Sexual harassment, in whichever form it takes, however long ago it happened and however many times, is a tetchy public subject.
‘Hello mate! How was your weekend?’
‘It was ok… except someone felt me up on the bus home from work on Friday. Some people saw but didn’t say anything. I felt very scared and powerless.’
‘……Gosh! Yeah…public transport is so damn crowded in London. Nightmare! Could you pass the sugar please? Must get back to the daily grind. Byeeeee!’
Being brave enough to broach the subject is hard enough. To have your honesty rewarded by a quick change of subject is crushing. The sad thing is, it happens so much that it can feel like it’s not even worth bringing up. Why voice your hurt, in the hope of easing the pain with understanding, to have it doubled with the judgement that you are making a big deal out of nothing?
People don’t tend to feel comfortable discussing sexual harassment, perhaps through fear of offending or causing pain (to others or themselves). But CLEAR LINES aren’t just bringing up the subject: they’ve dedicated a whole arts festival to it.
CLEAR LINES FESTIVAL have curated a four day schedule (ending this Sunday) of discussion, art, comedy and creativity that focuses on airing issues of sexual consent or lack thereof. The aim was to create a safe space in which voices could be listened to, but within the framework of positive art – a structure often employed by film festivals that tackle social issues or dedicated to marginalised groups, but never before applied to the issue of sexual harassment. Thursday night saw their Film Night take place in the (hippy-fide) I’klectik cafe in Old Paradise Yard, where the almost workshop-like space was filled with groups of friends, couples and loners (me) alike who had come to the softly lit space to listen to other people’s stories, and share their own. Two documentaries were screened, ending with a Q&A with the directors of THE UNSPEAKABLE CRIME: RAPE.
“There is no right way to deal with those situations, because they are not right.”
THE UNSPEAKABLE CRIME: RAPE by Sara Hardy and Blue Ryan
The two female directors founded Gold Star Productions in 2009, and were commissioned by the BBC to make a behind-the-scenes film about the pioneering sexual assault referral centre in Manchester: St. Mary’s. Shown on BBC ONE, the documentary is an unforgiving portrait of the ceaseless flow of reported rape incidents in Northern England alone, which only reflects a fraction of the number of incidents of sexual assault actually taking place. Over the course of filming alone, more than 1000 people reported being raped to the centre. The film was nominated for several awards and is being used internationally to train those working in the field of rape and sexual assault.
Watching Sara and Blue’s film in this intimate environment could not have been more intense. But it was inspiring, too: the people you follow are survivors, and figures of hope. Although the content was harrowing (and issued with a warning by the filmmakers themselves before it started), the course of the film led you to a place of reconciliation, looking to the future instead of dwelling on the past.
BRAVE MISS WORLD by Cecilia Peck
in 1998, the Israeli beauty queen Linor Abargil was crowned Miss World. Two months previously, she was abducted and raped in Milan. BRAVE MISS WORLD follows the now victims’ advocate as she travels the globe, giving speeches, listening to other girls’ stories, and above all encouraging a break from silence in order to give a confident voice to survivors of sexual assault.
She travels to speak with teens in South Africa, where girls are statistically more likely to be raped than educated. She visits U.S. college campuses where women describe a campus culture that fails to take assaults seriously. From rape crisis centers worldwide, to Hollywood’s living rooms, Linor is met with emotional support, but the advocacy work causes her own trauma to resurface. When she attends a celebrity rape trial that hits too close to home, she suffers a breakdown and symptoms of PTSD. In searching for something to ease her pain, Linor turns to Orthodox Judaism. “It’s like losing a daughter,” her secular mother laments. “But better than alcohol, anorexia, bulimia, or so many other crises that can happen to victims.” Linor returns to Italy for the first time since her rape, in an attempt to face her fears and to find the prosecutor who collaborated with Israeli authorities to arrest the serial rapist. While there, in an extraordinary twist of fate, she meets up with another woman raped by the same man in eerily identical circumstances. For victims of sexual assault, the journey toward wholeness never ends; still, Linor Abargil, the BRAVE MISS WORLD, continues her unflinching efforts to keep the nightmares at bay.
The film is supported by grants from Women In Film, Foundation for Jewish Culture, Artemis Rising Foundation and The Fledgling Fund.
After CLEAR LINES FESTIVAL FILM NIGHT I discussed the evening with two of my closest friends simultaneously, by text, on the way home. One was female and the other male. Their reactions were very different and I think it’s worth looking at them both. My Female Friend showed instant support to my situation and therefore I felt secure enough to think objectively. However my Male Friend didn’t seem to understand and I felt I had to defend my position.
Me: Spent the whole tube journey sitting next to a drunk man sexually harassing me. I wanted to be like: JUST BEEN TO A RAPE TALK. I wish I could deal with those situations better.
Female Friend: I don’t think there is a right way to deal with those situations, because they are not right. There’s no excuses for sexual harassment. No excuses for men thinking they can treat women like second class citizens because of history or greater physical strength. No excuses for making women feel constantly worried or ashamed or victimized.
Me: But I always think… Give people the benefit of the doubt. If you don’t automatically treat them like bad people then the good will come out in them. But the instant someone betrays your respect you should let that idea go to protect yourself.
Me: I wanted to scream at the annoying man on the tube I’VE JUST BEEN TO A RAPE TALK PLEASE LEAVE ME ALONE. I’m really bad with coping with those situations – my friends are a lot better at it.
Male Friend: Blokey behavior… Suppose other blokes are supposed to dislike it. Like a competition or something. Just smacks of un-evolved to me. Perhaps I misunderstand – the language of life. It’s geared around attracting women but in a primitive, animal way. It’s all cool though. Think you have to be pretty buff to pull it off.
Me: I don’t speak for us all but I think it’s generally intimidating to girls – lad behaviour. Very unattractive trait in the opposite sex when they constantly remind you that you are a woman through hyping up manliness. It’s more a sexual harassment culture that’s just accepted as normal. It’s a power/ego thing. It looks harmless but leads to sexual assault/violence.
Male Friend: Some blokes don’t know what to do – see an attractive ‘bird’ on the train, act all ape because it’s all they know or something…
Me: It’s not a dumb-ape behaviour problem it’s a deliberate lad-rape culture that you’ve got to battle with constantly. Even just leaving the house. It seems silly to explain but it’s not silly because it’s that culture which creates the situation that leads to rape.
Male Friend: Don’t worry about c**ts and twats about. Steer clear: you have the control. And have the power.
Me: Yes but…It isn’t black and white like that.
Here’s the thing: when it comes to discrimination of any kind – racism, sexism, homophobia et al – the people best equipped to describe the effects of it to you, and to come up with the solutions, are the victims. Whether you empathise or disagree with the feeling of the victim or not is irrelevant – it doesn’t change their initial feeling of hurt. As much as some people will earnestly spout it – as if saying it over and over will make it true – we are not all equal in the eyes of society. We are pieces on a social chessboard and our positions and rank within the social structures directly effects how we are perceived as well as our own perceptions.
People should not have to defend themselves TO THEIR FRIENDS, TO THE POLICE or TO THE PUBLIC when talking about sexual harassment. The most perverted thing of all about rape culture is mistrusting the victim. Yep, there are crazy or damaged people who make up things in this world, including being sexually assaulted. It’s like the immigrant argument (which as far as I could see took up maybe 90% of election run up broadcast this year, led by Nigel Farage, who was given more air time by the BBC than any other politician) in the UK – yes, there ARE a percentage of people who come to England specifically to take advantage of the benefits system. But the percentage is SO INSIGNIFICANTLY SMALL that we do not need to talk about it. Let’s spend our time and energy talking about the millions of victims. Let’s not use smoke and mirrors to obscure the real issue, because then it’s a case of questioning why anyone would want to do that.
Perspective is not just subject to your sex either. I had a very good male friend at university who fully acknowledged and talked about the leaving-the-house danger particular to women from the rape culture that is accepted as normal. This affected the way he interacted with people – this acknowledgement made me feel safe with him. Men, as well as women, are victims of rape culture because it automatically gives them the role of predator. We all have to resist it together.
Every hour, one man and over ten women are raped in England and Wales. So: how do you solve the mammoth social issue that is sexual harassment? How do you even attempt to mend the mental, physical and emotional hurt that has occurred through perverted objectification, and end the perpetuating cycle? We can start by openly talking about it. We can take it upon ourselves to be brave and start negating structures that allow our rape culture to flourish unremittingly.
We need to stop seeing sexual abuse as a taboo topic. We need to re-frame the issue, socially and politically. It needs to be centralised: publicly.