Rose Corrigan, PhD

With Struggle Comes Strength

It’s been nearly two decades since Rose Corrigan’s first day as a rape care advocate, but it’s a moment she still pulls threads of inspiration from today. It’s one of those moments that has made years of research on issues surrounding sexual assault—and the uncomfortable conversations that come with it—worth it.

By Maria Zankey
Photo by Jared Castaldi

It was the mid-’90s and Rose Corrigan hurried to Jefferson University Hospital. The 20-something rape crisis center volunteer was responding to a call to the Women Organized Against Rape hotline.

As she entered the emergency room, she spotted a woman sitting at the end of the hallway. She was wearing a white cardigan, lined with black and red stitching around the collar, with small pockets at her sides. She had been raped. Corrigan sat down beside her.

“She was an African-American woman from a pretty poor neighborhood in Philadelphia. She was only a couple years older than I was,” says Corrigan, who today serves as the director of the Women’s Studies program in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences and as associate professor of law and politics in the Earle Mack School of Law. “It was a little hard to get the conversation going.”

They exchanged uneasy small talk until the woman took one hand and placed it on top of Corrigan’s. With the other hand, she motioned to a pocket-sized Bible resting in her cardigan.

“She looked at me and said, ‘This happened to me before, when I was little. And I got through it with the help of the Lord. It would help me if you just held my hand right now,’” Corrigan says. “And we just sat there in silence, keeping each other company.”

It’s been nearly two decades since Corrigan held that survivor’s hand, but, like countless other moments in her storied career as a rape care advocate, Corrigan still pulls threads of inspiration from it today. It’s one of those moments that has made years of research on issues surrounding sexual assault—and the uncomfortable conversations that come along with it—worth it.

“It made me think about bridging differences,” Corrigan remembers. “It made me think about what it means to be an ally. It made me think about how much I gave, but also how much I was enriched by the people I was supporting—how much they enriched my life. And so going forward, I was not interested in relationships that went only one way.”

For most people, revisiting the details of violent crime—especially a sexual crime—can be emotionally taxing at best. It can be traumatizing at worst. But Corrigan has made it her life’s work.

“The fact that something is difficult to talk about is precisely a reason to do it,” Corrigan says.

Up Against a Wall by Rose CorriganAs an academic, Corrigan has more than 15 years of experience working in the fields of reproductive rights and with survivors of sexual and domestic violence. She’s devoted her time and expertise to organizations such as the Domestic Abuse Project of Delaware County and the Greater Philadelphia Women’s Medical Fund. She’s spent more than five years interviewing rape care advocates for her book, Up Against a Wall: Rape Reform and the Failure of Success—deemed a must-read by Ms. Magazine.

In her personal life, Corrigan serves as a support to her friends and family amid crisis—a resource who is not only willing to talk about the difficult parts of life, but who has the know-how and courage to confront them head-on. “People in my life know that I’m able to deal with crises. Crisis is a normal part of people’s lives. If I can deal with it in helpful and productive ways, I think it can help stop perpetuating the cycles of abuse, or of violence, or of silence,” Corrigan says. “And so it’s hard, but I don’t think I would trade a single minute. People often focus on the hard parts and they don’t recognize that it can be healing and joyful to see resilience in the face of adversity.”

The Writing on the Wall

Up Against a Wall was more than five years in the making by the time it reached bookshelves. The culmination of more than 150 interviews with rape care advocates across six states—individuals who work daily as resources for survivors of sexual assault—the book explores the ways in which reforms designed to protect the rights of rape survivors have failed, and in some cases, have even backfired.

“I think the impression is that legal and medical systems work pretty well, and so talking about the difficulties people encounter has been shocking to most folks,” Corrigan says. “When we talk openly about why rape and sexual assaults are not reported, it’s discussed as the victim’s fault—because of shame or self-blame. We don’t talk about problems that are within institutions. But that angle opens us up to think about why some of the policy innovations that were once seemingly beneficial and ‘successful’ for victims are not as good for them now.”

Examples of such failures include long wait times for survivor medical treatment, quick dismissal of survivors’ claims by police, and cases that are routinely dropped because they’re deemed “difficult” by prosecutors.

Corrigan witnessed many of these rape reform shortcomings during her time as a crisis advocate in the mid-’90s. But what she found surprising in her recent research, she says, was that many of the advocates she interviewed told similar stories of their work with rape survivors.

“When I presented my research to advocates, they sat there nodding their heads, saying, ‘Yeah, we’ve known this,’” Corrigan says. “Many people who do advocacy around sexual violence are often very fragmented and alone. One of the things I heard from advocates was that they thought these were issues only in their own counties. But in Washington state, which is generally very liberal, and in South Carolina, which is generally very conservative, similar issues existed.”

“People often focus on the hard parts and they don’t recognize that it can be healing and joyful to see resilience in the face of adversity.”

That alone, she says, suggested there might be bigger problems at the systemic level. On a personal level, among crisis advocates, it was surprising yet affirming.

“With the book,” Corrigan says, “I tried to do what I did as an advocate: look at things honestly and address them in a way we can understand with the hope that a deeper understanding can promote a change that will put rape crisis centers out of business.”

That’s the dream, Corrigan says—to progress society to the point that sexual assault resource centers, research and such difficult discussions are no longer needed.

Uncharted Ground

“People have been open and very willing to talk to me about these difficult topics,” Corrigan says. “But at the same time, they’re used to being stigmatized and mischaracterized, so they can be a little leery.”

As a professor at Drexel, where she’s been pursuing her work since 2006, she tries to translate her persistent passion to her students.

“I hope to get students thinking not only about the real world implications of the ideas they’re discussing in the classroom, but also about how their experiences in the field might open up new questions,” Corrigan says. “For me, the focus on doing creative and fun experiential learning has been one of the real benefits of working at Drexel. I’ve always been someone interested in pursuing intellectual issues through work.”

Corrigan’s work with issues of sexual violence dates back to her undergraduate career at Bryn Mawr College. It was during her junior and senior years that she began providing accompaniment and hotline intervention to survivors of sexual assault as an intern for Women Organized Against Rape. She continued to volunteer with the organization and was later hired to train volunteers in crisis intervention.

“I knew early on I wanted to follow these topics of sexual violence,” Corrigan says. And so she decided to do so in academia as a PhD candidate at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. As she worked on her dissertation on Megan’s Law, an act that created registration and notification requirements for sex offenders, she began collecting interviews with crisis advocates in New Jersey and listening to their systemic concerns. Parts of those conversations were directly adapted for Up Against a Wall.

“It was really hard, having those conversations,” Corrigan adds. “And it continues to be really hard, working [around the] topic of sexual assault. No one’s doing it for the money. People are doing it because they get something out of it. I know for me, those difficult times were incredibly enriching and valuable. Most things that we’re going to grow from are going to be very hard. But the other side of it is looking at healing and seeing resistance. And realizing how capable people are—realizing that I, too, can do something that is really, really hard.”

As Corrigan has learned from spending time in crisis centers and emergency rooms, a more just and compassionate world can emerge from having the courage to have the conversations few people are willing to initiate.

“The woman that I held hands with in that hospital had been through a lot,” she says. “And after we sat for a while, we talked a little more and I learned what she was capable of. I got such a better sense of how people can overcome the most difficult things, and that gives me perspective about the things going on in my life and around me. And I think in my work and in my life, that’s a very useful thing.”

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