An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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Seymour: We're interviewing Denise Snyder and, Denise, I want you to start by if you could say your name and spell it and tell us your age and say your city.
Snyder: Denise Snyder, it's, D-E-N-I-S-E, S-N-Y-D-E-R, and I am Executive Director at the DC Rape Crisis Center in Washington, DC.
Seymour: Great. Thank you. Denise, how did you first get started in the victims' movement and why?
Snyder: Well, I was particularly attracted to the field of violence against women. Specifically, I think, because it's a field that is, was then and in many ways still is today very much - not popular. It's not something that people are comfortable with. It's an issue that doesn't get the attention that it really should. So I was just really drawn to it, very much drawn to wanting to work with and for women as well.
Seymour: And you are at the DC Rape Crisis Center, which is the pioneer victim assistance organization in the country, founded in 1972. Could you tell us a little bit of your knowledge about the early days?
Snyder: Well the organization was started by... (tape blips)
Seymour: In 1972, when your Rape Crisis Center started, I've heard stories from others who learned about this new program and called or actually came and visited the DC Rape Crisis Center over 30 years ago. What was that like? What was the role that you all played?
Snyder: Well because we were the first, or... or one of the first, Rape Crisis Centers in the country, there were a lot of organizations that, or... or budding organizations that turned to us for help on what they needed to do and to try and minimize their reinventing the wheel. We've helped centers actually around the world. We still get visitors on an annual basis, I would say we probably get five or six delegations of international visitors who are coming over to find out about how we operate, how we get started, what kind of programs we offer, where funding comes from, etcetera, etcetera.
Back in the mid-70s we put together a book called How to Start a Rape Crisis Center because the requests were so frequent at that period of time and we certainly didn't have the resources to be going out and visiting anybody. So we put together a... a fairly hefty booklet with information about how to do this if you're starting from scratch and sent hundreds of those around the country.
Seymour: Can you describe to me when got involved in the field? When it was and sort of the context of the era? What was it like when you first became a victim advocate for rape victims?
Snyder: Well that would have been about 18 years ago and (laugh) in some ways a lot of things have changed and in some ways not a whole lot. There were, especially at that time and even if you go back 30 years ago when the Center first started, going back longer ago, the silence was deafening. That this issue was one that society didn't want to think about, didn't want to hear about.
The individual survivors felt incredible isolation because they thought they were the only one, which was the perspective that was shared by most of society and so it was absorbed and internalized and if you were victimized by sexual abuse or assault, you definitely came away feeling like, you know, this is something unique that's happened to you and you'd better keep it to yourself. The legislation was horrible. We still had on the books in most states specific statutes that said there was no such thing as rape within marriage.
Marriage was considered an automatic exemption to the charge of sexual assault and many, many other examples of bad legislation that was operating. So all in all, we were.. the victim blaming is another example of an area where it was absolutely the norm. The assumption was that the individual survivor was responsible for what happened to her.
Seymour: Okay. In terms of dealing with victims of sexual assault and rape, Denise, what was the greatest challenge that you and your colleagues faced in affecting change in attitudes, society, policy?
Snyder: Well, I think probably two things. One was that sexual violence is rooted in, sexism, is rooted in patriarchy. So trying to move this issue forward means dealing with, you know, thousands and thousands of years across many cultures, the depth and breadth of sexism and patriarchy and you can't disengage from that history and those bed rocks in our society. It's just a key part of what makes sexual violence happens... happen and what keeps it so prevalent.
I think the other issue that was a huge obstacle, and in my ways continues to be today, is that this is in some ways about sex. I mean it's certainly a part of the name "sexual violence" and sexual violence is using sexual acts as a way of expressing domination. So, because of that connection and society's discomfort in general in dealing with anything that's related to sex, I think that was a huge obstacle as well.
Seymour: Great. What... what were some of the secrets or tactics or strategies that you employed then, but also now, that you think are successful, sort of advice to people?
Snyder: Well, in many ways a lot of the tactics, I mean back when our Center first started and other centers were springing up in the early '70s around the country things were a lot more radical than they are today and a lot more, kind of out there and in your face. For example, an individual who was sexually assaulting, or had sexually assaulted someone, the group of women in the Rape Crisis Center might get his photograph, make flyers up that would say "this man is a rapist" and then go to his workplace and pass those flyers out or go to his neighborhood and post the flyers.
Doing things like street theater, I mean just a lot of things that really forced this issue out into the open which was a very powerful thing to do especially because, the concerns I was talking about earlier, where the silence was so powerful and overwhelming, that those kinds of tactics really made people look at it and think about it.
Seymour: Would, um, would the... the Take Back the Nights, do you think that came out of this movement?
Snyder: Take Back the Night, I think, was one of the early strategies that is still-- we're actually planning our, I think it'll be, our 26th annual Take Back the Night coming up this April. That also came out of the issue of women being silenced. It was essentially a speak out, in many ways -- an opportunity to allow survivors to speak their truth and tell their stories in public and get support instead of being shamed as what... what often happened.
And it was a really valuable vehicle which is an important part of why we still do it today, which is again getting the public's attention focused on this issue. It's kind of putting it out there, you get the press coverage, it's not something that people can turn their faces away from.
Seymour: I'm going to sidebar again because you gave me a good opportunity. Media coverage of sexual assault and rape victims. Any thoughts on how that is? How it's maybe different from 30 years ago or is it different?
Snyder: Well, there are, in some ways it is better because I think the press covers more stories. I think the negative thing about the increased coverage is that what happens is, for example, I got a press call a... a week or two ago because there was a story on date rape drugs that was going to be reported on television. And the reporter was calling me to find out, you know, is this sort of a resurgence in date rape drugs, is there an increase going on and the reality, and it's a pattern that happens all the time.
For some reason the press will get turned on to a specific case or a specific individual's specific situation and put it on the air and it becomes this huge thing in the public's eye as though this is unusual, this is unique, this is new, this is different when in reality it's just the next one in a row of what's been happening for a very long time. So that's sort of the down side of the media attention -- that it creates this misunderstanding of how common and frequent sexual assaults are because they're not all picked up. They just pick up one or two here and there.
Seymour: Thank you for addressing that because that's an important issue. Looking back over 30 years, or your 18 years, what do you think some of the failures or have there been failures in our field?
Snyder: I think one of the key failures is that especially in the beginning of the movement and very much continuing today to be a struggle is the issue of obtaining gen... genuine diversity from a racial, social, economic, um perspective. That, and having that diversity represented throughout the movement in... in leadership roles, as well as, you know, frontline direct service and advocates and policymakers and the whole way throughout the field.
I think that's a very serious failure. When the, this movement, the anti-sexual violent movement, first started it was a very white, and in many ways very middle class movement and I think the roots of that still cause problems today. I think it's an issue that very much continues to confront us and we won't reach our full potential until we're able to have a diversity that actually reflects this society and the...the country that we're operating in.
Seymour: This is probably a hard one. What do you think is the one greatest accomplishment that has promoted the rights and needs of victims of sexual assault and rape?
Snyder: That is very hard. I think that the, although it's not a specific thing, but the fact that we are a lot further along the line in terms of bringing public attention to this issue is what I would identify. Because the outgrowth of that means that we could then successfully get legislation passed that made critical differences. We could get the kind of funding that we needed to be able to provide the services and operate in all of the ways that we should.
So sort of starting to get the public to realize that this is not an unusual, rare situation that happens to, you know, the small group of unfortunate women or children, but recognizing its preva... prevalence and how common it actually is I think has really helped us then move forward in a lot of other areas.
Seymour: And is there any specific legislation that you think, earlier you talked about marital rape that you think is significant in terms of accomplishments?
Snyder: Well there are a lot. Certainly changes in marital rape laws and, the rape shield laws, I think are probably two that are two pieces of legislation that are pretty much across the board now and are extremely important and valuable. (Interruption by crew)
Seymour: Today, 2003, Denise, what is needed to continue the growth and professionalism of our field and also if you can comment on what's... what's missing.
Snyder: Well when I hear the word professionalism, it makes me a little anxious and uncomfortable because in many people's minds professionalism equates with advanced degrees, you know, with somebody who's got lots of plaques and diplomas hanging on their wall. This movement started as a grassroots effort and in many ways operated on a peer interaction and support basis. I think the fact that we do have professionals in the field now is a good thing.
I mean at my Center we have MSW's, licensed clinical social workers, who provide counseling. But I don't think we want to put the movement in a position where the only way you can involved is by having enough initials after your name to assure that you have some sort of validity. It's a movement that always needs to retain its grassroots orientation and always needs to make sure that the survivor's voice and her perspective is at the forefront.
Seymour: Advice -- there are thousands now, rape crisis centers, victim advocate programs, survivors. What advice can you give to professionals and volunteers who are, have joined our field more recently; who weren't around when you all started your program?
Snyder: Well, actually I would answer that question with advice to both parties. Advice to the folks who are newer to the field and advice to those of us who've been around for a long time. The first piece of advice to the folks who are new is to learn what has happened in the past. Find out about it and retain that knowledge. It's very important that we build on our history that we not repeat our mistakes. I would also turn to those of us who have been in the field for a long time and say, "Shut-up and listen to the folks who are coming in, who are new, who have some new ideas and perspectives and energy" and not get stuck in the ruts of saying, "We've always done it this way" or "We tried that and it can't work" or all of the things that we do that sort of shuts down people who are coming in more recently and maybe are more suited to the times of where we are today.
The other things that I would say to folks who are relatively newer just sort of from my years of experience would be one, self-care. If you want to last in this field for 15 or 20 or 25 years, it's very important that you take care of yourself. I always say if you don't have secondary traumatization from absorbing the stories and the pain and the difficulties of the survivors that we're working with, then you're not doing your job. If you're able to insulate yourself so that you never feel that you're failing.
Recognizing that that is going to happen, it is also essential that we are very conscious about finding ways to take care of ourselves and make sure that we can be around here for 15 or 20 years. And then the last thing would just be to encourage those folks to realize that at some point they will be the older folks. They will be the ones who've been here for 15 or 20 years. To make sure that along the line that they are mentoring people behind them and that they are also are welcoming the folks to come in next year and five years from now.
Seymour: Entering, good. What's your vision for the future?
Snyder: I would like to see us moving much closer to a world that's free from sexual violence. And my vision of how that needs to happen is that parents need to... to raise their children in a different kind of way. That parents need to send consistent messages to kids about respect and actually this doesn't only affect the field of sexual violence it... it really affects many other things as well. Specifically around sexual violence. When I do radio call-in shows, for example, I often get calls from fathers who are particularly powerful in talking about how if anyone ever touches their daughter, you know, 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 that energy to raising our sons and conveying to them if you ever think about disrespecting a girl or a 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 that 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.
So, I really think that in many ways, what we need to do is to start to work more with parents and to try to get them to help change the culture because that's what it really will take is a change in culture.
Seymour: Greatest fear? Do you have a greatest fear for the field?
Snyder: Probably two and one of them is more general I think to the crime victims' field and one is more specific to my field of sexual violence. The general one is that, as I've sort of mentioned before, that in many ways we are "professionalizing" the field and I say that with quotes. And that in that process we are leaving behind the survivor, the person who has been victimized, leaving behind that voice on that perspective and maintaining that -- not just on the side or as an afterthought, but as the center of what we do and why we do it -- is so very important.
The second fear is more specific to my field and that is that I think although it's not solely related to a lot of funding sources that have been coming out, for example, the Violence Against Women Act funding, while it has enabled wonderful things to happen and enables my Center, for example, I mean the District of Columbia is now able to offer a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program because of all the funding and we are extremely grateful for that.
But I think that part of the unanticipated impact of... of that funding and all of the attention that goes along with it is that there has been a shift to looking at survivors and focusing on survivors who are in the criminal justice system, and in my field ninety percent of survivors never go into that system. So, when you're focusing a lot of resources, attention and energy on ten percent of the population, obviously we're missing a huge group who are very much in need of support and services and efforts on their behalf, as well.
Seymour: Any ideas on how to... to change that? I... I know it's a funding mechanism in terms of not just VAWA, but other funding too?
Snyder: Well I think if funding... if sort of similar streams of funding were available for bed rock social change that would be about actually addressing, stopping sexual violence or doing the kind of culture change I was talking about earlier... that if there were more funding streams for that, as well as just more opportunities for straight services that are not at all connected to the criminal justice system.
Seymour: Anything that I didn't ask you that you really want to say for the Oral History Project?
Snyder: I can't think of anything else. I think you've been pretty... pretty thorough.
Seymour : Great.
|This project was supported by Grant Number 2002-VF-GX-0009 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view in this product are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.|