Advocacy Center for Sexual Violence comes to UAlbany
By Janie Frank
The Advocacy Center for Sexual Violence at the University at Albany is a resource available to students as of this year.
The director, Carol Stenger, is a sexuality counselor and educator. She has taught a human sexuality course for the past 20 years, and is known as the Sex Lady, a nickname she has embraced that UAlbany students gave her.
Although eight of her fingernails remain unpainted, purple nail polish covers her left pinky and a purple ribbon is traced onto her right pinky. The purple nails are used to draw attention to the fact that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
“Previous to this, we did have services for sexual assault but they were run and operated out of the University Counselling Center,” Stenger said.
In 2013, Stenger began to act upon her realization that UAlbany needed a new resource center.
“We visited another university’s advocacy center. We talked to a number of universities. There aren’t many,” she said. “Most schools don’t have something like this.”
A proposal was written to President Jones, requesting an advocacy center that students who had been affected in any way by sexual violence could use. The proposal was quickly approved and the Advocacy Center opened on Jan. 22 of this year.
The Advocacy Center offers numerous options for students.
“This is a one stop shop where students can get all different services that they may choose from to help them heal,” Stenger said.
The center is designed to feel like a living room with six blue armchairs surrounding a coffee table in the lobby. The room is covered in fall decorations, including gold and orange leaves and at least eight small pumpkins. The decorations are on bookshelves, desk, and the coffee table. A photo on the wall above one of the armchairs says, “Let peace and peace and peace be everywhere.”
“You don’t feel like you’re in a clinical office. I wanted people to feel at home,” Stenger said.
Upon arrival, guests are asked if they would like a cup of tea or coffee.
“It’s not comforting to hold a Styrofoam cup but it is comforting to hold this warm thing and just breathe,” she said. “We don’t rush out there right away. Typically, we let students breathe and then we will meet with them.”
Instead of asking questions, the first thing those who work for the Advocacy Center will do is listen to the guest.
“Everyone needs a good listening to,” Stenger said. “We don’t usually get a good listening to in the world… You need someone to sit back and say, ‘Tell me your story, I understand and I hear what you’re saying.’ If that takes three hours, that takes three hours and I’ll sit here. If the person gets emotional, thats fine. If they want a breather or another cup of tea, that’s fine. It sounds like such a little thing but it’s huge for people.”
Stenger explained that just listening to people can make them feel better.
“You can see people’s bodies relax visually. Not that it’s over, but there’s the sense that this heavy burden has been lifted.”
In order to make visitors feel more comfortable, those who work at the Center do not use the word ‘should.’”
“Especially in the case of sexual assault but even in interpersonal violence to a large degree, all of your control is taken away,” Stenger said. “I want to put the control back in that person right away. These are all your choices, these are all your decisions.”
Those at the Advocacy Center never call the police or call a visitor’s parents.
“All the things that people might worry about, it is all up to you and I will not proceed without you requesting me to do something,” Stenger said.
Sexual assault, however, has a much broader term than many students may realize.
“Most people think sexual assault when they think of sexual violence and we certainly deal with sexual assault or rape… but we also deal with domestic violence which, on a college campus, we like to call intimate partner violence. We also deal with stalking of an intimate nature… It ranges from something very, very serious to something where their ex is just texting too often.”
The Advocacy Center is for more than just counselling or therapy. Those who work at the Center discuss the possibilities of health risks, including but not limited to STIs and STDs, inform students about drugs such as those that can protect against HIV, help students consider the option of pressing charges, and, in heterosexual situations, also consider the prospect of pregnancy.
“Students can come in and meet with me around any issues they’re having with sexuality. Maybe they’ve been diagnosed with an STD and they need more information or they want to figure out how to tell a partner, whatever.” Stenger also referred to teaching students how to properly use a condom. “Just because someone is walking in the Center doesn’t mean that they’re a victim or a survivor. We do other things here.”
In all of these situations, the ultimate decision of what to do is in the hands of the student.
“It’s totally your choice but we at least want you to make an educated decision,” Stenger said.
The Center goes beyond speaking with students in the office as well. If a visitor chooses to press charges and needs to go to court, Stenger explains that, as the previous assistant director of judicial affairs at the University at Albany, she now serves as an adviser at the hearings of any visitors to the Advocacy Center who request her assistance. Workers at the center will also accompany guests to police stations or hospitals if the need arises. In addition, if a student finds they are in need of academic accommodations after a crisis, such as extensions of deadlines or excused absences, those at the Center are able to assist with the process.
“I can be there for support and help you through that,” Stenger said. “You have a place to come if you want support.”
The Advocacy Center for Sexual Violence can be reached at (518) 442-CARE. For more information, visit www.albany.edu/advocacycenter.