Everyone Organized Against Rape
The offices of Women Organized Against Rape are quiet. Polite signage around the waiting room requests that doors be shut with care and cell phones should not be used. The staff speaks in soft, polite tones and there are white noise machines to keep conversation during counseling sessions from being overheard. WOAR offers private and group counseling to adults (male and female), teens, LGBTQ and child survivors of sexual assault and abuse, so the need for privacy and a feeling of safety is of utmost importance.
“You know you’re my fourth interview today? It’s not even noon!” WOAR’s Executive Director Carole Johnson smiles as she says it. The phone ringing, her stacked schedule and the media attention all means that WOAR is doing what it’s supposed to do: provide as much support as possible to sexual assault survivors every step of their way. WOAR’S services include: court and medical accompaniment, counseling and support for survivors and their loved ones, and education and outreach to campuses, workplaces and community groups and awareness-raising events.
Their next big event is the 9th annual Take It All Back walk on April 26th. April is designated as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. One of the pivotal organizers of the event and WOAR counselor Alea Cummings said, “The name is a reference to the Take Back the Night. We wanted to do something like that, but Take It All Back is intended to be more inclusive, and to break down the myth that sexual assaults only happen at night. This event is for everyone. We didn’t want anyone to think, ‘It didn’t happen to me at night, I must not count.’”
Whereas most days at WOAR are quiet, Take It All Back is about making noise. “Our event is survivor-centric. We sing, we chant, we carry signs, there’s a drumline. When we get to the Independence Visitor’s Center, there’s a SPEAK OUT where survivors tell their stories, read poems, just open up. We’ll also have food and this year we’will have Zumba breaks. It can get pretty intense and we want to encourage healthy coping.”
Women Organized Against Rape was founded in 1971 as one of the first rape crisis centers in the U.S. After taking early retirement from her position as HR Director at AT&T, Carole came to WOAR, first as a volunteer, then gradually moved up to Executive Assistant in 1990. Alea came to WOAR as a graduate intern 2011 to May of 2013 and then returned as a counselor in June of 2013.
Although WOAR’s work was at first aimed towards women helping women, the organization’s vision expanded widely under Carole’s leadership. “My first major concern was to involve men. We hired male staffers, reached out to community groups so we could talk to young men. How do you prevent rape if you don’t talk to them? Young males need to be educated about this issue.” She also expanded WOAR’s outreach to Asain, Latino and immigrant communities.
Alea and Carole’s major current project is reaching out to the LGBTQ community, who are at a particularly high risk of sexual abuse and assault. A 2009 study shows that roughly 50 percent of gay or lesbian individuals and 64 percent of trans people will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. “We strive to break down some of the destructive myths surrounding sexuality and sexual assault. I feel so proud of the work we’re doing with LGBTQ youths.” In the group counseling sessions, young people talk about their coping with anger, PTSD and healthy sexual expressions. “You see people open up in as way that couldn’t happen in other places,” said Alea, who runs the group. WOAR is also expanding their outreach to human trafficking and the issue of sexual assault in prisons.
Carole Johnson estimates,“We see about 15,000 adults and 800 children every year.” If these number seem high, consider national statistics provided by Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN): that one in four women and one in six men report being raped or attempted rape. RAINN also reports that an estimated 60 percent of rape goes unreported to police. RAINN estimates there were 237, 868 sexual assaults in the United States last year.
Part of WOAR’s mission is to work with the PPD, the DA’s office, local campuses and hospitals to create a cohesive network of support and justice for survivors. “You could call us the first-responder team. We’re the people at the front line,” says Carole. “WOAR serves the whole city of Philadelphia on a staff of nineteen people and about forty-five to sixty volunteers. Funding can be hard but the Governor (Gov. Tom Corbett) has, to his credit, increased ours in the past two years.”
“We’ve changed a lot over the years. We’ve gone from a grassroots organization to a professional one, with professional staffers, increased programing. We can reach out to the community.” Carole reaches across her neat desk to silence her ringing phone. The call can wait, as she clearly loves talking about WOAR’s work. “We’re a safe space. People feel comfortable here. They can heal. If WOAR wasn’t there, where would people go?”
WOAR’S crisis hotline is available 24/7 at (215) 985-3333. Counseling appointments are available at (215) 985-3315
More about Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Take It All Back and how journalist can better (more accuarately, more compassionately) report on rape can be found at my Storify account.