What do you think of when you hear the phrase ‘sexual assault’? What images come to mind?
It’s a loaded term that, to my mind, doesn’t reach far enough to describe the spectrum of sexual objectification, harassment, and physical harm that many of us live with the risk of. Having lived in this world as a woman for 20 years, and been active in feminist communities, I have easily come to the realisation that sexual assault, or at least accounting for the risk of it, has somehow become just a part of life for almost all women. The phrase ‘sexual assault’ leaps out of the page, it shocks, but the reality of it is ignored, undermined, and passed over.
Our culture is a culture that permits sexual assault. It is a culture where sexual assault is normal, and that can be shown both through statistics, and through lived experience.
My friends and I have been assaulted in clubs, on bridges, at festivals, in our own homes, in alleyways. Alone, with each other, surrounded by hundreds of silent bystanders. Wearing crop tops, winter coats, underwear, long sleeved tops and jeans. By friends, strangers, acquaintances, Tinder dates, colleagues. In almost every conceivable situation. Despite our strongly held beliefs, not all rapes are strangers in alleyways. In fact 66%, are committed by someone known to the victim. Even if we stay at home, and only interact with people known to us, there is always a risk. I think some men would be astonished if women and non-binary people recounted a list of all the time they’ve wasted, the money they’ve spent, and the opportunities they’ve missed out on due to the risk of assault. The extra Ubers, the keys between knuckles every time we walk in the dark, the missed travel experiences, the gripping fear that comes when a strange man approaches.
However, despite all of our precautions, there is no where we can go, and nothing we can do, to escape from the grim reality of objectification and sexual assault. Sexual assault is the price women pay to take part in daily life. It is not a price we choose to pay, but there is no decision we can make that fully takes away the risk of being sexually assaulted.
It’s Right to be Angry
This terrifying reality is perhaps why so many ignore this problem. Many just don’t think about it, with good reason. Instead, many others fall back on ancient myths that blame survivors for being assaulted, to convince themselves that this is not something they have to worry about, they are sensible, they would never put themselves in that position. But we are all put in that position by others, time and time again. If, as I have, you spend a lot of time thinking about the gross statistics, the millions of lived experiences behind those numbers, it can cripple you with anger. It is beyond terrifying that as a culture, as a world, as a society, this is permitted. I am filled with a deep, deep pit of rage that we live in a society where it is rare to find a teenager that has never been harassed or assaulted. And yet I have to apologise when I get angry when talking about sexual assault? I have to coddle “not all men” – but if all of my female friends have been harassed, who’s doing the harassing? Why am I considered ‘rude’ for caring about this? I’m tired of only being able to vent about this to my female friends, or else risk being called a man hater, or being told I’m hurting someone’s feelings.
When I was groped at a festival, I didn’t feel able to tell many people except the friends I was with. I’d kissed the perpetrator. I’d started it, so when they took it too far and breached my consent, I felt like it was my fault. A friend I was with that night was also assaulted, more seriously, by someone she had never initiated contact with, the person behind her in a queue. Not one person in that queue, except our friend, stepped in. She also felt guilty, and like she could tell no one. We were drunk and wearing our best party clothes, so I didn’t feel like I could. In reality, I know it’s not our fault. But I also know that women are told to hide our bodies under layers, to stay sober, to fold ourselves smaller and smaller so we won’t be noticed by men. So society tells us the fault was with us. Why didn’t we make ourselves even smaller?
This is a patriarchal problem but seems to run deeper than other problems of sexist origin. Sexual violence is endemic everywhere, even in nations with higher equality between sexes. For example, Iceland has the lowest gender gap according to the UN and is held up as a paragon for sexual equality. However, women there face disproportionate sexual violence. ¼ Icelandic women have been raped or sexually assaulted in their lives, compared to 1/10 of European women. Of course, some of that difference can be put down to reporting, as more equal cultures foster a more permissive attitude to reporting sexual assault.
So what can we do? The judicial system is clearly not working- all forms of rape have been illegal in the UK since 1991 (yes, that late), and yet over 85,000 women and 12,000 men experience rape, attempted rape or sexual assault by penetration every year. Although this is not just an issue that affects women, and the impact of assault on men should not be ignored, the figures show that women and non-binary people are the main victims. And our system fails these victims. Only 1.7% of reported rapes in 2019 were actually prosecuted. Pause to let that figure sink in. This figure also only includes reported rapes. Many go unreported, and harassment is much more common and less likely to be reported.
The justice system is not working, and it works even less when sexual assault is viewed intersectionally. Disabled women were almost twice as likely to have experienced sexual assault in the last year than non-disabled women, and yet our court system is poorly set up for anyone to go through the gruelling, complex, and often unsuccessful process of giving witness to assault, let alone those with severe disabilities. Trans women are also more vulnerable to sexual assault but may be ridiculed or have their gender identity question under investigation. As Black Lives Matter has exposed, the justice system is also systematically biased against people of colour, creating issues over unfair rape trials that involve survivors or perpetrators of colour. Our justice system is a reflection of our society: deeply flawed when it comes to sexual assault.
So, what next? Where do we go from here? I spoke to Nina Burrowes, a psychologist and activist whose work centres around sexual harm. She is the co-founder of Consent Collective, an organisation using collective expertise to help other organisations, such as universities and businesses, respond to sexual assault. She is also a patron of Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre. She started off working in prisons, and the trajectory of her working life demonstrates how insidiously sexual assault has crept into every corner of our lives: Burrowes has centred her work around the topic of sexual harm, and she goes where that topic takes her. And it has taken her almost everywhere: “to court, to police stations, to rape crisis centres, and to prison, to universities and workplaces.”
This is where the Consent Collective comes in, as a vehicle to help communities respond to sexual violence. This means including everyone in the work of combatting and responding to sexual violence, not just those who are normally seen as specialists. Shortly after starting her work in criminal justice, Burrowes realised that specialist campaigns were not changing much. Workshops with judges about sexual harm, or retraining police officers, or a public campaign on harassment, none of that can even “scratch the surface” of how our society permits sexual harm. In her words, most current campaigns are simply “tinkering around the edges” of a fundamental societal issue.
This is what we discussed most. As can be seen through anecdotal evidence, the stories of hundreds and thousands of women, and statistics, sexual harm is endemic, and an accepted part of life in the so-called ‘enlightened West’.
Women are left thinking, well, where do we go from here? We can change the laws, we can protest in the streets, we can report assaults to the police, but until we change our culture, little will fundamentally alter. One of the main problems with the way our culture views sexual harm, according to Burrowes, is an oversized focus on the individual. If we were to look at the socio-political context, we would see that sexual harm is not just the act of an evil or pathological individual, but also the act of the society that enabled it.
It is hard to disagree when Burrowes tells me that rapists and assaulters operate in a society that “endorses their behaviour”, a system that has done “almost nothing” to prevent these acts from happening. It is easy enough for society to condemn the evil rapist, but harder to condemn our friends who cross lines with consent and who joke about rape. As long as we are in a culture where we tell women how to avoid sexual harm, rather than telling men not to commit it, any tinkering to our court system will have a negligible impact.
Sexual harm is clearly not a new problem. A common angle for commentators to take is to blame the current prevalence of sexual assault on increased reporting or, even better, internet porn. We aren’t the problem; the anonymous violent porn of the internet is. However porn is simply a consumer project: a reflection of our desires. This is a disturbing realisation: as Burrowes asks, “when all of porn is about men dominating women, I think men must feel massively disempowered. What’s wrong?” When the thing that turns men on most is violent domination of helpless women, it suggests that they feel very out of control in their own lives. This throws up many questions about toxic masculinity, gender norms, and how they are affecting potential perpetrators of sexual violence.
The normalisation of violent sexual behaviour by porn is clearly a negative, but it is important to realise, as Burrowes explains, that porn is “plugging a gap in terms of bad sex education.” Young people go to porn to learn about sex, so if they are normalising the damaging practices of porn, is it our education system’s fault for not being more open with young people about the pleasures and risks of sex? This leads us to one of Burrowes’ suggestions for changing the way we think about sexual assault: better education about consent at every level.
It is important for us to question what we consider education to be? Is it learning facts, or is it helping someone to become the best version of the adult they can be, teaching emotional and social intelligence? The way we currently teach consent, as one-off sessions every year, ignores that consent is something “fundamental to everything”, not just to sex. Burrowes argues that consent is fundamental to every aspect of human life, and is a notion we are born with, but that we unlearn through society. One of the first things a child understands is the ability to say no but, growing up, our instinct to say and respect no is repressed. If we want to make respect for sexual consent the norm, we first need to rehabilitate consent in every aspect of our lives.
In terms of alternatives, we have to realise that our current judicial and punitive system is not working. In the disturbing words of Burrowes, we must remember that “the vast majority of people who cause sexual harm have never encountered justice, and have never had any help to help them not commit harm in the future.”
We assume that courts and prisons are the best way to deal with sexual harm, because it is all we know, but we have never asked what a different way might look like. It is clearly not an issue valued by the powerful. As Burrowes points out, we have so much talent in this country, and yet most have “never been asked to apply that talent” to the question of how to create institutions that can reduce sexual harm.
A Radical Solution
Most of the options considered for changing the paradigm around sexual assault are deeply rooted in the current system. An example of this is restorative justice, which I believe is a step in the right direction, but Burrowes argues is a product of our existing system, “a black hole” that sucks away productive and creative efforts. To Burrowes, we must remember the words of Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We must go outside of the box.
Another issue with restorative justice is that it pressures victims to forgive, when Burrowes insists that anger is usually the correct response to sexual harm, especially in a society where we know that there is a high likelihood of it happening again. To return to the example of Iceland, a nation that fulfills all of the statistics for gender equality, but is experiencing a crisis of sexual harm, Burrowes sees this as an example of the perils sticking to the current system. With sexual harm, we can affect measures that seem “rational and intelligent”, but until the “deeply ingrained emotional aspects that feed into sexual violence” are addressed, little will change. The problem of sexual harm in our society is not a problem of rational intelligence- most people believe rape is wrong. The problem is “deeply ingrained and emotional”, because people may believe sexual harm is wrong, but due to deeply held emotional narratives, won’t see what they are doing as sexual harm. This is why Burrowes is more interested in examining how communities respond to infractions of consent, responses that are more nuanced than plain punishment, which doesn’t disturb the underlying issues.
Building a different system means facing very difficult decisions, some of which can seem counterintuitive, such as abandoning the natural desire for punishment. Burrowes argues that we have to make a difficult choice regarding our value systems. To her, the priority is always supporting a perpetrator of sexual harm to never harm again, even if this means they are not punished. This is a radical idea, and one that our country struggles with; voters in the UK can have a punitive mindset, ignoring rehabilitative policies for any crime, let alone sexual harm. What we need is more “wisdom and compassion”. It may feel very hard to extend compassion to those who have inflicted sexual harm on another, and is an idea that I myself struggle with, but it may be the only way to end sexual harm. We cannot solve a problem without asking ourselves why it happens. As Burrowes argues, “harming someone else is always a sign that there’s something wrong,” and yet sexual harm is so common, so why are we not addressing what’s wrong. Again, this does not mean forgiving those who commit acts of sexual violence, there is a clear difference. To anyone who confuses the two, Burrowes has a clear message: “society has no right to ask anybody to forgive right now. Society has done nowhere near enough to stop this from happening.”
Burrowes’ vision of a society where we ask why sexual harm is committed, and stem the causes, rather than punishing without question, is an alluring one, but is it possible? Burrowes acknowledges that her aims are ambitious and sees these changes as “generations away”. So what can we do as individuals to get change to occur sooner? We can challenge assumptions around sexual assault, we can confront our friends when their behaviour is problematic, we can treat survivors with empathy, we can try to understand sexual harm as a complex issue, rather than simplifying it to an evil deed. However, what’s most important is to keep raising awareness, to speak up, and to let the world know that we will no longer be complacent about sexual assault. We will not pay this price any longer.
By Millie Lord
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