The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center Just Turned 40

Founded in 1973, BARCC is the second rape crisis center ever founded in the country. Here’s where they’ve been and where they’re going.

Four decades ago, victims of sexual assault had few, if any, options for support. Victims could speak out and risk being called promiscuous (or worse), then wait in perpetuity for recourse of some kind to be brought against their attackers—or, they could say nothing, and deal with the problems by themselves. But in 1973, a group of rape survivors in Boston decided that they needed to create a support network for future victims. This past week, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center celebrated its 40th anniversary, and we spoke with executive director Gina Scaramella about how far they’ve come and what work they’re still hoping to accomplish.

Tell me a little about how the crisis center first started.

In 1973 there was one other rape crisis center in the country, in Washington, D.C. Basically, some women, most of whom were survivors, decided that Boston needed one, and they paired up with the Cambridge Women’s Center. They actually talked a local family out of their 492-RAPE phone number, the Sanchez family of Cambridge, back when you could do things like that. It’s still our hotline number. It was basically a cot and a phone in a room inside the women’s center, and they would just rotate taking calls and doing whatever they could do to support someone who needed help.

I imagine the laws in place to support rape victims were not as defined as they are now. Can you talk about what’s changed?

Well interestingly, I was just meeting with a woman named Dorrie who was our first hotline caller. We tracked her down through a letter she had written back for our 35 anniversary. The first time I was able to sit down with her was in September to hear about how things went for her. I knew it was bad, but hearing the complete lack of education and victim-centeredness of every single system she encountered was a really an eye-opener, because you kind of can forget when you’re still working for so much change how much we’ve already accomplished.

The person who came forward at that time was basically opening themselves up to every myth and stereotype and tactic that could possibly be used to discredit somebody. There was no sense of how damaging it would be to the victim, and how long it would be in terms of ever, ever getting prosecution for this crime. Prosecution is still pretty elusive, I must say.

What work did you do to help fix those systems?

We have a partnership with the sexual assault nurse examiner program at our area hospitals, which provides special training for the staff at the hospital. It’s like a light switch from what I used to hear about and experience with survivors when I was first on staff at BARCC. It was such a re-traumatizing experience. If a person came in for help, it was treated like it was such a crisis. Hospital staff would draw straws to determine who would take their case. Today, they’ll be greeted by someone who says, “Thanks for coming in. Yes, we can take care of you and we have a plan and know exactly what we’re doing.” The goal is for someone to say, “I’m glad I came.”

Obviously your 40-year anniversary, while tremendous, comes with the knowledge that rape is an ongoing problem. What are some of the ways you’re looking to address it now?

It’s actually only been in the last 10 years or so that the movement within rape crisis centers has really focused extensively on prevention, and asking ourselves: How can we prevent the conditions that would promote sexual violence from happening? In the early movement, no one would have ever referred you to a self-defense class; it was seen as victim blaming. In the last decade, it’s become more about how to have everybody in whatever setting or community take specific steps to work toward prevention. For example, if it’s a school, you would look at the school climate and find out from students where the safe and unsafe spots are—certain stairwells for example—and then train administrators and staff. Most parents don’t think about camp for their teenager and ask about their sexual harassment policies or what training of their camp staff has. It’s not even part of the mix. Young parents will go to the police station to make sure their car seat is in the car just right, but they do little to ensure that the day care center where they leave their kid is staffed with adults who have been vetted.

Typically, the way people deal with rape or violence is they offer a one-hour session once a year and expect that everyone will be aware. We’ve really learned is that’s not the case. It takes much more of a concerted effort. There are so many things that can be done to make an environment less likely that it will attract someone who is an offender.  We throw paint all over our streets and sidewalks to keep us driving in the right place, sometimes we put extra signs up to remind someone when a pedestrian crosses. Prevention works like that. You have to do it all the time almost until it’s unnoticeable.

How does social media play into the work that you do?

Obviously you can use it to raise awareness of sexual violence, but in cases like Steubenville, Ohio, or Maryville, Missouri, it’s also been used to identify attackers.

When I was a volunteer at BARCC, you used to not greet another volunteer on the street because they might be a survivor and you wouldn’t want to let someone know that they were a victim. There was such an air of secrecy. It was a sanctuary away of the public arena that was so unsafe to this issue. If there was a good thing about some of the social media, it’s that you can’t ignore so many voices and awful cases that have been exposed. It does open the lid on what the potential is here and what it really sounds and looks like. It’s hard to really blame that young woman in Steubenville if you look at how she was treated, like an absolute nothing. It’s pretty hard to take and excuse in any way.