don’t bring it up – because our focus is on people’s safety and recovery.

“Because of the culture we’ve all grown up in, before you can get to placing blame where it’s deserved, you have to deal with the misplaced self-blame that makes women think they won’t be believed. Some people do then feel stronger, and decide to report. But we’re not pushing people.”

Self-blame. It’s a loaded term – and one Scott clearly feels strongly about: “It’s the myths that stop people reporting, and it’s the myths that stop people phoning up, because they think they’ll be blamed,” she says. There’s despair in her voice now. Controlled, of course… but it’s there. “It’s the things people read in newspapers that make them think, oh, what’s the point, it must have been my fault in some way… It’s the wallpaper of a society where sexual violence is condoned in some ways, or accepted, and made fun of.” She tells me about a 2014 NUS report, which revealed a third of female students had experienced unwanted sexual advances. “That’s huge, isn’t it! I’ve heard lots of students say: ‘it just happens. It’s expected.’ And that isn’t okay. If I came into work and somebody touched me inappropriately, that would be a disciplinary offence!”

It might be widespread, but that doesn’t make it easy to seek help. “Our email and phone services are really important,” Scott explains, “because one of the biggest features of sexual violence is shame. For some people phoning up is good because it’s anonymous – we don’t take anybody’s number – but for some people, even getting the words out is difficult. So our email service is brilliant. Again, it’s anonymous – a server in London whips off addresses and replaces them with a number.” Making it to the first session is clearly an achievement in itself – but still, many survivors bring doubts. “It’s quite common for people to start with: ‘I don’t know whether that was rape…’” Scott says. “But we’re clear: sex without consent is rape. Sexual contact without consent is sexual assault. It’s our job to be clear. But it doesn’t surprise me that people rock up and say they’re not sure. Because newspapers, TV, Twitter, everything, is full of counter-messages.

“We don’t say to men: don’t rape. Or: you go home before it gets dark. So it’s always about women’s responsibility to look after themselves. We don’t necessarily look at perpetrators, we just question women – asking things like: what were you wearing, how many drinks did you have? Why did you have coffee with him? We never say to the perpetrator, well, why did you buy her a drink? Why did you invite her for coffee? Why did you offer to walk her home?”

But things are different here. “The very first thing we do is just believe people,” Scott says earnestly. “We don’t have to investigate anything – we just have to give a damn about the person sitting opposite us.” It’s an approach that can change lives. “We see people… transformed, really,” she smiles. “It’s common for people to come in quite contracted, clearly feeling shame and discomfort, and walk out standing up that much taller.

“Our ethos is about respect, empowerment and belief,” Scott sums up with a kind of calm determination. “Sexual violence means your decisions have been taken away from you, so our job is to give you back those decisions. It’s just about giving people their lives back.”

If you have been personally affected by any of the issues raised in this interview, Devon Rape Crisis can be contacted anonymously on 01392 204174 or support@devonrapecrisis.org.uk
More information on volunteering and fundraising events can be found at http://www. devonrapecrisis.org.uk/

>>View original Exeposé feature>>
>>View Exeposé Issue 657 at issuu.com>>

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