Do Men Have a Role in Sexual Assault Centres?

The Kyle Payne story has resulted in a lot of people questioning whether men can/should ever be in a position to counsel rape survivors, and several people outright saying no way, no how. I’ve already said my piece on why I find it problematic at best to go anywhere near the idea that Kyle Payne is equivalent to all male feminists, but this seems a reasonable opportunity to open up some thoughts on women-only space in general, specifically for sexual assault centres (partially as a result of the conversation on this thread b/w hysperia, myself and later, GallingGalla).

I’ll come right out and admit that I’ve never been entirely comfortable with women only designations in sexual assault centres. The argument in favour of this limitation is usually that women who have been assaulted sometimes (or even often) find it triggering, intimidating or uncomfortable to be around men when they are in a vulnerable position (admitting to and talking about having been assaulted/abused). I’m sympathetic to that argument, but still disagree with it for a couple of reasons. The main one is that it involves completely preventing men who need the help of sexual assault centres (men who have been assaulted themselves, or even partners and supporters of women who’ve been assaulted, but who aren’t ready/able to come to talk to someone themselves) from accessing the services because we’ve placed such a high priority on what I perceive to be a relatively small proportion of female victims getting exactly the kind of service that they want. I realize this comes off as a kind of dispassionate cost-benefit analysis, and I hope I don’t sound heartless in saying this, because it does, overall, come from caring. Maybe I’m wrong about the proportion, because all there is on that front is anecdotal evidence, but my main point is – allowing men into the space doesn’t hinder the centre from counseling these women at all, whereas the reverse is true.

Now, disclaimers on that point – I am not making a “reverse discrimination” argument. What I’m looking at is how best to get counseling services to those affected by rape and sexual violence. Period, full stop. The second disclaimer, as I said to hysperia on matttbastard’s thread, is that I think she is right that there are plenty of ways for men to access services in the mainstream medical establishment, and there are an abundance of male professionals outside of feminist sexual assault centres. True. Whether there are people who are prepared to provide the highest calibre of service to an individual dealing with sexual violence is an entirely separate question. And, again, while I’m well aware of the financial limitations faced by SACs, I think there are compromises that may be possible – could the space be women only on certain days of the week, for example, while allowing men to access it on one or two days? Female survivors who really do feel that they need to know that no men are going to be around while they start to discuss this issue can be informed of these arrangements, and schedule appointments or groups accordingly.

The issue of male counselors is perhaps more challenging, but my primary point is essentially the same as the above – our concern should be in listening to individual survivors and providing the options that they need in order to heal. And here, I’m going to switch over to talking mainly about women survivors, because I think I’ve amply covered male survivors, and yet I think that the wishes of some women are not necessarily given the same weight in these conversations about the issue (and I don’t even mean trans women and the whole horror show that is the reality that it’s okay to exclude them entirely from rape crisis centres in this country, as “men”). I’ve heard women mention that the way they’ve been treated by certain women has been worse than the way they’ve been treated by men in any context, or that women have presented more challenges in their rape recovery than men have.

I’m a very extroverted person, which means, among other things, that I talk through my shit with a number of people as part of coping and dealing. I’ve seen a number of professionals – psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, rape crisis counselors, etc – and I’ve talked to a lot of my peers or mentors about the sexual violence in my past. I’ve heard minimizing from both men and women, victim-blaming from both men and women (possibly more from women) and gotten wonderful, kind, loving support from both men and women. There were times in my life when I honestly preferred to talk to men about these issues. I never heard anyone say that though – sometimes a woman who’s been assaulted really needs a trusted male she can turn to to talk about how she feels. I heard, over and over, that many survivors find it difficult to be around men at all. I heard that women often think that only women can understand, but that we live in a society that discourages women from finding that space in which they can talk to another women about experiences like that. I’m not saying these messages had a hugely detrimental impact on me, personally (though they may have on others), because the women professionals I’ve spoken to at two different SACs have been phenomenal, but there was a sense that I felt like I should only want to talk to a woman about what I was feeling. And you know, when fragile like that, I’ll pretty much reach out for any script that someone hands me that I think might help – if I have some trust for you/your philosophy/your organization, and you tell me this is how I’m going to feel better, I’ll go that way.

Why did I feel more comfortable around certain men at times? I’m not entirely sure. It could be grounded in a lot of internalized patriarchal, male-approval-seeking bullshit, or equally bullshit granting of added authority to male voices, or a genuine need to overcome the sense that men are not trustworthy and prove that not all of my trust in men has been misplaced, or it could just have been the specific individuals that were around me at these times and the nature of our relationships. Fuck if I know. And fuck if it should matter. Plenty of people, anti-feminists among them, will point out that women’s desire to not be around any men at all following an assault is not a rational decision (the anti-feminist point being that she should therefore stop feeling that way), and…well, of course it’s not. But that’s okay, because see, listening to the woman tell you what she needs in order to get past the feelings that she finds intolerable is kinda that point. So I don’t really feel like it’s important to find a rational reason why I might feel the way I have about what I need, and I don’t really feel like it’s okay for people to tell me that why I feel that way is just wrong.

Which again comes back to the compromise point – is it possible for all of us, who have experienced sexual violence, to be getting what we need? To be listened to? To find our own way through recovery, which is going to be affected by all of our other baggage, by the specifics of the assault that happened to us, by our personalities, by whatever? I think I’ll finally be introducing a new category with this post, which is “Not Rocket Science”, because this shouldn’t feel as complicated as it does. Men can betray women, and if they’re seriously fucked up, they’ll use positions of trust among vulnerable people to do it. Women can betray women, and if they’re seriously fucked up, they’ll do the same. On whole, statistically, men do more damage to women in more significant ways. No, this is not an equal situation, and honestly, if that’s a point you want to argue, then I don’t think this is the place for you.

This lengthy argument is entirely from what I consider a pragmatic, practical perspective, without even touching the philosophical stuff (because there is an essentialism to saying that men are inherently, naturally, biologically, more capable of this kind of manipulation than women are, or that women are automatically safer, more understanding, more comforting…almost like they’re naturally…nurturing and empathetic or whatever). The point is to help people recover from sexual violence. Universalizing a certain kind of reaction is not okay, has never been okay, and continues in feminist and non-feminist or anti-feminist circles alike. Categorically deciding that certain people – men – can’t help another category – women, or female victims – isn’t going to help, either.

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8 thoughts on “Do Men Have a Role in Sexual Assault Centres?

  1. Brown Shoes says:

    Assessing the whole Kyle Payne thing gives us sort of the gift of hindsight, so I’d say what I propose isn’t always that simple, but I think a real psychological screening would be beneficial, just all-around – finding out if people believe victim-blaming is OK in any circumstance, finding out if they can relate to whoever comes to them on a person-to-person basis and what the person needs to work through in order to heal, rather than what the counsellor thinks is right in spite of any evidence involved.

    As far as the gift of hindsight, well, we can def. see what kind of eerie weirdo he is, but maybe psych screenings are ineffective for pointing that out. I’d just say these screenings should look for a wide range of things instead of just ferreting out predators, in order to find people who will actually be helpful.

  2. Sarah J says:

    Yes.

    It’s really unfortunate that there is no way to know if the people working in crisis centers have ulterior motives, but you are absolutely right in this argument. If anything happened to me, some of the first people I would want to talk to would be men, though it would have more to do with those being specific people who have been there for me in my life when the chips were down and I am absolutely sure they love me and would support me.

    And for me, that would be my first reaction anyway–to turn to people who love and care about ME, not just people at a call center. That’s how I’ve always been, though, and like you said, it’s about what you need and want, not finding a rationale for it.

    I think the red flag for me with the Kyle Payne scenario is not that he worked in a rape crisis center, but that he seemed to continually make it a point to make his ‘feminism’ completely ostentatious and all about him and his feelings. If you really want to help, part of me says, you don’t need to seek validation for it–you just go and do it. Y’know?

  3. purtek says:

    Brown Shoes, I meant to reply to you earlier, sorry. I see your point about hindsight, and I don’t know what kind of background you have in terms of working with SACs, but I’ve also been involved in a lot of screening interviews and training periods. A lot of the questions are situational, what-would-you-say if kinds of thing that include common victim-blaming tropes. It’s not really “psychological testing”, but as a rule, the interviewers (at this particular centre, and in this case, it’s one that is women-only space) are pretty attuned to exactly that already. If I’ve gotten a creepy vibe from someone, I’ve always been able to talk that out with the other interviewer, and often we’ll figure out something specific that gives us that sense, then reject the application. Or we’ll screen through to training with a tentative flag to sort of watch how the person does in role plays and discussion, and maybe ask them to leave partway through.

    I guess I’m just saying it’s sure as hell not like this kind of stuff is not happening *already*, and it’s certainly not the first time SACs have had to think about the question, nor is it only being learned in hindsight.

    Sarah J – ditto on the red flag for me. I mentioned that in my first post about him. There’s something gross about anyone who makes such a public display of just how much *he* suffers to think about other people’s pain. It comes off as someone who has heard about this “empathy” thing trying to act like he feels it, but not really managing to hit the right note.

    And yeah, like you said – your reaction is about *you*. But sometimes, even among people who have the best of intentions, it’s hard to feel like that’s true when you’re in the midst of an intense crisis and it takes everything in your power just to make sense of anything at all.

  4. […] Purtek has a post up about whether men have a place in sexual assault centers. And she’s right, of course, that negative attitudes and other such problems can come from any angle, male or female. (And as she said, I won’t get into here the giant topic of transgendered women in these centers, either, or the fact that men do face sexual assault and rape.) […]

  5. Dw3t-Hthr says:

    The first person I tried to talk to about the time I was sexually assaulted was my mother. (This is, for many reasons, a bad idea, and I should have known, but at the same time ….)

    I asked her if she ever wondered why that guy didn’t call anymore.

    She shrugged and said, “I figured he forced himself on you.”

    I … fled.

    And didn’t even try to talk about it for years after that.

    The first person I actually talked to about it? My husband. (Well before we were married.)

  6. Brown Shoes says:

    Yeah, I was mostly speaking theoretically – I haven’t really had any experience with SACs, so I guess I don’t have any reason to assume such questions aren’t already being addressed. I think I’d just heard that the BVU one wasn’t set up in that way, which is the only reason I brought it up at all but it seems pretty natural that the better ones wouldn’t have that problem?

    Anyway, good point – I didn’t have any reason to assume that wouldn’t already be the case.

  7. purtek says:

    Dw3t-Hthr, sorry I didn’t really get a chance to respond to this after I approved it for posting. I can totally relate to what you’re saying – I think maybe another topic that is worth discussing in general is the way that parents react to the abuse of their children. In my experience and those that I’ve heard shared, it can be extremely problematic, leave seriously lasting scars.

  8. hysperia says:

    Hi. Me again. Glad to see that you posted on this issue.

    One of the things that’s not clear to me is exactly what kind of counselling centres we’re talking about. A “SACC” is typically a sexual assault care centre situated in or close to a hospital and is often used by sexual assault survivors just after they’ve been raped. The Centres provide medical care in terms of offering AIDS/HIV testing, morning after pill and antibiotics to prevent potential STDs. They also collect evidence of the assault through the administraton of rape evidence kits. As well, they provide follow-up medical care and on-site counselling as well as referrals to outside counsellors known to do work with survivors.

    At least, this is the case in Canada. Since these centres are part of hospitals, employees are beneficiaries of human rights legislation which prohibits dsicrimination on the basis of gender in employment or in the provision of services.

    Men can apply to be SACC nurses or counsellors and, in fact, many if not most SACC doctors are male and full services are available to males.

    I think the problem arises with community based rape crisis services and centres which are funded by governments but have some degree of autonomy in terms of hiring and the services they provide. In many cases, they have been allowed to have “female only” employees, though they most often provide services to male sexual assault survivors. In Canada, the reason this exemption is granted is because “women” comprise a category of people who have been and continue to be harmed by discrimination and are therefore deemed eligible to have spaces for their care designated specifically for them.

    I agree with you that no woman, neither me nor you, should have to justify your reasons for wanting counselling from either males or females. And I would also agree that more women than men tend to be involved in this kind of work. But I suggest that this situation ought not to result in removing the very few spaces in which I would feel safe enough to undertake the difficult process of recovery from rape. Some of these centres are available due to decades and decades of struggle of advocacy by women. I’m not sure if men are in need of a similar movement, since services are already provided. And, I think, properly funded. I bet if a sufficient number of men advocated for similar centres for men, they would have the support of many women, including me. However, one thing that stops these centres from getting established are the relatively small numbers of men that tend to utilize these resources. For all sorts of reasons, such as variants of rape myth stigmas that attach to men who’ve been raped and homophobia.

    In major cities, there are LGBTQ counselling services available that address these kinds of traumas, for those willing to seek them.

    As I said in mattt’s thread, I support men giving and getting these services. But not at my expense, in a world that does nothing but charge me extra just for being a woman.

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