In a small, unassuming building at the heart of Lincoln’s city centre, vital – perhaps even life-saving – work is being done every day.
The second floor is home to Rape Crisis Lincolnshire, where a team of dedicated and headstrong women have worked together to provide sexual assault survivors with round the clock support, 365 days a year.
The hub is surprisingly cosy – two small sofas and a coffee table in front of a tiny glass office, where private conversations are held. A bank of desks, where the operators’ man the service’s webchat and helpline, are by a compact kitchen.
Diane Hipworth, one of the operators on duty, clasps a steaming mug of tea. Her eyes are steady as she monitors the web chat – a second, confidential service for sexual assault survivors to message Rape Crisis directly.
She’s not distracted by the other women buzzing around the office, chatting animatedly – they make up the small but committed team who have dedicated themselves to making the recently launched 24/7 helpline for sexual assault survivors a success.
Diane, 52, who took a paid role at Rape Crisis last November, says working on the helpline and web service has been an eye-opening experience.
‘It can be really overwhelming,’ she explains. ‘There’s always going to be that one call that throws you and leaves you stunned. We’re constantly learning.
‘I have three daughters, and before I’d always tell them “don’t drink too much” or “you can’t wear anything too short.” That myth was busted immediately as total rubbish when we were trained.’
Those accessing the service, in Diane’s experience, are mostly women.
Operator Diane joined Rape Crisis in November, and has been left stunned at the overwhelming nature of the role (Picture: Emma Trimble/SWNS)
‘But it is incredibly variable,’ she says. ‘I had a chat this morning with a dad, who rang in on behalf of his daughter. You could tell it was difficult for him to open up, but it was so great he could contact us for some support.’
Officially rolled out in England and Wales in December, after a soft launch in the summer, the helpline came to fruition after the Government’s extensive End to End Rape Review in 2021 highlighted there were too few resources providing support to rape survivors in the UK.
Rape Crisis started providing a reach out service around three years ago, but the new helpline allows centres around the country to galvanise their resources and provide more support, explains Phoebe Bond, a 25-year-old independent advocate at Lincolnshire Rape Crisis.
‘You might have been in Bristol trying to call on a Wednesday and the helpline’s not open,’ she says. ‘But if you were from another part of the country, they would be able to access support. It was about combining those efforts to create something national so we can give time to everyone at any time – day or night.’
Phoebe explains how Rape Crisis is combining its resources to offer a more comprehensive service (Picture: Emma Trimble/SWNS: SWNS)
When the team behind Rape Crisis were putting together the service, there was an initial conversation at how busy the service was going to be in the small hours. However, Adele Arnett, the Quality, Practise and Safeguarding Lead for the phoneline, was taken aback at how busy the service was all the time.
‘As we no longer live in a 9-5 world, it’s essential that the services we provide are also flexible,’ Adele, 49, says. ‘Someone may only have time to call after her children have gone to bed, or may need to talk to someone urgently at 4am.
‘We’re always going to need more resources. We could double the number of operators on the helpline and still be busy.’
To ensure Rape Crisis could keep up with the demand, a large recruiting drive was rolled out for operators. In Lincolnshire, over 300 people applied for a position – however, only nine were hired.
Rape Crisis Lincolnshire CEO Laura was highly selective in finding people robust enough to handle an operator role (Picture: Emma Trimble/SWNS)
‘It certainly takes a certain type of person to work in this field,’ Lincolnshire CEO Laura McKane, 43, explains. ‘It takes someone who is resilient, tenacious and who can understand the subject matter – but someone who is empathetic and thoughtful.
‘We need to make sure people are suited to the role but that it’s also safe for them to do it.
‘It takes an awful lot of emotional resilience to deliver this kind of service. We have to ensure these processes are in place.’
A huge amount of training is then done in-house at Rape Crisis to ensure operators are properly equipped for the emotionally taxing role.
Abby Preston from Rape Crisis South London is the Training Manager for operators. Having worked in collaboration with counsellors and experienced rape crisis support workers, the 80 hour training course follow the empowerment model: a humanistic, feminist approach which puts the survivors needs at the centre of focus.
Abby oversees the extensive training programme to ensure all the operators can offer sound, practical advice (Picture: Emma Trimble/SWNS)
As well as looking at different types of sexual violence, such as child abuse and rape, operators are coached in the best ways to provide support to a survivor ringing in.
‘We look at how we demonstrate empathy with our voices when we’re not able to see and use body language,’ Abby, 29, explains. ‘How we can provide support in a way that’s non-directive and non-judgemental, and how we can demonstrate that effectively to callers.
‘We really gently challenge myths around sexual violence that are deeply entrenched in society, such as people are at fault for the clothing people wear and how much they drink, how we can make sure support workers have the knowledge they need around the law and how they can pass that on and empower survivors.’
‘We get people from all professions and walks of life,’ adds fellow operator Lauren Brackenbury, 22. ‘Doctors, teachers, shop workers. It just goes to show how widespread sexual violence is in society is.
‘What really shocks me is the number of rapes we hear about that were committed by people survivors thought they could trust. Before I worked here, I thought rape was mostly committed by strangers. I just did a round of chats this morning, and all the survivors knew their attacker. It’s scary.’
Lauren and Diane are shift partners, and are encouraged to confide in each other if they find one case particularly difficult (Picture: Emma Trimble/SWNS)
Lauren and Diane were extensively trained before they become operators for Rape Crisis (Picture: Emma Trimble/SWNS)
While both Lauren and Diane acknowledge it’s a lot to hear some of the most harrowing stories almost all day every day, safeguarding is imperative to the operators manning the support services. They have access to fully qualified counsellors at any time if they need to offload after a difficult call, and are assigned to shifts in pairs, so they can lean on each other if things are a particular struggle.
Tori Corry, who serves as the centre manager for Rape Crisis Lincolnshire, endeavours to ensure the wellbeing of those on the front line. As a former face-to-face support worker, she knows how tough the job can be.
‘It is traumatic to hear what these people have been through,’ the 51-year-old explains. ‘But the idea is to take the trauma from a survivor, put it on the table and leave that survivor feeling like they know what to do next.
Tori has spoken to children as young as 8, and survivors well into their 80s, about sexual violence they’ve faced (Picture: Emma Trimble/SWNS)
‘The stories that have stayed with me are from survivors who only have us to speak to, and there’s such a broad spectrum of people who have accessed our services. I’ve spoken to an eight-year-old child, to a woman who was in her 80s. I was the first person she had told about her rape as a child – she was about to have a major operation, and she wanted to tell someone what she’d been through in case the worst happened.’
To help operators cope, Tori continues that a physical partition is implemented between work and home life. Working from home is banned, and operators are discouraged from watching dramas or documentaries which feature sexual assaults to allow them to switch off in their freetime.
‘We all deal with the work in different ways,’ she explains. ‘Some of us physically leave everything we need for work in the office, so we’re literally not carrying anything home. Another person likes to put on hand cream at the end of the day, with the smell reminding them work is over.
The team often has to support each other when the day can get increasingly tough (Picture: Emma Trimble/SWNS)
‘Speaking to my family is something that helps me refocus after the hardest days. But you simply could not do this job if you weren’t able to switch off.’
Despite the heaviness of the subject matter that hangs over the hub, there’s a palpable warmth and love amongst the women working together. Lauren and Diane laugh together as they take turns on tea runs, while the others gather in groups, conversation varying from work to what’s on TV that night.
‘It sounds bizarre, but we work in a really fun place,’ Tori says. ‘We really strive to support each other. It’s an empowering place to work.’
How do survivors feel about the helpline?
Lucy felt nighttime to be particularly difficult after she was raped (Picture: Getty Images)
Lucy Hall, 33, was raped at a party in 2018. In the immediate aftermath of her attack, she felt ‘vulnerable’ and nihilistic as she struggled to come to terms with what happened.
‘I’ve never been a great sleeper, but it got so much worse following the rape,’ she explains. ‘It was the main symptom of my PTSD.
‘I found myself drinking a lot more during this time – and part of it was to help knock me out so I could actually get to sleep.’
With Rape Crisis having a service that other survivors could call in the small hours, Lucy feels relief knowing others can call at any time/
‘There are the times where I’d wake up at 3am and feel like I couldn’t breathe,’ she recalls. ‘When you’re alone at night battling these sorts of thoughts on your own…it can make you feel even more isolating.’
To the best of Lucy’s knowledge, none of her friends had been raped, which made it difficult to open up to them.
‘I had this feeling that something momentous had happened to me, but I had no idea what to do, and neither did anyone else,’ she says. ‘There’s this feeling that you should do something, but it’s really hard to know what.
‘Immediately after, the thought of going to the police seemed out of the question. I couldn’t even consider it and I felt actively annoyed at people who would suggest it.’
Lucy adds Rape Crisis’s free phone line provides ‘an obvious first step’ for people still coming to terms with what’s happened.
‘Knowing it’s there as a concept, and can be used at any time through any stage through your healing journey, is even more reassuring.’
Five years on from the attack, Lucy is starting to feel like herself again. She acknowledges she was privileged enough to receive private therapy, paid for by her parents.
With over a quarter of people on wait lists for NHS counselling waiting more than three months to start treatment, Lucy believes more needs to be done to support survivors in the weeks after an attack. She praises Rape Crisis for finally putting an emphasis on survivors, rather than perpetrators. ‘I’m constantly seeing political parties focusing on prosecuting rapists,’ she says.
‘That’s important, but for so many people, the issue is with survivors just trying to get their head round how get on with the rest of the lives. More care needs to be directed towards the victims because at the moment, there’s an obsession with the perpetrator.’
For the women at Rape Crisis, the phone line is only just the beginning, with many hopeful that more help for survivors can be implemented down the line. With the service still in its infancy, the helpline has remained constantly and consistency busy – however it has its limitations.
While survivors can call as many times as they so wish, operators can only offer up to 40 minutes of support at one time, and must approach each phone call afresh – they cannot leave where they left off with a caller last time.
For the team at Rape Crisis, there 24 hour helpline is only just the beginning of what they want to achieve (Picture: Emma Trimble/SWNS)
‘Our operators can offer emotional support and signpost services, but they are not counsellors,’ Adele says. ‘It’s best suited to one-off interventions. It’s tough as mental health services are stretched and waiting lists are long. More funding needs to be poured into services to provide mental health support.’
It’s certainly a depressing outlook, with Rape Crisis stating as many as one in four women have been raped or sexually assaulted. But the team at the charity have made it clear they will continue to fight to ensure all survivors have a place they can turn to.
‘I think every woman should have a stint at Rape Crisis to understand the reality of what’s out there,’ Diane says. ‘It can be difficult, but we need to be able to talk about it. We can’t pretend sexual violence isn’t out there, happening every minute of every day.’
If you have been affected by this story, you can contact Rape Crisis for free on 0808 500 2222, or visit rapecrisis.org.uk/get-help.
The helpline came to fruition after the Government’s extensive End to End Rape Review in 2021 highlighted there were too few resources providing support to rape survivors in the UK.