By Lauren Cutler
When you say “I’m a survivor” many people, from then on, struggle to communicate with you. They could have known you for months, maybe years and you used to be able to chat artificially about work to intimate discussions about your fear for the future. The minute you mention that you’re a survivor, some people suddenly view this as an alarm bell and question “Oh, how do I talk to you?”
I think that's down to the media because we aren't having proper conversations nor do we have these conversations in education, with family, with friends, and at work.
It is estimated that 1 in 4 women have been raped and/or sexually assaulted, meaning sexual violence is far from unusual, it’s commonplace. During conversations about sexual violence, why is it that so many people talk about survivors as though they aren’t in the room? Or, like their existence is separate to their identity as a survivor? We're not portrayed accurately as real human beings with real lives, real stories. Instead, we are trivialised in the justice system, in day-to-day conversations, and across all media.
Ignorance of the systemic nature of sexual violence helps us to believe that we’re safe. Confronting the reality that survivors are all around us means understanding that perpetrators are too. It means acknowledging that sexual violence exists and permeates in all our communities and that our cultures have not only failed to meaningfully address it but have belittled and normalised it. It's much easier for people to think of sexual violence as abstract, an occurrence endured by the ominous ‘other’ rather than confronting it because it happens - regardless if it happens to you, your loved one, or a celebrity.
By ignoring the prevalence of sexual violence in society, we isolate ourselves from the reality we live in and tolerate. By not addressing the harm caused by sexual violence or talking about it, we feel safer in our own delusion; the problem is not affecting me and won’t affect me because I don’t hear about it. This thought process manifests because of the nature of discussions about sexual violence in the media; the cases that are covered in mass are chosen because of the event-based nature of reporting requiring various criteria that determine the newsworthiness of press stories.
The misrepresentation of sexual violence in the media focuses on high-profile sex crimes that received sustained national coverage, and this serves as a media reformation, especially when the statistics prove that sexual violence is an inevitable experience for so many women. Sexual assault and rape is indisputably everywhere.
It is everywhere, it is every day and it is nearly 1 in 3 women.
Ignoring survivors’ realities does all of us a disservice. Refusing to accept how widespread sexual violence is doesn’t make it go away, all it does is risks burdening survivors with shame and stigma that they should not have to carry. It makes it harder to talk about, and therefore harder to change a culture where sexual violence is causing so much harm to so many people. We must acknowledge what survivors are going through. I would like to suggest that this acknowledgment can be practised in two key ways.
Survivors don’t owe anyone their stories, but if and when they choose to share them, all of us should listen. And keep listening, because survivors are so much more than what they have survived. We are not defined by what we experienced and how these experiences still have an impact on us - it’s taken me a long time to say with empowerment at the root of my self-identification that I am a survivor. I am also a friend, a graduate, a daughter, a lover, a yoga lover and much more. But please, don’t just ignore my survivor identity because it makes you uncomfortable, imagine how it sometimes makes me feel.
There’s a long way to go in improving the public conversation around sexual violence. If you’re asking yourself what you can do to help, start by listening to survivors when they choose to share. Believe survivors. Actively listen to them, rather than listening to respond, or listening because it makes you feel good appearing to care. Help to create an environment where survivors feel comfortable. Stand in solidarity with survivors.
2. Open Conversations
As assaults are increasing, the conversations surrounding sexual violence are getting better. Often, when sexual violence and gender-based violence conversations start, many will say something like, “Wearing a skirt absolutely had nothing to do with it”, “It doesn’t matter if she was flirting”. Immediately, this seems like the right thing to say. Sometimes I spend time deliberating over this. Why is it that we need to voice these truths so quickly, are we trying to convince ourselves that we think this. Or has it just become the innate reaction to conversations about sexual violence and this is because we have an inability to have further compassion.
The fact that the police and the justice system have become a scapegoat for sexual violence, where we tell ourselves women are suffering and surviving crimes because of the failure of the police, and it is the police who must do something next. There is a linear pattern when sexual violence comes up in conversation. First, we talk about women and try to convince ourselves that women’s choices were not the ‘reason’, then it is the police. Why aren’t we openly discussing men? It's never the men in these conversations. Men are perpetrators yet are not part of the conversation.
Next time you’re in a conversation about sexual violence, try to reframe survivors' blame and question why are we even imposing an idea of blame onto women, and instead engage with survivor stories and discuss the men’s role. Why did he think that was okay? Why did he do it? Is he ashamed of something that makes him justify his actions? Why didn’t his friends do anything?
Question the others in this conversation. How would you react initially in this conversation? Do you think you would act? Would you still remain friends with a man knowing the pain and harm he’s inflicted?
After acknowledging sexual violence, we can begin discussing advice for men on how they can join the fight to end sexual violence and supporting sexual violence survivors in empowering ways.
And the next time the public conversation turns to sexual violence, talk about it as though there are survivors in the room because they most likely will be.