The Perils of Institutionalization in Neoliberal Times: Results of a National Survey of Canadian Sexual Assault and Rape Crisis Centres

By Beres, Melanie A.; Crow, Barbara et al. | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Perils of Institutionalization in Neoliberal Times: Results of a National Survey of Canadian Sexual Assault and Rape Crisis Centres


Beres, Melanie A., Crow, Barbara, Gotell, Lise, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Asked to elaborate on the current challenges facing her sexual assault/ rape crisis centre [SAC/RCC], (2) one respondent succinctly articulated the multiple obstacles (structural, political, financial) that were expressed over and over by participants in our national survey.

   Erosion of gender analysis ... funding and restrictions--law and
   order agenda--victim services--poverty of women--erosion of women
   only space--too much work too much violence--too many women living
   in poverty.

SAC/RCCs constitute a vital network across Canada, providing support and advocacy for survivors, and crucially, engaging in social and political struggles against sexual violence. While there has been much feminist scholarship analyzing the implications of neoliberalism for Canadian feminist politics (Brodie 1995, 2002; Fudge and Cossman 2002), there has been little empirical investigation of women's movement organizations in this context. With the ascendance to power of a neoconservative federal government, firmly committed to a law and order agenda but blind to the realities of gender-based violence, feminist scholars need investigate how and under what conditions Canadian antiviolence activists and frontline workers may continue their important struggles.

This study is one small step in this direction. In 2005, we undertook the very first national survey of Canadian SAC/RCCs. Initially, we embarked on this research with the specific goal of investigating how frontline workers and activists evaluate the efficacy of significant sexual assault law reforms that were enacted in the 1990s. Our questionnaire expanded beyond this initial focus on criminal justice reforms to include questions on the structure, activities, functions, and self-definitions of Canadian SAC/RCCs, as well as assessments of current challenges facing centres and the diverse strategies deployed to meet these challenges. It is this latter focus that we report in this article.

As there has so been little research on the politics and roles of Canadian SAC/RCCs (Masson 1998, 2000; Lakeman 2004:17-55; Du Mont and Parnis 2003), our findings must be seen as preliminary, suggestive, and providing the seeds of future research. Because the population and thus our sample is small, there was insufficient statistical power to conduct parametric statistics. Nonetheless, our results convey a rich picture of Canadian, community-based, antirape activism, confirming that SAC/ RCCs continue to play vital roles in communities across Canada. Here we highlight two key findings. First, despite significant pressures to redefine as social service delivery agencies, SAC/RCCs engage in social change and social justice activism and often define themselves as specifically feminist/pro-woman/equality-seeking organizations. Second, while there is no typical SAC/RCC and our respondents vary significantly in size and resources, nearly all emphasize the significant obstacle of inadequate funding and all continue to rely heavily on the underpaid and unpaid work of (usually women) staff volunteers to do more with less. In effect, the results of this survey suggest that Canadian SAC/RCCs are negotiating and resisting technologies of neoliberal governance that, through funding restrictions and the elaboration of degendered and depoliticized policy frameworks, undermine the activist role of centres and privatize and individualize the problem of sexual violence.

CONTEXT AND EXISTING RESEARCH

Canadian community-based SAC/RCCs originated in the 1970s, with establishment of Vancouver Rape Relief in 1973 and the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre in 1974 (O'Connor 2005:28). At present, there are over 105 community-based centres. (3) Early SAC/RCCs emerged through grassroots organizing to provide support for raped women and to create social change (Matthews 1994; Bevacqua 2000:73-74; Campbell, Baker, and Mazurek 1998:458). Based upon radical feminist analysis, the emphasis of early centres was explicitly political (Crow 2000). …

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