This speech is cross-posted with permission from the campaign group Ending Victimisation and Blame [Everyday Victim Blaming]. The speech was given at the opening of a new rape crisis in Lincolnshire.
Good evening. My name is [redacted], co-founder of the training, consultancy and campaigning organisation Ending Victimisation & Blame.
I’m delighted to have been invited to speak at this event, launching a new Rape Crisis service in Lincolnshire. Thanks to Laura and her team for extending the invitation to our organisation.
I founded EVB in May 2013, both as a response to the media coverage of domestic & sexual violence and abuse, and to challenge the associated disbelief of those who disclose such abuse. Regardless of which professional service I have worked within, it had the threads of domestic & sexual violence woven through it. My experience in education, specifically pastoral support, found children and young people living with domestic abuse. My work with families in crisis via children’s services, found women with experiences of sexual violence as both an adult and a child, current domestic abuse and the after effects of all of these. My work with women and children who had experienced domestic abuse, found sexual violence woven through their experiences. In short, I have not been employed within a professional organisation that didn’t come into contact with Domestic & Sexual Violence.
I am also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. When I disclosed my experience as a child, I was met with disbelief. The perpetrator was believable. Much more believable than the ‘out of control’ teen I presented as. As a direct result of this, when I was raped as an adult, I didn’t tell anyone for over 17 years. The reason for this was that I didn’t expect to be believed. I had consumed some alcohol (and incidentally have an overwhelming urge to say ‘But I wasn’t drunk!’), I knew my rapists. I had voluntarily got into the car with them, made choices that I knew would be questioned by the police. I’d grown up in local authority care, I wasn’t a ‘good victim’. All of those things combined into a cycle of self blame that completely absolved the perpetrators of any responsibility.
At the time of my rape, I didn’t think rape crisis was for women like me. I had become politically active in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and I knew about Women’s Liberation, but in many of the activist groups I joined, women issues were considered marginal. Almost as if we’d be sorted out after the revolution – which of course meant after the men. In the early 1990’s, I stumbled across ‘Surviving Sexual Violence’ by Professor Liz Kelly & it changed my life. Knowing that there were networks of services set up for women like me helped me to re-evaluate my experience. It didn’t help me to disclose, but it did help me to be kinder to myself and to know that I wasn’t the only one.
I could stand here all evening and talk about the benefits of the Rape Crisis network; instead, I’m going to pick out 2 benefits that I think are crucial, and why they matter.
The first is women only services. We know women make up the majority of those who experience sexual violence. It is important that we have designated services just for women and these services must be run by women. When we are talking about violence perpetrated by men, we should be naming it as such. We should not be derailed by comments such as ‘it happens to men too’. We know this. We also know that sexual violence against men is most often perpetrated by other men and that specialist services for men are important. But not at the expense of women’s.
In January 2013, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Home Office released its first ever joint Official Statistics bulletin on sexual violence, entitled An Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales.
It reported that:
Approximately 85,000 women are raped on average in England and Wales every year
Over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted each year
1 in 5 women (aged 16 – 59) has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16.
These women deserve a service that will help them to feel safe.
The ‘Why women only spaces?’ Research published by the Women’s Resource Centre in 2006 tells us that women want women only spaces. If they have been a victim of sexual violence perpetrated by men, they need a safe space to heal. When reading the research, one comment stood out for me: The Latin American Women’s Rights Services stated: ‘We provide this service for women to come here and feel safe… in addition to this, it’s very important for women to see women doing this, and thinking they can do something like that in the future’. So women only space has a multitude of benefits. Helping women to feel safe and recover from sexual violence, and supporting their aspirations. All of the women that I have spoken to when preparing for this speech were positive about women only spaces, and how they should be protected.
The second benefit that stands out for me when looking at the service provided by Lincolnshire Rape Crisis is how this is a Feminist space. Why is this important? Do we need to identify as feminists in order to provision an appropriate service for women who have experienced sexual violence? Do we need feminism at all? The answer to this is a resounding ‘yes’! Feminism is the liberation of women from oppression, and the prevalence of sexual violence shows a clear need for feminism. The position of women in society contributes to the rate of sexual violence. Women being considered objects, lesser value and the property of men, leads to violence against women and girls. If we think of violence against women and girls as the trunk of a tree*, its roots are patriarchy. Patriarchy upholds other oppressions, such as homophobia, class inequality, disability discrimination and racism. The ‘branches’ of our Violence Against Women Tree are rape, sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, domestic violence, stalking, trafficking, FGM, so-called honour based violence and gang related violence. We have to be able to name the problem of men’s violence in order to solve it.
Research confirms that men silence women just by their presence. Dale Spender did an experiment to find out just how this happens. She published her results in Man Made Language – which is a very interesting read. This is a summary of what she found:
Present at the discussion, which was a workshop on sexism and education in London, were thirty-two women and five men. Apart from the fact that the tape revealed that the men talked for over 50 per cent of the time, it also revealed that what the men wanted to talk about – and the way in which they wanted to talk – was given precedence.
There is no doubt in my mind that in this context at least (and I do not think it was an atypical one) it was the five males and not the thirty-two females who were defining the parameters of the talk. I suspect that neither the women nor the men were conscious of this. There was no overt hostility displayed towards the females who ‘strayed from the point’, but considerable pressure was applied by the males – and accepted without comment from the females – to confine the discussion to the male definition of the topic.
So what does this say? Men set the agenda. Men often talk over women, sometimes without any awareness that they’ve even done so. Women need space within which to discuss their oppression and manage their activism. That space does not need to include men. If men wish to talk about feminism and the oppression of women, they do not need to be in women’s spaces in order to do this – men can use the space they have in the rest of the world, and make it more feminist.
In preparation for this speech, I did an unscientific straw poll of some of my women friends, all of whom identify as feminists. I asked them to sum up why we need feminist women only spaces in one or two sentences. These are the responses:
“Because of the sheer volume of women who’ve suffered at the hands of men, in many differing ways. Women need a safe space to trust.”
“Without a feminist understanding, all we have are myths and excuses for men’s violence – all of which disempower women.”
“Because women need to feel totally safe. That isn’t possible when men are around.”
“Men’s presence means they will be prioritised. Our shared consciousness is important.”
“Because men talk over us, undermine us, and attack us. We need the women running the services to understand how this is systemic.”
Recent research published by Ruth Lewis & Elizabeth Sharp following the North East Feminist Gathering in 2012 adds gravitas to the unscientific straw poll I’ve completed! Women said that being released from having to defend their feminist politics:
“enabled deep discussions. In this safe space, women explored their potential rather than censoring themselves. Safety fostered confidence to speak, to share, to explore one’s skills and talents as well as to be emotionally expressive.”
Defending ourselves from the everyday sexism experienced by all women takes up space that women should be free to use to free ourselves from oppression. Defending our politics is often exhausting. Understanding the roots of the ‘hairy man hating lesbian’ or ‘angry feminist’ tropes as homophobic and misogynistic gives us the freedom to challenge these concepts outside of feminist women only spaces. We should not need to explain what we do, or don’t do, with our body hair. Nor explain our sexuality. Being angry gets things done – we should be angry. Women make up almost 52% of the worlds population, and yet own less than 1% of the worlds property. In the UK, less that 16% of high court judges are women. This should make us all angry, not just those of us who identify as feminist. When a billion of us on the planet are exposed to men’s violence; when the atrocity of rape affects so many of us; when our internal risk assessments become completely normalised – we are right to be angry.
So how does EVB link with Rape Crisis? One of the most significant things we have in common with those services within the Rape Crisis network is that we believe women. When they disclose their experiences of sexual violence, we do not question what they did to ‘provoke’ the abuse. We do not suggest that they should have behaved differently in order to avoid abuse. We do not hold them responsible for the choices men make. And we use that word ‘choices’ deliberately. We do not believe that men are hardwired to be abusive. We know that they make a calculated choice to behave in that way; and that not all of them do so. Questioning a woman’s choices, what she was wearing, why she consumed alcohol, asking why she doesn’t leave, telling women how to avoid abuse, making women responsible for men’s choices – all of these contribute to the expectation that if women changed their behaviour, men would not abuse them.
In the few short months that we have been set up, many women have told us that we are the first people they have disclosed their experiences to. Our supporters said :
“Since finding your site, I can’t tell you how much it has changed my life. I finally felt safe enough to disclose all of the sexual violence I had experienced to my Rape Crisis counsellor. You told me that she’d believe me, and she did. Without your service, I might have taken that information to my grave”
“Thank you. Thank you for all that you do. When I found your site, I didn’t think my experiences were bad enough to be considered sexual violence. I decided to look at the support services you list on your site, and call my local Rape Crisis anyway. They helped me to see that there isn’t such a thing as ‘bad enough’, as we all have different experiences. I couldn’t have done this without you, knowing that you are there for all of us, regardless of how ‘bad’ our experience is considered to be.”
Comments such as these give us hope that we can challenge the institutional disbelief that affects so many survivors. Together, we can support women and say “we believe you and know it wasn’t your fault”.
(*Thanks to Imkaan for the Violence Against Women & Girls tree analogy)
Ending Victimisation and Blame [Everyday Victim Blaming]: This campaign is about changing the culture and language around violence against women and children. We aim to challenge the view that men cannot help being violent and abusive towards women and children. We want to challenge the view that women should attempt to ‘avoid’ abuse in order to not become a victim of it. We challenge media reports of cases of violence against women and children where there is an almost wilful avoidance of the actual reasons for these acts. Power, control, women and children being considered ‘possessions’ of men, and avoidance of personal responsibility all contribute to a societal structure that colludes with abusers and facilitates a safe space in which they can operate. This is what we are campaigning to change.