An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
Video and Audio Archive

Denise Snyder
Biography & Interview Summary

Picture from Denise Snyder
Interviewee:Denise Snyder;
Washington, DC
Date of Interview:January 10, 2003
Location:Washington, DC

Denise Snyder

Executive Director, DC Rape Crisis Center


Initial Involvement in the Crime Victims' Movement

Denise Snyder became involved in victims' issues through her work in the violence against women arena. She was drawn to working with sexual assault issues because she sees the topic as one which people are still not comfortable addressing. Synder wanted to get involved because she feels that the topic is not something people are comfortable with, and therefore does not attract the attention it deserves. To try to remedy this situation, Snyder became an advocate for rape victims in 1980.

Interview Summary

Context of the Era

Snyder reflects that when the DC Rape Crisis Center opened in 1972, the silence was deafening. Individual survivors felt isolated because "they thought that they were the only one." Legislation was ineffective or non-existent, and victim-blaming was the norm. It was in that climate that the DC Rape Crisis Center, one of the first in the nation, opened its doors. Since the mid-1970s, new organizations have used the DC Rape Crisis Center as a model.

Greatest Challenge

Snyder identifies two greatest challenges that both she and her colleagues faced in effecting change in attitudes, society and policy. She first describes her perceived connection between patriarchy and sexism:

"... Sexism is rooted in patriarchy. So trying to move this issue forward means dealing with thousands and thousands of years across many cultures (and) the depth and breadth of sexism and patriarchy you can't disengage from that history and those bedrocks in our society. It's a key part of what makes sexual violence happen and what keeps it so prevalent."

Second, Snyder credits the connection between sexual assault and sex as a reason that society remains uncomfortable in addressing the crime.

Successful Strategies

Snyder reflects that when the DC Rape Crisis Center and other similar programs first started in the early 1970s, the tactics were much more radical and "in your face" than they are today. This needed to be the case to force the public, which was already uncomfortable with sexual assault, to address the issues. For example, Snyder recalls a time in which Rape Crisis Center workers would photocopy pictures of rapists and distribute them in his neighborhood. She also remembers street theater as a particularly effective tool to gain attention and force a public dialogue. Snyder credits these early tactics as bringing sexual assault into the open and forcing people to really examine and have meaningful discussions about the crime.


Snyder identifies the achievement of genuine racial, economic, and social diversity in all levels of the movement as a continuing struggle. She believes that this challenge emanates from the beginning of the movement, when the majority of the activists were white and middle class.

"We won't reach our full potential until we're able to have a diversity that actually reflects this society and the country we are operating in."

Greatest Accomplishment

Snyder feels that the movement's greatest accomplishment is that it has been successful in bringing more public attention to the issue, which has in turn created legislative successes (such as marital rape laws and rape shield laws). She also feels that increased public awareness has helped secure more funding to better serve victims.

"This is not an unusual, rare situation that happens to, you know, the small group of unfortunate women or children, but recognizing its prevalence and how common it actually is I think has really helped us then move forward in a lot of other areas."

Continuing the Field's Growth and Professionalism

The word "professional" makes Snyder uncomfortable. She describes how the movement started as a grassroots effort, and cautions against straying too far away from that spirit. She feels that there is a real danger in making the field about advanced degrees and plaques because it then runs the risk of losing the "survivor's voice and her perspective." Snyder feels that maintaining this vital perspective at the forefront must remain one of the field's major goals in the future.

Snyder advises those new to the field to learn what happened in the past. She also articulates the importance of self-care. She stresses that secondary trauma from absorbing the stories and pain is unavoidable if an advocate is doing his or her job correctly, and that it is extremely important to have an outlet for that pain. On the other hand, Snyder also advises those who have been in the field for a long time to "shut up and listen" to the folks who are coming in, who are new, who have some new ideas and perspective and energy and not get stuck in the rut of saying "we've always done it this way."

Vision for the Future

Snyder's vision for the future is that we move much closer to a world that is free from sexual violence. For this to happen, she feels that parents need to raise their children with consistent messages about respect.

"I often get calls from fathers who are particularly powerful in talking about how if anyone ever touches their daughter, they'll, you know, whatever revenge you want to plug in there. And what I always say is if as parents we could bring that passion and energy to raising our sons and conveying to them 'if you ever think about disrespecting a girl or woman, you'll wish you'd never been born.' If we bring that power and desire we have to protect our daughters to raising our sons so they respect women and respect girls, we won't have to worry so much about protecting our daughters because our sons will be the kind of men that we really all want them to be."

Greatest Fear

Snyder shares two fears. Her first fear is general to the crime victims field: that the movement will "professionalize" and, in the process, leave behind the voices of victims and survivors. Her second fear, specific to sexual violence, is that impact of funding available to programs (for example, the Violence Against Women Act funds) has been to focus on survivors who go through the criminal justice system, when 90 percent of survivors of sexual assault never enter that system. Snyder believes this creates a dynamic in which a large amount of resources, attention, and energy is focused on 10 percent of the population, resulting in a majority of victims of sexual assault in need of services who will not receive them.