Erin Thornley-Parisi

Erin Thornley-Parisi

Erin Thornley-Parisi wasn’t always focused on working in the nonprofit or victim advocacy field. 

“I was going to be a model!” the executive director of the Dane County Rape Crisis Center said during a Friday interview. “My first degree was in retail and I worked at stores. I went through the Marshall Field’s executive training program. I was all about that world; fashion and beauty and beauty pageants.” 

But she moved to Madison in the 1980s to return to school and, in her words, opened her eyes a bit. 

“My first work study position was with the Coalition Against Domestic Violence,” Thornley-Parisi said. “And there I noticed that sexual assault was not on a lot of people’s radar, so I switched and got involved in sexual assault.” 

She has been working in advocacy for over 20 years and has been the executive director of the Rape Crisis Center for two years. The Cap Times contacted her last week as University of Wisconsin-Madison student Alec Cook stood accused of 11 counts of sexual assault and is suspected of stalking several women on campus in a case that has attracted national attention. 

The case of Alec Cook has brought sexual assault, especially campus sexual assault, into the news again, closely following the case of Brock Turner at Stanford. What is the Rape Crisis Center's response?

Alec Cook was very deliberate. He kept a journal. He had his strategy all laid out. But he got to know women for the purpose of sexually assaulting them. There are two things I want people to be clear about. When people say the perpetrator and the victim knew each other, often this is how they know each other. It wasn’t as if they had a prior relationship, it’s that the relationship was developed for the purpose of raping the woman.

The other thing is that this goes on all the time, it’s just that most men don’t write it all down. It’s fairly common, especially in groups like a fraternity or an athletic team or a club to plan a party and start finding girls to come to it. The guys are planning on having sex. And the girls might be thinking about that, too. It’s not that they don’t. But I think that whether or not the sex that’s going to happen in seven days is consensual seems to be irrelevant to the process. I think it’s important for people to understand that what Alec Cook did was not isolated.

Can you explain what your organization’s role in the community is?

Our role is to advocate for victims. That is our only role. We can help a victim if she or he reports to police. When or if they go to the hospital to have evidence collected, we will be there. We are automatically there, there is a protocol where we are contacted and we dispatch somebody immediately and we are specifically located to be close to the hospital. 

All of our services are free, which is important because we try to take away every hurdle that a victim may face. We also provide free counseling and we have a free help line for anyone who wants to talk about sexual assault. There are a lot of people now who are traumatized by all of the discussion about sexual assault. Donald Trump is talking about it quite a bit and that’s re-traumatizing for a lot of people. So we help people manage emotions that come up from hearing about Bill Cosby, Trump, Brock Turner, Jerry Sandusky from Penn State.

Luckily a lot of systematic and culturally supported sexual violence is being brought to the surface. As victims want to come out and talk about this, we are the agency in town that is here for them.

It seems like incidents of campus sexual assault are rarely black and white. Alcohol is often involved and maybe an encounter that began as consensual changes course. How do you counsel women who are confused about what occurred? 

First of all, when you say it’s rarely black and white, part of that is a culturalization of people to feel that things are not black and white. So when you think about it, the evolution of DNA and the change in defense — I’ve been around in this work long enough to see where we went from “He didn’t do it, he wasn’t even there” to the advancements in DNA and now it’s “She consented.” You can just follow this forward. Consent has become defense attorneys’ only defense, if you will. So painting things as not black and white is a mechanism that has caught on culturally.

The other thing you talk about is the involvement of alcohol. There is a natural consequence of drinking alcohol: If I drink, I’m going to have a hangover. So that is a natural consequence. But raping somebody or being raped is not a natural consequence of alcohol abuse. The fact that we have been socialized to think that it is a natural consequence is interesting and it’s wrong.

Women being confused, there are a lot of things I want to address about that. One is that sexual assault is a crime that creates trauma. There are actual alterations in the brain when a body and brain sustain trauma. Confusion about timelines or confusion about other things, those are natural consequences of trauma, they’re biological and they aren’t taken into consideration as much as alcohol. Now, police are trained to understand the effects of trauma on the brain more than they used to be. Nurses are trained when they’re collecting evidence and our victim advocates are all trained on trauma informed care. We know more about the brain and trauma than we used to.

Consent has become a word so tied to sexual assault that if we take the definition of consent out of sexual assault and then apply it back, it makes much more sense. For example, say you and I decided to do this interview over coffee and I said, “Hey, I’m going to get myself a cup, can I buy you one?” and you say, “Sure.” I buy it, you drink it and we talk for a while and then I say, “I’m going to get you another cup,” and you say, “No thanks. I actually don’t want one.” Then I say, “I’m going to get it for you anyway because you said you wanted one before and I’m going to get it for you now.” And then, when you say, again, “No, I don’t want one,” or even just not say you DO want it, or say “Well, not really” -- you’re trying to be nice -- and I just walk over and I pour it down your throat. And I say, “I don’t understand, you told me you wanted a cup of coffee, you willingly drank a cup of coffee and now you changed your mind?” That’s really all consent is about. You do have a right to change your mind about things, to consent at one time and not another.

If you have read the complaint against Alec Cook, these women were very clear that they did not consent. On top of that, you’ll also see some interesting things about how women are so conditioned to fear for their life, to fear someone who has power over them, but conditioned to kind of stop fighting. I read an article recently about a woman who was being groped at a bar and she said, “Well, that’s just going to the bar, that’s what happens.” Women try to normalize behavior because sometimes you just get tired of fighting it.

I recently saw a photo of a poster that is posted in bars somewhere in England that asks a series of questions. Is your date going badly? Do you feel weird? Are you getting bad vibes? And if so, you can approach the bartender or waitstaff and use a coded phrase and they will help you out. Is that something your organization has considered?

We talk about it all the time. We actually have a program developed called “Safer Bar” and we launched it last summer. Some changes in personnel meant we couldn’t move on it the way we wanted to. But we trained staff at a bar in the Graduate Hotel. It was basically how to appropriately intervene when you see something that could be leading to a sexual assault. We have had posters with our number on it. But I really like that one you’re talking about and sent it to my staff.

Here’s what I find interesting: People think that feminists or women working in this movement and trying to stop sexual assault, that we’re overreacting. Yet things are so bad for women that we have to have a code word in a bar. Or that there’s a product called Tiger Lady. Women hold it in their hands and when you close your fist, claws come out from between your knuckles and they’re hollow so they collect DNA. It amazes me that we have this and it amazes me that nobody finds it amazing.

There is a war against women. When I say that, I’m a Madison radical feminist, and if you knew me you wouldn’t think that. A man running for president has a court date set for December for raping a 13-year-old, right? And he outright admits that he thinks women have a very specific role and he talks about sexually assaulting women. He’s got like 45 percent of the popular vote! This is a very, very scary time for women. If he’s elected, and I’m not supposed to be political in this job and I normally would not be, but this isn’t about politics anymore. This is about the nation supporting somebody who believes that sexual assault is okay. And my guess is that if he becomes president, he’s not going to put a whole lot more money into sexual assault programming.

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A survey of UW-Madison students has gotten some attention that reveals a significant percentage of students...

I think it’s one out of five nationally, but it’s one out of four at the UW.

The UW has come under fire for being under federal investigation for its handling of sexual assault. Are the numbers here out of line with what we see nationally? Maybe it doesn’t even matter, if there’s any…

Yes! That is true. It shouldn’t matter. But yes, women on the UW-Madison campus are at higher risk than at other campuses. There are lots of reasons for that, but we should be very alarmed by that. I’ve said recently that I have a daughter going into college and we are not looking for a university that says no sexual assaults exist, because that’s baloney. What we’re looking for is the university that says “This is what we’re doing about it.” Safety on campus has to be up there with which college will best prepare her for medical school.

Are you encouraged or frustrated by your interactions with the UW on these issues?

Both. The university has put more resources into fighting sexual assault than they ever have before. When I first started in this work in the late ‘80s, I think they maybe had one part-time prevention person. That’s it. Now they have entire departments. They have the PAVE organization. University Health Services considers sexual assault treatment and prevention to be a primary function. So I’m very encouraged by that.

I’ve also heard, however, that the process of reporting is still so arduous and that the rape culture on campus is so prevalent that women still don’t feel safe to report. We talk about the intersectionality of oppressions and the importance of that because those of us in this work are really watching how the university is handling the mock lynching costume on campus because how they handle that informs how they’re going to handle other oppressions such as oppression of women and sexual violence, because it’s all about the power of one group over another.

There still is far too strong of a white male privilege on campus. This is something the good guys have to challenge, because as a woman, I’m getting to the point where we can’t differentiate anymore. In order to prevent this broad assumption and in order to prevent good guys from being caught up in this, they’re going to have to take a role in sorting this out so that we can quickly tell. Don’t protect a guy. If you protect another guy who does something inappropriate to women, then you’re supporting this big pile of bad guys. You’re supporting this notion that men are not safe and we need to start breaking that down and the only way we can do that is for more men to step forward and disassociate themselves with the bad guys.

How can people get involved with the Rape Crisis Center?

We have a lot of need. One of the most rewarding volunteer jobs that someone can have is working on our help line — 608-251-7273 — that is operated 24 hours a day. Signing up to be trained to be a help line advocate, and there is a fairly rigorous training program, is rewarding. We also need people for other tasks. Fundraising is a big one and we also have board elections coming up in February. We can always use really sharp people on our board.

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Jason Joyce took over as news editor of The Capital Times in 2013.