Portsmouth Rape Crisis: A Collective Story

Photograph by Gemma Summers-Green

Text by Dr Anna Cole:

PARCS Grows Everybody is an intergenerational oral history project commemorating the history and legacy of the Portsmouth Abuse and Rape Crisis Service, 1981—2021

Portsmouth Abuse and Rape Counselling Service (PARCS) began its life in 1981 as a rape crisis helpline in one room, with a telephone in the middle of a table, in an anonymous dilapidated house. Despite the leaky roof, the ‘mice, and bad drains’, of that original building, volunteers and staff expressed sadness at leaving when it was finally condemned by the Council in a state of disrepair: “with its sofa and kitchen table, where there was space to meet, and where everyone had grown” [Interview 6, 20.30.30].

Today, rape crisis work is more generally known than when PARCS first began.  This was a time when rape in marriage wasn’t yet criminalised.  One former PARCS volunteer remembers that when she first started at PARCS in the late 1980s and told people she was volunteering at a ‘rape-crisis centre’, people had no idea what she meant:

‘...When I told them I was going to work at rape crisis in Portsmouth, people were saying, so where’s this rent-crisis service? No, it’s not rent. It’s rape. And they were: “Really?” And that was it. Stop the conversation.’ [Interview 5, 00.21.43]

PARCS itself grew, over four decades, from a volunteer organisation, founded by one woman and a few supporters, to a cutting-edge campaigning and counselling service, pioneering pre-therapy groups for victims and survivors of rape; controversially at the time opening one of the first men’s services in 1994, and establishing a provision for childhood sexual assault in 1996.  From its earliest days PARCS worked inclusively with women and girls, men and boys, non-binary and trans survivors of sexual abuse. 

Despite changes in awareness today, sexual assault is still the ‘elephant in the room’. Statistics reveal the bare bones of that elephant. More than 1 in 4 women (and 1 in 18 men) have been raped or sexually assaulted as an adult. (Source: Office for National Statistics, 2023).  Sexual violence disproportionately affects women and girls: 94% of adults who experience rape every year in the UK are women and girls. 1 in 20 children have been sexually abused (Source: NSPCC (2024). 5 in 6 women who are raped don’t report, the same is true for men. Of those that are reported, just 2 in 100 rapes recorded by police between Oct’ 2022 and Sep’ 2023 resulted in someone being charged that same year.  Let alone convicted. (Statistics from Rape Crisis England and Wales, based on Source: Home Office (2024) Most child survivors of sexual abuse are not aware they even have an option to report. 

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent ‘lockdowns’ saw a 13% increase in the rates of domestic violence and sexual assault nationally. While statistics tell the bare bones, the ‘PARCS Grows Everybody’ oral history project fleshes out the story.  Recording memories of those who pioneered and worked supporting survivors over four decades. PARCS, survived itself for 40 years in an underfunded and marginalised sector in large part because of what PARCS former Centre Director, Kim Hosier, calls a ‘sustained relational approach’. 

Alongside the collection and protection of the oral histories, this project has at its heart a dual purpose. Firstly, to raise awareness and protect the wisdom and cultural heritage of PARCS by creating an oral history archive. Secondly, to understand more about a ‘sustained relational approach’ and the emotional and relational impacts of oral history work itself, on those involved.  The beating heart of this project was a support and mentoring group for young feminist activists (some formerly from ‘Project Catalyst’ a young person’s campaigning group at PARCS), who delivered the inter-generational interviews and dialogue, led by a specialist Violence Against Women and Girls sector psychotherapist, researcher and campaigner.

It’s not often easy within the time-constraints of short-term oral history projects to remain focused on sustaining a relational approach and we’ve learnt as much from our mistakes as our successes. ‘PARCS: A Collective Story by the Collective’, based on the 38 oral history recordings, coded and charted with Young Feminist Collective involvement, will be available via the project website page at the conclusion of the project towards the end of April.  The ‘History ‘Safe’ Toolkit’   sharing learning and sensemaking with future projects working with sensitive subject matter, which will be launched mid-April and will also be available via the project website page:


Instagram: @parcsgrowseverybody1981

 An exhibition based on the oral history project is at Aspex gallery, Portsmouth (March 23rd archive launch celebration event – April 29th). For the duration of this exhibition, our work can also be found in Portsmouth History Centre; The Big Screen Portsmouth; No. 6 Cinema; and around Portsmouth.

 The PARCS oral history collection will have a permanent home at the Portsmouth History Centre.  To coincide with the PARCS Grows Everybody exhibition on display in the Learning Space at Aspex Gallery, you are invited to participate in a series of workshops led by members of the project team sharing learning and opening up conversations about the work in different ways.

 These will include an interactive workshop around working with sensitive histories, an art and performance workshop and Family sessions hosted by members of the PARCS team. Children and families will have the chance to explore themes of Respect and Love while creating fun decorations to take home or see included in the exhibition in the Learning Space. In addition, two workshops to mark the launch of the oral history collection on how to access and use the oral history archives held at Portsmouth History Centre will be led by Michael Gunton, from the Portsmouth History Centre and the Southsea Archives. (18th and 25th April, 11am – 1pm, Portsmouth History Centre).These sessions are free to attend.

About the team

The PARCS Grows Everybody Oral Histories[JS3]  and the accompanying multi-media exhibition were created and produced by the PARCS project team which comprised former PARCS employees Kim Hosier and Gemma Green; alongside Oral Historian Anna Cole; Juliet Scott- Project Director and Emily Kyte- Project Manager at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations; Professor Georgie Parry-Crooke provided independent evaluation and sense-making; and Michael Gunton (Portsmouth History Centre) archival support.

A Young Feminist Collective supported in the design of the project and made significant input to all areas of the project, as well as playing an essential role in carrying out the interviews and participating in the coding, charting and identifying of themes for the ‘Collective Story’ document and those explored in the final exhibition: Holly Bedford, Lilliah Butcher, Rosina Lucas, Erin Norris, Keira Power, Eleanor Price, Denesha Rocastle, Catherine Rowland, Alexandra Ruddock, Marianna Smitheram and Arianna Vignali

How to book

 PARCS Grows Everybody exhibition in the Aspex Gallery’s Learning Space from 23 March to 29 April 2024. This project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Link: https://aspex.org.uk/exhibition/parcs-grows-everybody/

Biographical note: Anna trained in oral history in the late 1990s In Australia while researching her PhD working with Indigenous /non-Indigenous communities.  She works in academic, charitable and grass-roots, not-for-profit organisations and specializes in relational, community-based participatory projects. (Blog post written by Anna Cole on behalf of the ‘PARCS Grows Everybody’ team) 




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