Rape Crisis Center Hopes Educating Men Will Reduce Sexual Violence
Oliver Barkley, WRCC
The number of sex-crime victims and their supporters who sought help at the Women’s Rape Crisis Center increased 25 percent last fiscal year, according to figures released Monday by the center.
Between July 2007 and June 2008, the center received an average of six calls a day from sexual-violence victims and their family and friends. That’s a 20 percent increase in the past five years, said Cathleen Wilson, the center’s executive director.
While Wilson called the increase in calls “dramatic,” she suggested the numbers represent a “slowly improving” climate in which victims are less likely to be stigmatized or blamed for the attacks. She added that, because of a couple of high-profile court cases in recent years — including the conviction of Brian Rooney in the rape and murder of University of Vermont student Michelle Gardner-Quinn — victims may be showing a greater willingness to come forward.
“I think it’s a matter of more awareness rather than more violence,” she said. “It’s no surprise that those situations would have encouraged more people to reach out for services.”
Now, Wilson said, the time has come to put more emphasis on preventing sexual violence in the first place. And that begins with educating men about the root causes of male violence against women. “We have to find out how more men can become allies and address other men’s behavior,” Wilson said. “The future of the movement lies in this direction.”
To that end, Wilson has added a male outreach worker to the center’s staff, which previously consisted of 14 women. The new staffer, Oliver Barkley, is a UVM medical student from Virginia, where he’d been a teacher in prisons and inner-city schools. “I dealt with a lot of tough guys,” he noted.
Barkley, whose position is part-time, leads males-only group discussions, including at UVM fraternity houses, that are intended to cultivate “positive masculinity.” Students are encouraged to “explore within themselves, their families, their communities,” with the goal of better understanding the nature of violence against women, he explained.
Describing himself as an optimist, Barkley said “incremental change” is taking place among younger individuals that will facilitate more widespread change. Adolescents, he said, generally “don’t get enough credit for how mature they can be” in searching for ways to reduce the incidence of gender-based violence.
“The young men I talk with do have a lot of questions,” he said. “And a lot of them do want to help.”
Barkley said his job — “the best I’ve ever had” — has changed him. “I’ve come to be much more aware of male privilege and dominance in our society,” he said.
Genevieve Jacobs, a former director of the crisis center, agreed that reaching out to men is one key to reducing sexual violence against women, as well as against younger males. Indeed, about 15 percent of the rape center’s 522 clients last year were male — a figure Jacobs suspects represents only a small part of the problem. “Much of it goes unreported,” she noted.
Jacobs said the ranks of sex-crime victims won’t decrease appreciably until there’s a shift away from what she calls “the culture of rape” that is fed by sexualized images of young girls and boys.
Wilson acknowledged, “there’s still a long way to go” toward changing the prevailing attitude toward sexual violence. The center works toward that goal by arranging presentations in schools all over Chittenden County to present age-appropriate information on rape, assault, stalking and sexual harassment. More than 17,500 people took part in the center’s educational events in the past year.
With time, Wilson hopes she’ll hear fewer of the type of comments expressed at public meetings held in response to Gardner-Quinn’s rape and murder in 2006. Those hearings, she said, suggest that too many people still tend to blame the victims of sexual violence.
“I heard people say things to the effect of ‘What was she doing out at 2 o’clock in the morning?’” Wilson said.