Sexual Assault Advocacy Programs
last updated 10 February 2009

Sexual assault advocacy programs are a critical part of any community response. As is the case in responding to victims of domestic violence, it is critical that advocates responding to victims of sexual assault in a non-judgmental and supportive manner, suggesting options but allowing the victim to decide what course of action to take.

The first rape crisis centers emerged in the United States in the 1970s. Many of the early centers were run by volunteers with no counseling or other professional health services background, out of their own homes. Early centers were non-hierarchal and often had political agendas. During the mid to late 1970s, many centers began to "professionalize"—to hire professionally certified staff, incorporate hierarchal governance structures, adopt apolitical agendas. In part, this process was due to increased reliance on government sources of funding and a corresponding increase in affiliations with larger community organizations, hospitals, or prosecutor's offices. At the time of a study done in the mid-1980s, researchers found that centers could be classified as one of four types: some had remained feminist collectives, while others were more "mainstream" and "traditional in structure," embedded within a social service of mental health agency, or based out of hospital emergency rooms. Rape crisis centers also exist throughout Europe and are coordinated by the Rape Crisis Network EuropeFrom Rebecca Campbell & Patricia Yancey Martin, The Role of Rape Crisis Centers, Sourcebook on Violence Against Women 227, 228-30 (Claire M. Renzetti et al. eds. 2001).

Rape crisis counselors work directly with victims, explaining their rights and what they can expect from the medical and legal systems. They help victim gain medical care, provide emotional support, and connect victims to other services, and maintain the victim's confidentiality.

In an immediate crisis situation, advocates encourage victims to seek medical attention—the victim may have injuries that need treatment; in addition, it is important that forensic evidence be collected as soon as possible after the incident—ideally within 72 hours after the assault. As explained in the Arizona's Guidelines for a Coordinated Community Response, the role of the advocate in responding to a crisis situation is to evaluate the safety of the victim and address urgent medical needs. After that, advocates should not assume they know what victims want, but should ask victims to identify their primary concern. Advocates can also help victims develop a plan of action, provide the victim with information, options and referrals, and reassure the victim that what happened to her is not her fault. Advocates should also continue to follow-up with victims, to make sure they are aware of all resources available to them, and to see if they have any questions about the legal system or other services. From State of Arizona: Recommended Guidelines for a Coordinated Community Response to Sexual Assault 3-4 (November 2001).

The immediate assistance and support of a rape crisis advocate can be critical. A recent study indicates that the speed with which survivors of sexual assault receive services is linked to the speed of their recovery. In following the recovery process of thirty rape survivors who received levels different medical and counseling services, Robert Cleary found that rape survivors who received prompt medical and counseling services were much more likely to seek continued medical care, were least likely to blame themselves for the assault, experienced fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, had less difficulty trusting others, and were more likely to successfully return to work. From Study Finds Rape Crisis Programs Do Work, Violence Against Women 38-1 (Joan Zorza ed., 2002).

Working with the advocate beyond the immediate crisis situation, victims can be instrumental in supporting the victim through a legal process, should the victim decide that seeking relief though the criminal or civil justice systems is the best option for her. Advocates can accompany victims to court, provide the victim with information about the legal process and what they can expect, serve as a liaison between the victim and the prosecutor, and, should the victim not want to be present in court, inform victims about the progress of a trial. Where perpetrators have been arrested, advocates can work with victims to evaluate their safety needs, and, where appropriate, develop safety plans. From Court Procedures and Advocacy, Micky Cook, ed., Minnesota Coalition for Sexual Assault.

In addition, "[t]hroughout all aspects of their work, rape victim advocates are trying to prevent 'the second rape'—insensitive, victim-blaming treatment from community system personnel. . . . The job of rape victim advocates, therefore, is not only to provide direct services to survivors but also to prevent secondary victimization." Secondary victimization is defined as "negative treatment that mirrors and exacerbates the trauma of the rape." As is explained in more detail in the sections on coordinated responses and legal processes, both the medical and legal systems have historically been sites for the revictimization of the sexual assault survivor—whether this revictimization is accomplished through long waits to see a physician or intense cross-examination about the victim's prior sexual history. From Rebecca Campbell & Patricia Yancey Martin, The Role of Rape Crisis Centers, Sourcebook on Violence Against Women 227, 231 (Claire M. Renzetti et al. eds. 2001).

Further information about counseling skills for advocates, as well as descriptions of the role of the advocate during legal proceedings and medical examinations is available through the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault's Training Manual.

For a collection of research and reports on sexual assault advocacy programs, click here.

For the 2008 United Nations expert group report entitled "Good practices in legislation on violence against women," including information on protection, support, and assistnace to survivors, Section 6, click here.  For the Russian version of the report recommendations, click here.