In the early 1970s, the anti-rape wing of the second wave women’s movement spawned the first rape crisis centers in the United States. A Washington, D.C., center published guidelines for founding a center in 1973 and, in the same year, Seattle’s Rape Relief Rape Crisis Center secured the first Law Enforcement Assistance Administration funding grant. More consequentially, the National Organization for Women (NOW) established a National Task Force on rape in 1973, and by 1974, over 200 local chapters had their own task forces, many of which morphed into volunteer-run crisis hotlines and, later, permanent organizations. A U.S. Department of Justice report listed 136 rape crisis centers (RCCs) or stop rape task forces in 1975. One year later there were an estimated 400 centers; by 1979, there were 1,000, and in 1996, there were 1,200 RCCs.
Over time, RCCs changed from a small homogenous core of centers to a large, fluid, and diverse group of organizations. Many original centers folded, surviving ones changed, and scores of new ones opened, but research indicates that centers begun before 1979 retained their more radical commitments and practices in the 1990s, confirming the influence of founding circumstances on an organization’s philosophy, practices, and goals.
RCCs proliferated in conjunction with the early successes of the new women’s movement. Government and the media began addressing problems that particularly affected women—abortion, birth control, and rape— and Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 book, Against Our Will, inflamed public opinion and framed rape as a practice that materially oppresses women. Early anti-rape activists offered a political critique of rape, drawing on their own experiences and focusing on rape’s harm. They viewed traditional police, medical, and court practices as detrimental to victims’ well-being and labeled their unsavory practices a “second assault,” a phrase that still resonates with victims and anti-rape activists.
The earliest centers demanded fundamental changes to U.S. society and, to that end, worked to improve legislation, public opinion, and mainstream organizations’ policies and practices. They wanted victims to view rape as the product of gendered institutions that oppress women, not the actions of a few sex-crazed men or boys. Many early centers viewed the mainstream as hostile to women’s welfare and created egalitarian, less authoritarian, and nonhierarchical organizations to embody their feminist ideals.
Many early centers denounced ameliorative treatment for victims, viewing it as victim blaming and accepting of the status quo—that is, the inevitability of women’s being raped. They believed psychological treatment told victims the rape was their fault. They favored a political explanation of rape and political education and mobilization to eliminate rape. Yet, many early RCCs offered treatment to victims (e.g., crisis counseling) and, from the outset, monitored mainstream organizations including police, hospitals, and courts. They also did outreach to change the public’s understanding of rape, a practice that continues today. “Political work” or public education is one of the most frequent activities of RCCs.
RCCs have influenced U.S. society in multiple ways. Ameliorative services for victims substantially speed up recovery. RCCs have strengthened rape statutes in nearly all U.S. states. They have pressured law enforcement, prosecutors, and hospitals to improve and coordinate their practices, and local officials and state legislators to pressure insurance companies to conduct and pay for rape exams, use uniform rape kits, and compensate victims for time lost at work. As a rule, RCCs make rape victims and community improvement top priorities, despite their services’ imperfections with regard to race/ethnicity and social class, among other issues.
After initially resisting, most U.S. cities accepted the involvement of RCCs in work with victims by the mid-1980s. Communities began adopting protocols to designate specific roles for each organization and many included the RCC. In response, RCCs stopped chastising mainstream organizations publicly and worked within the system to ensure access to victims and to their staff. RCCs started mobilizing unobtrusively inside society’s core institutions rather than using a confrontational approach of standing outside and allocating blame. They sacrificed some freedoms but also enhanced their odds of influencing mainstream rape workers and their employers.
RCCs see more victims than mainstream organizations do, even though they have more limited budgets and staff, and they are more responsive to victims’ needs. Unlike most mainstream service providers, victims are their main concern. A woman who reports rape enters an arena where many interests are at stake; police and prosecutors view rape victims primarily as witnesses to a crime, and hospitals focus on assessing their qualifications as “real patients.” Only RCCs can avoid asking rape victims to fulfill another role.
Although they have not eliminated rape, RCCs have had an impact. In the 1970s and 1980s, they pressured state officials and local organizations to eliminate victim-blaming rape laws and improve their policies and practices. Today, as in decades past, RCCs advocate for and assist victims dealing with legal and health care organizations and work to improve the public’s understanding of rape. They also coordinate community organizations around the issues of staff training, protocol development, and public education. Because more interaction and coordination benefits victims, communities with an RCC to facilitate these ends are more responsive to those who have been raped.
- Bevacqua, M. (2000). Rape on the public agenda: Feminism and the politics of sexual assault. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
- Brownmiller, S. (1975). Against our will: Men, women, and rape. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Harvey, M. (1985). Exemplary rape crisis programs: A crosssite analysis and case studies. Washington, DC: National Center for the Prevention and Control of Rape.
- Martin, P. Y. (2005). Rape work: Victims, gender, and emotions in organization and community context. New York: Routledge.
- Matthews, N. (1994). Confronting rape: The feminist antirape movement and the state. London: Routledge.
- Schmitt, F., & Martin, P. Y. (1999). Unobtrusive mobilization by an institutionalized rape crisis center: “All we do comes from victims.” Gender & Society, 13, 364–384.
- S. Department of Justice. (1975). Rape and its victims. Washington, DC: National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice.
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