Twenty years after its founding, the rape crisis center that serves Columbia and Barnard has held firm to its policy of only accepting women as counselors to victims of sexual violence.
As more advocacy around sexual violence goes gender-neutral across the country, Columbia’s Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center isn’t likely to take on male volunteers to man its 24-hour crisis hotline or do in-person counseling anytime soon, according to administrators.
According to Karen Singleton, the director of Columbia’s Sexual Violence Response program, the rape crisis center based out of Barnard Hall, has maintained its policy out of respect for the gendered nature of sexual violence and the center’s long history.
“We felt that it was important on campus to have a space that was women-led and that really felt like it could be a safe space for female students. Volunteers over the years felt like it was really important to honor that history,” Singleton said, adding that the RC/AVSC was born in 1991, out of the feminist movement.
Over the years students have taken issue with the fact that the RC/AVSC is not gender-neutral, Singleton said, but she said the issues tend to be resolved once students understand the historical context of the RC/AVSC.
“A lot of times when people express their concern they don’t understand completely the history of the rape crisis center movement, particularly that it’s part of the national movement, it’s not just something that sprouted up here at Columbia,” Singleton said.
Shifting into neutral
Nevertheless, more rape crisis centers across the country, including ones at Princeton and Dartmouth, are bringing men on to do in-person counseling and staff crisis hotlines, as national sensitivities shift to favor gender neutrality.
Across the street, on 112th Street and Broadway, the Crime Victims Treatment Center at St. Luke’s Hospital allows both men and women to volunteer as counselors to victims of sexual and domestic violence.
Amee Wurzburg, BC ’12, has been volunteering at CVTC at St. Luke’s for a year, after finishing a two-year stint with Columbia’s rape crisis center.
“I can understand why they feel it [all-female volunteers] would be important, but I believe that the anti-violence work needs to include men in all aspects. I think anyone should be able to be an advocate if they’re passionate about the movement and are qualified,” she said.
Barry Weinberg, CC ’12 and co-president of Everyone Allied Against Homophobia, a group that has advocated for gender-neutral housing options, said that the queer community isn’t likely to make noise about this gender distinction.
“I think part of the reason that there isn’t sort of an issue in the queer community with the rape crisis volunteers being all self-identifying women is that we understand space,” Weinberg said. “We respect the need for certain spaces to have certain characteristics for people to feel comfortable, and safety is something we understand.”
A place for men
The annual Take Back the Night march, which occurs every April to take back the streets against perpetrators of sexual violence, has also held on to its historic policy of maintaining a small women-only section at the front of the march. Until four years ago, the majority of the march was limited to just women. Now men are included in the march and allowed to marshal, but organizers have said that the separate section designated for women is a necessary way to acknowledge the gendered nature of sexual violence.
Male students like Tyler Bonnen, GS ’13, say that rape isn’t just a women’s issue. In October, he was one of the few men to participate in a protest against The Kingsmen, an all-male a capella group that has used rape jokes to promote its concerts.
“Men have and occupy a lot of roles in relation to sexual violence, but the underlying idea is that sexual violence is also a man’s issue,” Bonnen said. “Too often when we talk about sexual violence we talk about it like it’s a woman’s issue. We don’t often include men in the discussion.” Singleton said that there are a number of ways to engage men in anti-violence work on campus. The Men’s Peer Education program, now coordinated by Gaurav Jashnani, was started six years ago to recruit men as allies in ending sexual violence and relationship violence.
“Something that, to me, is important is for men to really recognize that there’s lots of different ways that they can play helpful and supportive roles in doing this kind of work, and that’s [peer counseling] certainly one of them, but it’s not the only one,” Jashnani said.
Although concerns have been raised about the rape crisis center over the years, Singleton said that Columbia isn’t likely to follow peers who have gone co-ed.
“Anecdotally, what we’ve heard through the years is that there are a lot of survivors that seek the services because they know that when they walk in a door that they have a sense that there’s going to be a female advocate or peer counselor that’s available,” Singleton said. “We can’t speak for every survivor, but we know that some people find that incredibly helpful in knowing what they are getting before they come into the service.”
Weinberg said that at the moment, he does not see any need for the RC/AVSC to become gender-neutral.
“I haven’t really begun to think about how you could change that and what issues you should be addressing if you did change that. From the queer perspective I don’t know who would prefer to have a male peer counselor. It’s an unexplored issue. It’s never come to my attention before,” he said.
Lauren Herold, CC ’12 and a strong voice on campus against sexual violence, said that the center ought to accept male volunteers one day—but only if people want that.
“I do think it’s really important to eventually, at some point, if people demand it, have a gender-neutral space at the rape crisis anti violence support center,” she said.
A pull-quote that ran in the print version of this story on Nov. 28, incorrectly stated that one in every 10 men is a victim of sexual assault. National statistics indicate that one in every 10 rape victims is male. Spectator regrets this error.