This week is Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week.
The hashtags #ItsNotOK and #NoGreyAreas are trending across social media as people come together to show that they stand against sexual abuse and violence and with survivors, and to call out the ways in which people downplay and write off sexual harassment.
I sat down last week to a conversation with a good friend of mine, Sara KP (CEO at Welsh Women’s Aid), about all the things that I wanted to do with this week’s blog. Please see the bottom of this post for helplines.
We live in a society in which an amount of sexual oppression and intrusion is often written off as being a joke or normal male behaviour. Most women (cis and trans), AFAB* non-binary people, and trans men can tell you of at least one occasion in which their concerns or pain have been written off in this way, as can some men (cis and trans).
There are two ways to be an ally here.
The first is to call it out when you see it, something we don’t always think to do.
In person, you can call people out in front of others or pull them aside. I also respond to posts online to say something as simple as ‘dude, not okay’ or open a discussion as to why it’s not right. I never tolerate rape jokes – they’re not jokes and they’re not funny.
You can do all of these things too. Amplify the voices of those who are more directly affected – whether by drawing more attention to what they said, or by quoting them as an example when you call something out. Side with them if you are there in person. If the offending person is not listening to what the offended person is saying, back up the latter – “mate, she said don’t do it”. If someone is being super creepy around a colleague at work, ask the colleague (in private) if they want some support around it – offer to talk to the creepy person privately or to be there (casually) when the behaviour is confronted to jump in if needed and agree with it being called out.
The second part is how to respond to a disclosure, the one many people feel ill-equipped to deal with.
Disclosures of sexual assault/abuse can come from literally anyone, regardless of gender and presentation. Many men feel unable to come forward precisely because they are men.
If you listen to them and you believe them, you’re over half way there. If you only take one thing from reading this, the previous sentence is the one I’d ask you to remember.
How a person’s first disclosure is responded to can shape how, or even if, they talk about it to anyone else in the future. I have received disclosures on a few occasions, and I know that I have dealt with some better than others.
The first thing I do is to listen. I let them speak as much or as little as they want to, and keep my responses minimal. “Okay” “I understand” and if they apologise at any point “it’s not your fault” or “I want to be here for you” or “I’m happy to listen to anything you need to say.”
Second, I affirm – “I believe you” “it’s not your fault that [name(s)/pronoun(s)] did this to you” “I can see how hard this is for you to tell me, I don’t think any less of you for this having happened and I care that it happened and about what happens next.”
Third, I ask questions. When asking questions, never ask about what happened or press for details, instead focus on what they need right now to feel okay/cared about/believed – “what would you like to do now” “how can I support you” “do you want to report this”.
Then go with what they want. Sexual assault takes autonomy and choice and self-determination from a person – response to disclosure needs to be about the opposite.
There is a culture of victim blaming – we need to not fall into this narrative if someone tells us something happened to them. Lose the what were you wearing, lose the how much did you drink, and care about the person who is hurting, right then, in the moment and let them lead the process.
The last thing I would like to talk about is why I wrote the first part of this post from the point of a harmed person being a cis woman, a trans woman an AFAB non-binary person or a trans man, when these are very different life experiences.
Yes, cis women experience some gendered violence and objectification that trans women do not. At the same time, there are different experiences that trans women have that cis women do not have as well.
Trans women’s bodies are contested, objectified and commodified similarly to cis women. ‘Shemale’ is used as a pornography category. There are trans women who do sex work – some more willingly than others. Trans women are raped. Trans women are murdered. This all tracks with how cis women are treated (though in different categories of pornography).
On top of this, trans women are often denied healthcare, equal rights with cis women, equal respect to cis women, refuge from domestic abuse and often basic safety. There is a fetishization and marginalisation of some trans women that some cis women do not experience, just as there is the other way around.
Both have to deal with the male gaze, but sometimes there is more sneer with it – sometimes for a cis woman, others for a trans woman.
I will end with a note from Sara followed by some helplines for anyone affected:
“It is never ‘to late’ or ‘too early’ to get support, there is only the right time for you. There’s not a ‘right’ way to do it either.
Most of the services listed below are toll free contact numbers and will have different ways you can communicate such as text and webchat as well as voice calls.
The important thing is you do not have to do this alone, help is available and its always okay to ask.” – Sara KP, CEO Welsh Women’s Aid.
Support around the above issues can be found at:
Rape crisis E&W National Telephone Helpline
0808 802 9999
The National Helpline is provided by Rape Crisis South London. It offers confidential emotional support, information and referral details.
Open between 12:00-14:30 and
19:00-21:30 every day of the year
Live Fear Free Helpline Wales 0808 80 10 800
This helpline is available for speakers of both English and Welsh and offers support around domestic abuse.
Respect 0808 802 40 40
Respect work with perpetrators of domestic violence who want to stop their abusive behaviours.
SurvivorsUK 0203 322 18 60
Open Monday-Sunday 12:00-20:00
Helpline, counselling, and groups for men who have experienced sexual abuse or assault.
*AFAB means ‘assigned female at birth’ and is a more polite way of talking about someone’s gender as it was assigned at birth. The equivalent is AMAB – ‘assigned male at birth’.