A few weeks ago a dramatic and emotionally charged film ‘The Luckiest Girl Alive’ arrived on Netflix, a film based on the fictional novel of the same name. At its core it explores the story of a young girl haunted by a gang rape she experienced in high school. It’s a harrowing and painful watch, as we witness her struggle to make sense of her humiliation and distress in the midst of the victim blaming responses of her abusers, her peers and her family, alongside the cruel insensitivity of the school. For one reason or another she is silenced and forced to carry the shame and pain alone into her adulthood.
Jessica Knoll, the author, launched her book a few years ago and soon after she wrote a public essay in which she described how she herself was gang raped in high school. She could no longer hide from the journalists questioning her about how realistically she had portrayed the rape. When the essay was published she was inundated with responses from woman who had also been silenced after rape, who also had lived knee deep in shame for many, many years and were expressing their gratitude for the author’s brutal honesty.
I am one of those grateful women. I was raped and sexually assaulted numerous times in my teens, the first of which was by a group of my peers from school when I was 13 and they were 14. When I red Jessica Knolls essay I was left reeling, I had never come across something that had so acutely mirrored my experience, not just the details of the abuse, but the responses she experienced around her that sealed the trauma deep inside in a compartmentalised box in her psyche. After reading it my reality landed inside me with a deafening thud. I really was not alone, and at least temporarily it quietened the toxic self–doubt, the doubt that it really could have happened, that doubt that it was my fault, the doubt that it wasn’t really ‘real’ rape, the doubt that maybe I made it up in my imaginings. When you experience something like that in a vacuum, where you have no voice, where it’s never acknowledged, where it is hidden, where there is no support and no opportunity to make sense of it, it becomes distorted and corrosive. The silence around it gives space for the mind and body to attack itself over and over again until life is barely worth living. It took till I was 30 to tell someone what had happened to me.
To see my story outside of myself, on paper, in public, was more powerful than I have the words to describe. It created a crack in my self-loathing, a chink of self-compassion and the flush of anger at the injustice. It pushed me to take action, an action that I had considered in the past, but that I had always talked myself out of. I decided to report it to the police. The decision came from a place inside me that was rooted in self–empowerment, a sense that I had suffered enough and it was time to give some of that all-consuming shame that ate me away, back to the people it belonged too. The process was long and gruelling. I was interviewed for 3 hours describing the minutia of what had happened to me in a sterile room with a detached and emotionless male police officer. My friends were interviewed as were family members who had conveniently denied, blamed me or minimised my experience. After nearly a year of investigations the CPS did not take it to court. In England and Wales almost 99% of reported rapes do NOT end in a conviction. If just for a moment we imagine if this was burglary, what sort of society would we live in? It’s not rocket science to consider that in regards to that particular crime it would be bordering on lawless. Most women don’t report it, because of how broken the system is. If your house is robbed you wouldn’t think twice about calling the police, but if a woman finds that her body has been robbed she knows only too well how futile and painful it would be to report it.
1 in 4 women have been raped or sexually assaulted as an adult, and 1 in 6 children are sexually abused. I have found that sometimes people balk at these statistics, they don’t believe they could possibly be real otherwise there would be protests every day, whereas others recognise those statistics instantly but appear to be resigned to them because somehow we have normalised it. This is rape culture, it’s a culture that props up the mechanisms that allow rape and sexual assault to happen in the first place, its the culture that blames the women and girls for the crime, its the culture that allows perpetrators to be free of consequence, it’s a culture that encourages victims to carry the can and the damage. It’s a culture that silences these stories. My experience happened in the early 80’s, Jessica Knolls in 1999 and nearly two decades on, the victim receives almost exactly the same response from her community.
Over the years I have met and spoke with a lot of women in all sorts of different situations and I believe that a huge proportion of these women have been raped or sexually assaulted either as a child or an adult. I have heard the phrase ‘me too’ repeatedly for over 35 years and amongst those I have heard, only twice was their abuser was convicted. As women who are victims of these crimes we share our outrage in huddled conversations, but we have almost become desensitised too, as we have heard it over and over again. Society is complacent, complicit, apathetic and devoid of the appropriate response. The message is clear, society doesn’t really care about what happens to women and girls.
The Jimmy Saville case did open the flood gates and rightly so, the Me Too movement shone a light on the culture of misogyny and entitlement. But sadly none of these movements has shifted the statistics which let’s face it are at epidemic proportions.
So what will turn the tide? What will cultivate the outrage necessary to dig out this cultural cancer? Women have said it over and over again for decades and we feel like we are shouting into the echo chamber. I believe that part of what we need to see is men’s outrage, men shouting in the streets ‘that no means no’, that women deserve better, men storming parliament and demanding change, we need a powerful collective that will subvert patriarchy. Men need to set off the sirens and call it out for the emergency that it is. Yes, that means buying into the reality that its men’s voices that are heard the loudest, but this is the sad truth of where we are and men can use their voices to enable a platform for women’s voices. We need to use the status quo to our advantage, men need to use their privilege for our advantage. We need your help.
We need men to stand by us in solidarity on a very a public level, We need the outrage of our male allies, the voices of the men who have seen first-hand the damage and destruction that sexual violence has done to their partners, their sisters, their mothers, their daughters and their friends. We need them to educate their sons about respect, consent and entitlement. We need them to call out the perpetrators. We need to ask difficult and dark questions in our communities about why young boys think they are entitled to abuse and humiliate their female peers. We need to find the roots and drag it out. This is not a war we can any longer fight alone, we have tried. Sexual violence hurts everyone and everyone needs to be shouting from the rooftops that ‘enough is enough’.
WE created Mag North to champion the North and the wonderful people places and organisations that call The North home. As a society, we’ve ‘been through the wringer’ for what seems like an eternity – and with our magazine we hoped to provide a tiny antidote to the worry, uncertainty, fear of the future, ongoing political incompetence and clashes between cultures on our own streets.
But that’s incredibly naïve isn’t it? This week we received the above piece of writing from a woman based in the North West. We’ve read and re-read it – and are absolutely clear that we have a moral – and urgent responsibility to publish her words.
We don’t have the answers: but it’s incumbent on us as a publishing platform to encourage conversation – and highlight with others, what is wrong.
At the outset, I’ll be honest: I’m just a bloke. I do agonise over my role now, in a world where women don’t need men to be anything more than equal. Should I hold a door open for a woman? Should I give up my seat on a bus – as both my father and grandfather said I should do? If a female loved-one is carrying something – my default action is to ask to carry it for her. Is that wrong? I don’t know.
Today, as women fly combat sorties in fast jets, serve onboard nuclear submarines – and are experienced in clearing hostile environments alongside male colleagues in far-flung parts of the globe, do we still need to talk about violence against women and girls? If there was ever a time to start talking about being a bloke, and doing it better, it’s now.
Nazir Afzal tried to organise a Million Man March in 2016 to focus on the subject of violence against women and girls – and to give men the opportunity to stand as allies with women. 52 blokes signed up. In a country with almost 34 million males.
Wear a White Ribbon? I didn’t know until this week that the white ribbon is a sign of solidarity with women – and a pledge to stand up to violence again women. Is that going to work? Not until there is seismic change in men’s behaviour.
Young women in particular are using their voices to speak out about their own experiences of being survivors of violence. But, for decades, there has been a lack of male voices prepared to speak up about violence against women.
Perhaps if – as men – we switched-on to the fact that the system that produces men who murder and assault women also produces men who murder and assault men, maybe we might think about working together, rather than being defensive and assuming that women are ‘bashing’ us or that they’re ‘anti-men‘ when they are actually speaking up for their own dignity and basic right to walk free from the fear of sexual violence. Almost 90% of survivors of domestic and sexual violence are women. 9 in 10 perpetrators of abuse against women are men. These are just facts. But not ALL men are violent towards women.
Women NEED men to understand their normality. Male privilege is real. Look it up.
Do we need better role models? Is the position of ‘Dad’ too easily attained? Do we need to look at learned behaviour? The attitudes and beliefs about manhood are still actively passed through generations, in the family home, in media culture, sports culture, peer culture and porn culture. Effective role modelling has got to be part of the solution. It can be as simple as not talking over women – recognising that’s not acceptable. And emotional literacy, mental wellbeing and health: these factors are integral to this discussion.
There are some fantastic organisations doing the most important work with young men, but much more needs to be achieved.
As blokes, we must think about: Peer Culture Policing. About creating a safe environment for women and children at home. About being actively involved in raising our own kids. We need to be looking at ‘Toxic Masculinity’ and misconceptions around ‘masculinity’ and ‘manliness’. We have to represent a Safe Listening Space for women. We must actively support women’s organisations and services globally and in our communities. Everyone of us has to be clear on understanding & practicing consent. We have to start this conversation. We must hold each other accountable.
This is you already? Excellent. Keep going.
And on opening doors? I’ve been told by a woman this week: “If you open the doors for us – we can go in.”