Advocating for victims of sexual assault
By Peter Miller
For Natasha Doiel and Lori Allen, there is no normal day of work. Doiel and Allen are sexual assault advocates at ACCESS, the assault care center based in Ames. Doiel works mainly with clients in Story County, and Allen is the campus liaison, which means that most of her clients are Iowa State students. Oftentimes when Allen begins working with a victim, she says they are not familiar with what advocates do. So what is an advocate? Advocates work with crime victims to help them navigate the court systems, provide emotional support and find resources to improve the victim’s situation. Client counseling, legal advocacy, medical advocacy and manning the sexual assault crisis phone line are things that keep both Doiel and Allen busy every week. In addition to those many responsibilities, Doiel holds an active position in Story County’s Network against Human Trafficking, and Allen works with Wellness Services at Iowa State to implement the new Green Dot sexual assault prevention program.
With so many responsibilities in such a mentally strenuous profession, they do not lose sight of what is important. “I love working with people,” Doiel said. Working with her clients and reaching the point where a client genuinely trusts her enough to open up about their story, Doiel said, is the most rewarding part of her job. Allen is empowered by the people she works with. “What is really fascinating to me,” Allen said, “is just the diversity in how people find strength in moving forward.” Though the work of an advocate can be demanding and stressful at times, what frustrates Doiel most about her job is seeing so many people struggle. Witnessing the justice system fail her clients can be quite difficult.
As sexual assault advocates, Doiel and Allen are frequently reminded of the many misconceptions regarding sexual assault, a conversation that could go on forever. One of the most prominent misconceptions is that sexual assault is the victim’s fault. Allen said, “People feel like where you are, what you’re doing, what you’re wearing—usually the things we call victim blaming—lend themselves to sexual assault.” Placing the blame on the victim’s actions takes responsibility away from the perpetrators. Doiel talked about the prevalence of sexual assault. She reflected, “You hear that it’s common, but you don’t know how common it is until you’re knee-deep in this work, and it’s everywhere.” Katherine Culpepper, a current intern with ACCESS and an Iowa State student explained that sexual assault is usually committed by someone the victim knows—not a complete stranger. These misconceptions, Allen suggested, are ways to cope with the truth about sexual assault. “It allows us to look at this as something that we can control,” she said, “We think that people who perpetrate sexual assault are these really scary, drug-addicted, homeless prior-felons when in fact, they’re the person you sit next to in biology class, and that makes the world seem kind of scary.”
Doiel made clear that it is important for Iowa State students who have experienced sexual assault to remember that they are not alone. There are people who care a lot about victims of sexual assault, and there are many people in Ames who want to help—Natasha Doiel and Lori Allen are two of them. Allen said it is important for students to listen to themselves. “If you have any feeling in your gut that something is not right… you are entitled to speak up,” Allen said.
If you want to make a difference regarding sexual assault in the community, educate yourself and others, and if you have time, volunteer for an organization like ACCESS. If you need help someday, remember, sexual assault can happen to anyone, call the ACCESS crisis line (515-292-5378). They provide a free and voluntary service.