Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Delicate Balance

Since the moment I interviewed to be a “legal intern” at CAASE, this organization has proved to be unlike any I have ever seen.

Officially, I assist in the “representation of clients who have experienced sexual exploitation.” Specifically, clients are usually victims of either sexual assault or sex trafficking.” In reality, it’s much more complicated than that.

As a legal intern, I work within two distinct arenas: the legal and advocacy fields, and the latter is often referred to as “the movement.” This distinction has been critical to understanding my role and facing the sometimes heartbreaking challenges.

On my first day we went to a meeting with what I describe as some suits from the State’s Attorney’s office to politely disagree with the way they prosecute – or do not prosecute – sexual assault cases. Nice first day, right? It was certainly time for my big girl pants. Put in a more eloquent way, this is the policy side of the job that requires patience and professionalism in the face of a great institutional barrier to justice for victims of sexual violence.

After that introduction into my new world, it was back to the office where all the other interns were buzzing about the upcoming play that CAASE and End Demand Illinois was launching. The two-part play was a depiction of the harsh realties of prostitution and exposed the ignorance about what “the life” does to young girls and women – the same ignorance I saw earlier that day at the State’s Attorney’s office. The only difference was that most people in the audience were already part of the movement, and it was the suits that should have been in attendance.

From that first day, it became clear that on top of all of the emotions I would experience as a result of working with victims of sexual exploitation, I needed to see these different worlds for what they are and appreciate the frustration that would stem from such a dichotomy. In other words, I needed to adjust my expectations for the crowd – the suits of the legal field would need a little more patience.

When I hear a police officer or other criminal justice actor imply that a rape victim becomes less credible because she showered after her assault, because she took a few days to cope with the trauma of what was done to her body, or because she can’t exactly remember what time it was when she was coming in and out of consciousness during the attack, I have to remind myself of the imaginary line between these worlds. I have to remember that not everyone grasps the who, what, where, when, and most importantly, the why of sexual violence against women.

Not to imply that the only troubling side of my internship is the legal field; in fact, I often become frustrated with individuals in the movement. There are the typical divisions that sometimes impede the progress of any issue-based movement, but advocates also sometimes forget about this gap between worlds. What I have learned is that advocates also struggle with this delicate balance. How far do you go to agitate the legal system before inadvertently leaving it in the dust?

What I have learned while working at CAASE is that we cannot expect the criminal justice system to miraculously change, but that we should also never stop shaking the trees in hopes of small victories. Enough adages for you? Here’s one more - I guess it’s all in a day’s work.