Interview with Mandy Barnes from Devon Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Services

This interview references sexual violence. There are support resources at the end of the article.

Hi Mandy! Would you be able to explain what Devon Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Services (DRCSAS) does for anyone who might not be sure?

DRCSAS is a confidential and professional support organisation based in Exeter, but we also have offices in Barnstaple and Torquay. The service is for anybody over the age of 13 who is living in Devon or Torbay and who has experienced any form of sexual violence, either recently or in the past. We offer an anonymous and confidential helpline and email service which runs on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings, from 6-9pm. That service is answered by our team of skilled, experienced, trained female volunteers. People ringing that number can use that space to explore their thoughts and feelings – if they want to talk about their experiences, they absolutely can, but they don’t have to. They can explore support, resources, and information – it’s very much led by them.

We also provide support to family, friends, and allies of survivors via our helpline and email service. We’re user-led – everything happens at the caller’s pace. We don’t ask lots of questions. Quite often there are a lot of silences, and we can hold those silences as we understand how difficult it can be to pick up the phone and make contact.

We also offer 1 to 1 direct therapeutic support to anyone over the age of 13 in Devon and Torbay – that could take the form of specialist trauma-informed support, EMDR (eye movement desensitisation reprogramming), and we’re also currently running a women’s trauma skills group as well, with the view to expand our groups to offer support to more people.

What’s most important about what we do is that we listen, believe, and offer a non-judgemental space in which people can explore what they want to at their own pace.

It was so brilliant to be able to attend the Reclaim the Night march here in Exeter at the end of November. How long has it been running in Exeter?

Reclaim the Night marches started in the 70s in Leeds after similar marches in America and Germany, and was in response to women and girls being told to stay indoors and live under a curfew. That was picked up in the 80s here in Exeter – I’ve found some amazing archived pictures of events from the time. DRCSAS has been in Exeter for 10 years and we’ve always been involved alongside university students, feminist groups and other support agencies like domestic abuse services. We’ve always wanted to be involved with the Reclaim the Night marches as they are an opportunity to raise awareness, highlight the issues and get out on the streets and make some noise!

How did it feel to see such a big turnout with such a vast age range in attendees?

I was so pleased – it’s always a worry when you put on an event like this that no one will come! We put out over a thousand leaflets across the university, the city and elsewhere, and advertised on social media too, but you never know until the event how much of that has got out to people. As more and more people turned up it was very moving. There was definitely strength of feeling there, and at the banner making and singing workshops women were telling us how they’d been struggling to get out, how they’d had horrific experiences of sexual violence and assault, but how coming to the event had made them feel more empowered by being amongst supportive and like-minded people.

I hope people felt that it was safe and well organised, that we were making our points very clearly, and that everyone was welcome.  At this event we were focusing on women and girls’ experiences, but we do know that sexual violence happens across the gender spectrum. The event was for everybody to come together and make a stand, and to say no to sexual violence against women and girls. So I was really pleased and very moved.

Would you say that you’ve noticed a difference in the number of calls or type of calls coming in throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?

Yes – our referrals have doubled – for example last month there were 69 referrals, that is people asking for support whereas it’s been much less in previous years, so there’s definitely something happening. It might be people’s awareness being raised about our service – until you need us you probably won’t go out looking for us. Calls to our helpline haven’t stopped. Throughout the first lockdowns we kept our helpline and services open for people, and we found that sexual violence and assault didn’t stop. We were also getting a lot of calls from people who were being retriggered – they’d experienced sexual violence in the past and the pandemic, lockdowns, isolation and even having to wear masks were all having an effect on them, retraumatising them.

What can allies be doing to support survivors of sexual violence, whether recent or historic?

The first thing is to believe them and listen to them – that’s the bedrock of being a supportive ally to someone, whether you’re doing it professionally in an organisation like ours, or as a friend, family member or work colleague. One of the biggest barriersfor people reaching out to us is the feeling that they won’t be believed. Our response as the listener must be that we’re not judging them or blaming them. Victim blaming is another big barrier to people seeking help – that people feel that they will be blamed for the crime that was committed against them. It’s also important that allies know where they can get support. So much supportive information is available online, including our website.

Something else that is important for us  is that we follow people’s lead, so we would never tell people what to do or make them report the assault – we always ask what they want and need, and that’s important for allies to remember too. It’s difficult when it’s a family member or friend because you have an emotional connection with them, so it’s hard to see them in distress or pain. That’s why we offer support to friends and family members of survivors, both emotionally and practically on our helpline and email support service.

What do you think the role for men specifically is? We’ve been hearing a lot lately about how men can be allies and work to make women feel safe – what are your thoughts on this?

It’s fantastic that there’s been so much conversation, but it is heart-breaking that is has come out of the most horrendous situations where women have been murdered. We don’t want men to get defensive, because we know it’s not all men, but it’s potentially all women and girls. We want men to step up and have those conversations with us, but also with each other. It’s everybody’s issue, it’s not just a women’s issue. Men need to get themselves educated if they don’t know what’s going on – there’s plenty of information out there so there’s no excuse.

There’s recently been a lot of stuff circulating about what women can do to keep themselves safe, like parking in well lit areas, don’t wear your headset or run alone but they’re the things we do anyway! It’s exactly what we’ve been doing all the time, and it doesn’t make any difference. Sexual violence is still happening. Sexual violence doesn’t happen because of what you were wearing or where you were. Women’s behaviour is never to blame for sexual violence.

Men need to do the work to learn about these issues and get on board with campaigns and events. It was great to see so many people from different communities and backgrounds at the march. Change isn’t going to happen if people don’t get involved – it has to be everybody.

Do you think there needs to be more institutional change, for example at a police level or governmental level?

It’s such a huge issue.  There are a lot of people who’ve experienced sexual violence, sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, and the impact of those traumas can stay with you, even after support and therapy. Unfortunately, it feels like there will always be a need for support organisations and we don’t have enough resources to see everybody when they need to be seen.

There needs to be fundamental changes in our emergency and Police services, in local government, in central government – change needs to be higher up everyone’s agendas.

More people talking about these issues is fantastic. But we also need to start as early as we can and talk to our children and young people about healthy and respectful relationships and behaviours.

Finally, how can people support the work you’re doing?

We’re always very happy for people to raise awareness of us – people come to us and say they didn’t know we were there. Sexual violence, sexual assault, rape, and childhood sexual abuse are still very much a taboo subject, so it’s great when people can have events or invite us to speak or to bring along information.

Fundraising for us is also brilliant – there have been some amazing things happening at the university in recent years where students have really got behind us and done incredible things.

We always need help with events and campaigns too – we need everyone on board.

How to get in touch with DRCSAS:

Anonymous helpline: 01392 204 174

support@devonrapecrisis.org.uk

How to get in touch with University Wellbeing services:

Phone: 01392 724381

wellbeing@exeter.ac.uk

You can also call Nightline for peer-led support over the phone or via their chat box: https://www.exeter.nightline.ac.uk/home

Caitlin Barr

Featured Image Source: @devonrapecrisis // Instagram

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