Ronnie Polaneczky: WOAR on rape rumbles on after 40 years

Posted: December 05, 2012

SOME PEOPLE DREAD turning 40 if they've got nothing but wrinkles to show for it.

The same might be said for advocacy operations facing that milestone anniversary. Longevity is great, but it's even better if the organization has managed to transform the cause that stirred it to life in the first place.

So it is with Women Organized Against Rape on the eve of its 40th birthday. Its advocacy has so changed the way victims of sexual violence are treated by law enforcement, the courts and the medical establishment, it's a shock to realize what life was like for victims before WOAR roared into existence in 1973.

The reminders were shared Thursday at WOAR's Suburban Station offices, where founders, current and former staffers, and supporters reunited to launch a yearlong celebration of WOAR's four decades.

The memories were wild.

Back in 1973, it wasn't a crime for a man to rape his wife. Thanks to WOAR's advocacy, laws now protect a woman from her husband's sexual violence.

A victim once needed someone to "corroborate" her accusation if she hoped to convict her attacker. Thanks to WOAR, laws have done away with that nonsense.

Before WOAR, to prove a rape occurred, a woman had to show that she tried to resist her assailant - even if he'd threatened to kill her if she fought him. Thanks to WOAR, a woman's desire to live is no longer considered evidence of her consent.

A rape victim's sexual history used to be admissible in court. Because WOAR fought for the change, a victim's private life is no longer public fodder.

And before WOAR, if a woman sought counseling for help with the trauma of rape, the content of those sessions were not considered private. That's no longer the case, thanks to you-know-who.

I swear, the more I spoke with WOAR's leaders, the more I realized how much we take for granted the results of their passion.

Without WOAR's pushing for it, the Police Department would have no special-victims' unit, where sex crimes are handled with sensitivity. The District Attorney's Office wouldn't have established a rape-prosecution unit, whose experts understand the crime's nuances. And emergency-room staffers wouldn't dare suggest that a victim of sexual violence deserved what she got because she'd had too much to drink.

"We have so much to be proud of, but we still have a way to go," says Carole Johnson, WOAR's longtime executive director.

"We've expanded beyond helping women when they're in crisis. We're now providing more therapy. We have men's groups. We have children's services. We're doing outreach to faith-based communities. We're training bystanders to speak up. The mission has really broadened."

Johnson is excited about WOAR's new work with LGBT and elderly groups and with immigrant communities whose cultural taboos and language barriers can keep victims from seeking help. In fact, WOAR community outreach director, Cristina Perez, just won a prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leader Award for her work with these groups, which was lauded as a national model.

That doesn't surprise attorney Christopher Mallios. He prosecuted sex crimes when he worked in the Philly District Attorney's Office and now works for AEquitas, a national organization that provides resources, globally, to those who prosecute violence against women.

"The 'Philly model' of aggressively prosecuting sex crimes came out of WOAR's work with the D.A.'s office," says Mallios. He says it directly informs the training he now does with prosecutors in jurisdictions as far away as Liberia. "I'm extremely proud of the work we did. We were encouraged to take on the hard cases, to really advocate for the victim."

It's not overstatement to say that the impact of WOAR's advocacy, and of the national movement it helped spawn, has changed our conversation about sexual violence.

Granted, it won't stop a fool like U.S. Rep. Todd Akin from coining despicable phrases like "legitimate rape," says attorney Lynn Marks, WOAR's former executive director. The difference these days, though, is that Akin's words elicited "massive mainstream outrage" from both sides of the political aisle.

Four decades ago, they might have passed without notice.

"That's progress," she says.

So happy birthday, WOAR. You make 40 look fantastic.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

" @RonniePhilly

Blog: philly.com/ronnieblog

Columns: philly.com/Ronnie

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