By Deb Friedman
Feminist Alliance Against Rape Newsletter
Feminists working in anti-rape projects generally welcome the increased involvement of professionals in the issue of rape. From the time that rape crisis centers were first started, feminists have called attention to the need for professional involvement in gaining better services and more sensitive treatment for rape victims. Professional women have also been involved as members of centers run by feminists and have contributed valuable skills to these projects.
As more and more professionals are becoming involved in anti-rape work, however, there is an increasing tendency to defer to professional leadership in anti-rape projects. While professional skills and knowledge are valuable resources in a project, there is no valid reason for professionals to control rather than work as peers within the rape issue.
The trend toward professionalism in rape is the result of a general bias in favor of professionals in this society. That is, we are taught to believe that anyone who has gone to school and gotten a degree is better qualified to decide how to deal with a problem than someone who has educated herself, and been educated by other women, on a particular issue.
Rape Crisis Centers were developed originally by feminists as structures through which women can begin to take back control over our lives - control which is denied in part by the threat of rape. Those women
saw that by joining together to protect ourselves against rape, and by helping each other deal with rapes that occur, we can become stronger and better able to control what happens to us.
In their manual, "How to Organize a Women's Crisis - Service Center", women of the Ann Arbor Women's Crisis Center explain the "self-help" basis
of feminist organizing:
"The very basis of the center stems from the concept of 'self-help.' By 'self-help' we mean getting away from traditional therapy. At the heart of traditional therapy is the idea of a person with troubles going to someone more skilled and submitting herself to that person. In place of this approach, we have a philosophy of peer counseling. This means that one does not depend upon another to make one's own decisions. A person has to decide, for herself, the best way to deal with her problems.
The counselor is there to listen to a woman and then to reflect her feelings back to her. We think that once a woman can deal with her feelings openly and honestly, she is better able to
help herself. And self-help also means that we learn by helping others. All of us are equal--no one has authority over-another. Each woman al the center learns to work on her own initiative and to take charge when something needs to be done.
We extend this philosophy of self-help to the women who call us. For
example, when a woman tells us she wants an abortion, we talk with her and
refer her to a good place--but she makes all the necessary phone calls and
arrangements. The counselor's role is merely that of a back-up person, to
help out if problems arise in making the arrangements. We want to help women
to help themselves."
Social workers, psychologists and counselors who assist rape victims as part of their jobs, often do not identify with the politics of self-help. They regard peer counseling as little more than a mental health technique and assume that non-professional "peer counselors" must be trained and supervised by mental health professionals, even though many of these professionals are uneducated about rape and are often unable to relate to rape victims from varying backgrounds and experiences. Unfortunately, this assumption is often shared by non-professionals themselves.
Women in mental health jobs are also encouraged to deal with rape as an individual woman's problem, rather than a political issue. Their job is to help rape victims recover from the emotional trauma, and adjust to a society in which further rapes are still a distinct possibility. Even though they see that the victim's difficulties are the result of a social problem, many mental health professionals don't assume any responsibility for finding solutions to the problem. Like other professionals, they are taught to focus on only those aspects of a problem that fall within their specialization. An anti-rape project which deals with rape politically will be working on all aspects of rape. Each area of specialization within the project will be related through a common strategy, so that more than one aspect of the problem can be confronted at the same time.
Current studies on rape (e.g., Queen's Bench Foundation's Rape Victimization Study) quote professionals who state that women are usually permanently scarred by the experience of being raped. This is in keeping with traditional female psychology which views women as emotionally weak and unable to withstand stress. But it is in contrast to the experience of rape hotline staffers who have observed that most women are strong enough to cope with the trauma of rape. A woman who has never been able to tell anyone about her rape will probably have some on-going problems, particularly when her feelings are reinforced by poor attitudes in society. But a woman who gets emotional support from her peers usually won't continue to have problems. Because of rape crisis centers, many victims have been able to receive the emotional support they need from other women to deal with rape.
Professionals readily acknowledge their indebtedness to feminists for calling attention to the problem of rape. However, they fail to understand that feminists themselves recognized the problem of rape only after seeing, in political terms, how rape enables men to have power over women. Feminists saw that their oppression as women stemmed in part from the ability of men to terrorize and intimidate them; and thus recognized the need to organize with other women to eliminate the source of men's unequal power. Professionals often seem not to feel a need to relate to political activism outside of the institutional structures. The pressure which forced institutions to begin to deal with rape in the first place developed out of the political activities of feminists. There
is no reason to believe that further change will come from within those institutions, or from professionals who are accountable only to the institutions.
There are often many excuses given for professionals who ignore community women dealing with rape. Usually the project involved is a rape crisis center which, due to
lack of resources, is unable to provide as comprehensive and as dependable a service as
an institution. Rather than make their skills accessible to these groups, or find ways
of providing resources to these groups, many professionals start their own projects with funding that they are able to obtain because of their professional status. Many community-based, f0minist groups have been asked for free advice by these professionals. Thus, when
it comes to gaining information, skills, etc., professionals are often willing to consider non-professionals working in the issue to be their peers. However, when it comes to determining who should receive the funds in a particular community, or who has credibility, professionals are given automatic preference.
Basically, we feel it is necessary to examine many of the premises upon which professionalism rests, not just within anti-rape organizing, but in terms of the general implications of professionalism in our society.
We do this not with the intention of disparaging individual professionals, many of whom are a progressive element within their various fields.
We feel that professionalism is a means of maintaining class distinctions in this society. Professional degrees are not readily obtainable by all members of society, nor are they necessarily accessible to the most capable individuals. Instead, educational opportunities and encouragement are provided primarily to the middle class. While some aggressive individuals from working or lower class backgrounds have been able to become professionals, members of these classes have much less expectation of gaining professional careers than middle class individuals.
Meanwhile, there are no structures through which professionals (and non-professionals) can be accountable to their communities. In the absence of structures, accountability comes through individual conscience. Instead, professionals are encouraged to
be accountable mainly to their professions and to the institutions which employ them"
This encouragement is present in the form of professional associations, status which is bestowed upon the professions, and the mystification of professional knowledge. Certainly professional skills are needed to do specific jobs, but having skills does not automatically qualify one to make decisions regarding where or how those skills should be applied. These are decisions which society as a whole should make; and people whose lives are affected by those decisions should have a major say in making them.