Content warning: mentions of sexual assault and rape.Sexual violence is a sensitive, yet current issue that affects thousands of women on a yearly basis. Whilst crime rates in Scotland are decreasing, sexually based crimes have been on an upward trend since 1974.
Rape crisis centres are just one way a survivor can seek help after experiencing sexual violence of any kind. Mridul Wadhwa is a manager at the Forth Valley Rape Crisis Centre, dedicated to helping individuals overcome trauma. The Student had the opportunity to speak to Wadhwa about her experiences working with rape and sexual assault survivors.
“I think the biggest myth [of sexual violence] is ‘stranger danger,’” Wadhwa commented. “All messages are usually about being safe when you’re outside – and yes there is a minor risk for women to experience sexual assault from strangers – but the reality is that most of the time it comes from someone they know, including their acquaintance. The other myth is that your body may react in a physical way to sexual violence including an orgasm but that does not mean that it’s not rape because that’s a physical response. You can’t control how your body responds to violence.”
The work is incredibly emotionally draining, so Wadhwa has to be balanced and mindful of her own emotional state. The Student asked her what she does to take care of herself: “Well I don’t deal with individual survivors every day, so for me what I do in terms of self-care is a lot of avoidance. I do see survivors – four a week usually – who help me stay connected to the cause…but it’s important to keep it fun. We should be able to laugh and use humour at work. In terms of my team, I try to cook for them once a week or every other week.”
Beyond that, she recommends debriefing: “By talking about what it’s like for you, you are creating that distance and also you remind yourself that the survivors who come to our centre have other lives outside of the centre.”
Most importantly, rape crisis centres are spaces for those affected by sexual violence, most of whom are women. The Student asked Wadhwa if she believes a man could be a successful rape crisis centre manager. She does not: “I don’t think men are ready to go out and set up services of this nature. Women’s aid organisations and rape crisis centres have been set up with the blood, sweat, and tears of women. It’s about the women’s experience of sexual violence. Our workforce is reserved for women only.”
Recognising that it is not only women who are affected by sexual violence, Wadhwa’s centre is a feminist organisation with adhering values. To Wadhwa that means “ensuring that inequalities are highlighted and when people are in our centre they’re experiencing equality service that is focused on their needs as they describe them. Also, it’s focused on putting into context the violence women and girls experience in the wider inequalities of their lives. If there are male survivors, they need to be acknowledged as survivors. The patriarchy impacts their experience as well.”
“It’s about thinking of equality at all times and obviously a part of it is about women’s equality because women are always grappling with gender inequality whether it is in the workforce or in their experience of gender based violence or violence against women and girls it’s not just what happens in terms of the abuse but also what happens afterwards. How do they experience the system particularity if they’re engaging in the criminal justice system and the inequalities that surface there.
“As a service provider there are some intersections that we need to consider. We offer a person-centred service which means we look at the individual and their needs. But the reality is that we are working in an environment where people are not thinking about minorities. As a manager, I need to think like do we have to hire an interpreter. Or just yesterday we were having a conversation if our space is welcoming to people with autism and what we can do to make that space more welcoming. Who they are as people also comes up in support sessions and can be a barrier to not accessing our service.”
In our conversation, Wadhwa mentioned the lack of control survivors experience, even after the traumatic event: “It is a very disempowering experience when you report to the police because it is a big shift in the understanding of being a victim. They are actually powerless in it. There are some areas where they might be able to influence but it’s very, very minute.”
Perhaps the largest source of power survivors can claim is their ability to come forward and relate their story if they so choose. Yet many times they are not believed. The Student asked Wadhwa why it is important to believe a survivor: “Think about how much time is wasted arguing about whether we should believe sexual assault survivors but if you look at what a survivor who has come forward is setting themselves up to, why would they come forward and report it if it was not true? There might be a small percentage of false allegations but they’re nowhere near what our society thinks where they are.
“Just because somebody was not proven guilty doesn’t mean that they are not guilty because it’s about the quality of the evidence presented. The burden of proof is really hard, and it probably should be. I’m not going to debate that here but…we must stay away from doubting people.
“There might be a narrative in the disclosure of that experience that does not always add up because usually how we experience trauma is that we don’t always remember what happened to you and it’s not about the facts of the case. The rape crisis centre is there to listen to those who wanna talk about it and to recover from it. I mean what does one gain from lying about it.”
Having sexual violence disclosed to you can certainly be a challenging experience. Dealing with sensitive matters is just that – sensitive – and requires much thought and attention. The Student asked Wadhwa how she would recommend a friend or loved one reacted if violence was disclosed to them: “Try not to dig holes in people’s stories. This is not a logical narrative of an experience – it is the emotional narrative of an experience. People might not always remember what happened.
“Try to stay away from the idea of what they could have done to stay safe or even what you could have done as a friend to keep your friend safe. It is my belief that we don’t put ourselves in these positions. It is the perpetrator who decided to be violent. It is not a choice that we made. The message that we should be telling our friends who have disclosed this to us is that it is never their fault.
“Another thing that we should be thinking about is what happened after the disclosure. The whole decision as to what happens after the disclosure is up to the survivor. They should remain in complete control of that experience and as a friend I would recommend that you enable that control. Whether they report to the police or not is their decision.
“Sometimes a disclosure from a friend can be triggering for you in case you had those experiences. My advice would be to use rape crisis centres because they are not just for survivors. They are also for friends and family of those who have had a traumatic experience because it does take a lot of your to support someone who has gone through trauma. There is often guilt associated with wanting to ask for help when your friend is in greater need but for them to support them appropriately and effectively you have to be in a good place yourself. That’s why rape crisis centres support you.”
Rape crisis centres also offer sexual violence prevention education programs. Wadhwa’s centre is part of a national prevention program through education scheme. They offer a series of workshops hoping that young people become educated on different topics like gender and pornography.
If you are in need of help, call the RCS helpline at 08088 01 03 02. You can also call Wadhwa’s centre at 01786 439244 or email them at email@example.com.
You can also access their website, which features a “tap here to leave this site now” button in the upper right corner, if you wish to quickly leave the site.
Illustration: Karolina Zieba