Disconnected, Or the difficulty of maintaining relationships after violence

One of the most insidious impacts of violence is the toll it exacts on your relationships, on your ability to connect to other people, to feel, to trust, to communicate, to believe in them and in yourself, to believe in the possibility of connection, to believe that you can have ‘normal’ relationships, ever again.

By relationships, I don’t just mean intimate, romantic or sexual relationships, although they’re part of it. I mean all relationships – from fleeting connections to committed, longterm ones, from family to friends to the workplace to just everyday interactions, relationships will never be something I take for granted anymore.

I’ve written before about the loneliness of being a victim and a survivor, and the isolation. But it’s not just that. Feeling severed from life, feeling disconnected and even exiled – cut off from what was mine, detached from what is ‘normal’ and the world around me, cleaved from all that I expected from life, these feelings persist. I continue to grieve for what the rapist stole from me, I continue to feel the loss, like a phantom limb amputated, ever-present and ever-absent simultaneously, of the life I had been planning when rape so brutally intervened and put an end to that set of expectations.

But, I have also, to a point, come to terms with my grief and my ‘lost’ life, despite the ache its presence-absence can still cause. But, what I struggle with is that along with my ‘lost’ life goes a ‘lost’ me. The person that I was (before the rape), is not the person that I am now (after the rape). My phantom limb is, in fact, a phantom me – a me that was only too real and active and known just a few years ago, but a me that I often cannot fathom anymore, a me I can’t quite believe in, a me that cannot be restored.

Trauma changes you, which is hardly surprising, but which can be hard to communicate to those who love you. Those who love you, more than anything, want to see you restored – they want you to ‘get over’ it, to ‘move on with your life’, to not ‘let this dictate’ the rest of your life. What they don’t understand is that none of these things are in my control. They are not simply decisions I can make. No matter how hard I try, or how much I wish it were so, I cannot just wish away the impacts of sexual assault.

I am not the person I was and I will not ever be the person I was in the process of becoming. This single event has radically intervened and rewritten so much of who I am and who I will be and, at the same time, determined an entirely different set of expectations for me. My understandings of trust and faith, of hope and confidence, of fear and danger, of what is possible and not possible have been completely reshaped by what happened to me. I will never see strangers the same way I did, I will never approach the unknown the same way I did, I will never conceive of the future the same way I did. The changes violence has forced upon me are incalculable, they are nuanced and profound, extending to every part of myself and my life, my world and my relationships. A labyrinthine network of effects and consequences that extends way beyond me and even those connected to me, but also right to the core of me: the change sexual assault has enacted upon me is not just a difference of degree, but a difference in kind.

Again, what is hardest is not how I feel about that change – now, nearly three years on I have found a way, haphazard and galling as it may be much of the time, to accept it – but what it does to my ability to connect to people. To the family and friends who have stayed by my side, how do I continue a relationship that allows them to let go of who they knew and to make sense of who I am now? When still so much of my life revolves around negotiating the impacts of sexual assault, of coping with the ongoing trauma of protracted legal proceedings, of simply keeping myself safe and well – something that takes far more effort and energy than it used to? My life is, in so many ways, boring, repetitive and even, at times, bleak. Socialising is often hard. My energy is limited and often does not extend beyond everyday activities.

I struggle to believe I have anything to offer my friends other than this bleak version of me. I struggle to remember who I was and I am afraid I cannot live up to the expectations of those who knew me before. I struggle to connect to people in good faith and to trust and I know this is because of what happened to me and not what is happening now, but how to overcome the solid barricade this presents? I struggle to hold onto confidence in myself or others, I cannot take safety for granted, and how to construct or maintain a relationship on such faltering foundations? I struggle to find the energy, on so many days, to even consider a way through or around the difficulties sexual assault has created for me when it comes to connecting with others and so, instead, I settle for the relative comfort of solitude and isolation.

I know this is hollow comfort. It doesn’t take long for solitude to become loneliness, for isolation to go from feeling safe to desolate. But I also know that the voice inside of me, the one that sexual assault created in me, will not go quietly. The voice of fear, of mistrust. It is part of me now, another ghost that has to be incorporated into this evermore fractured person I have become, another voice that cannot be silenced no matter how inconvenient or unpleasant its message. When its so hard for me to negotiate and manage these fractured realities, how can I ask it of anyone else?

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Day 16. force: Upsetting Rape Culture

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Last week a new, and rather surprising, Victoria’s Secret campaign was launched “PINK Nation”.  PINK Nation is a lingerie line that is all about good sex and what makes for good sex? CONSENT.

PINK loves CONSENT is more than a style. It’s a revolution. PINK loves CONSENT is our newest collection of flirty, sexy and powerful statements that remind PINK panty-wearers and their partners to practice CONSENT.

CONSENT is a verbal agreement (say it out loud—no “body language”) about how and when people are comfortable having sex. “Ask first”, “No means no” and “Let’s talk about sex” remind us that communication is the key to good sexPick your favorite slogan or write your own. Whatever you do, remember to practice CONSENT.

Join the next sexual revolution: PINK loves CONSENT.

This is more than a cute culture-jamming stunt. This is precisely what the next sexual revolution needs to be all about. And capitalism – companies with their heavy investment in a version and vision of sex that is coercive and one-directional (not to mention one-dimensional) – is exactly where the conversation needs to begin. Sex is everywhere, all around us, but this is a sex that has little interest in consent, in a complex conversation that values and respects difference, choice and freedom. Rather the culture of ‘sex’ that surrounds us constantly and deliberately blurs the distinction between sex and rape, reinforcing a violent and exploitative status quo that is reflected in the appalling statistics on the perpetration of sexual violence the world over.

FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture are the group behind the campaign, a “creative activist effort” aimed at forcing a more difficult and honest conversation about the realities of sexual violence, and creating the momentum for a movement towards a world where sex is empowering and pleasurable rather than coercive and violent. FORCE were also responsible for the projections onto the White House of the slogan “RAPE IS RAPE” (below).

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Within just 10 hours of being up, the PINK Nation campaign had received over 50,000 hits and enthusiastic outpourings of love from fans across social media platforms.  The following for a sexual revolution based on consent is there and raring to go, just waiting for an opportunity to engage in a real, meaningful and honest conversation about sex that is based on respect, understanding and communication.

We’re ready for this change. We’re prepared and willing for a culture that supports non-violence. We’re eager for a consensual and respectful sexual dialogue.

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Rape culture isn’t just outdated, it’s dangerous and we know it. We’ve learnt – and everywhere more people are learning every day – the damage it has caused and the damage it will keep causing until we let it go. Consent is the way forward. It’s simple. It’s easy. And, it’s plenty doable. “No Vagina is a sure thing! Ask first!” Isn’t that something we can all commit to?

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Day 15. Project Unbreakable

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Project Unbreakable is a photography project by Grace Brown that gives survivors a voice. Survivors of sexual violence write words spoken by their attacker and then hold them up to be photographed. The photograph is then posted online.

Surviving sexual violence is more often than not an experience overwhelmed by silence and shame. Rarely do survivors get the opportunity to tell their story – in part or in full – on their own terms. Rarely do we get to take control over the process of telling. Rarely is there an opportunity to out the tactics of the abuser, to demonstrate how they did what they did and to hold them accountable for the words they spoke.

Project Unbreakable provides survivors with an opportunity. An opportunity to speak for themselves about what was done to them. An opportunity to out their attacker and the words used against them, to turn those words back upon the person responsible for them. An opportunity to hold their attacker accountable and to stand up for themselves, to publicly refuse shame and silence. An opportunity to have their abuse witnessed, to be seen and to be heard and to remain in control whilst doing so. To take control, to claim their voice and, thereby, begin the process of healing.

In providing survivors with these opportunities, Project Unbreakable shifts the tone that surrounds sexual violence. It lifts the burden of shame and silence. It creates a culture of belief, a place of control, a reflection of the strength that accompanies survival.

As hard as it can be to do, finding a way to speak what was done to you and being believed, is for many of us a necessary step to overcoming victimhood, to transcending the violence, to becoming ourselves once more. Project Unbreakable provides survivors with a simple way to do this. At the same time, Grace’s project also provides the rest of us with a remarkable chance to witness the reality and consequences of rampant sexual violence and to stand in solidarity with the victims. To witness their hurt and to share the burden of their story.

Descriptions don’t do the project justice. Check out the submissions from survivors here and the photos by Grace here. Details on how to contribute are also provided here.

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Day 14. Take Back The Tech

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Take Back The Tech is a collaborative campaign that happens each year for the 16 Days of Activism Against Gendered Violence. Take Back The Tech focusses its attentions on reclaiming IT – communications platforms and communications rights – for ending violence against women.

Technologies like the Internet, mobile phones, GPS – it’s easy to see how these can all be used to intimidate and threaten, to jeopardise safety, to commit harassment and violence. How they can be ready tools for perpetrators of violence against women. Yet, there’s no reason they can’t also be used to establish safety, to build confidence and provide spaces to speak out, to advocate for change and to strengthen networks and encourage solidarity.

Take Back The Tech collects stories from activists all over the world who are using the internet and other communications platforms to advocate for the rights of women, to share stories of overcoming violence and to create Tech spaces that cultivate “freedoms not fears”. They share strategies for keeping safe and strategies for speaking out. There are daily actions we can all take to part in and even a global map of violations and the actions victims have taken. From Pakistan to the Philippines, from Mexico to the Democratic Republic of Congo, women all over the world are taking control of their communications rights and platforms to advocate for freedom from gendered violence, and Take Back The Tech brings them together.

From North America, South America, Asia, Africa and Europe – there are Take Back The Tech campaigns taking place across five continents, in multiple languages. Why not take part? Share your stories of surviving violence. Join the Facebook and Twitter communities speaking out about violence against women. Find out what others are doing all over the world and pass on their work to your networks. Challenge a world in which gendered violence remains unspoken and unheard – just by speaking these stories, and by listening to them, a transformation is taking place, the power balance is shifting.

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“Help us build a body of knowledge and document the experiences of violence that women and girls face online and through the use of internet and mobile technologies.

Collectively, we can make the invisible visible and demand for recognition and change. 

Stories can change the world. Take control of technology and share your story!”

Learn more about the role of technology in violence against women:

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Day 13. See, Hear, Speak

We have rights

One-third of women (33%) have been sexually harassed since the age of 15 in Australia. This is despite sexual harassment being outlawed and explicitly (publicly known to be) illegal for over 30 years. The Australian Human Rights Commission undertook a national survey into sexual harassment this year and the findings were, on the whole, cause for despair. Despite the Sex Discrimination Act being law since 1984, sexual harassment remains a common experience for Australians. Not just one-third of women, but 1 in 5 Australians have experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15. Perhaps, one of the most worrying findings was that only 20% of those experiencing sexual harassment report it and that, of those who do, 30% indicate that the outcome of reporting was negative.

Changing the law doesn’t change attitudes. Nor does it change understanding. Sexual harassment is not mutual flirting, not consensual interaction, not friendship. It is an abuse of power and an expression of outdated and sexist beliefs. It is a worrying indication of the potential for further violence and sexist behaviour. It is a clear indication that something is not right and that something needs to be done in response. It is a sign that it’s time to stand up and speak out.

See, Hear, Speak

In response to these findings, Jesse Street launched a campaign called ‘See, Hear, Speak‘ – encouraging people to know their rights and when they’ve been infringed, or outright disregarded, and to know when and how to speak out about it. It’s a simple concept:

  • SEE: Know it when you SEE it. What is sexual harassment? [Sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.]
  • HEAR: Lets HEAR more about it. Let’s LEARN about something that’s affecting so many of us. It’s time we heard more about what’s happening to people.
  • SPEAK: It’s time to SPEAK about it. What to do if you are sexually harassed. [You can lodge a complaint about sexual harassment with the AHRC or your state Equal Opportunity/Anti-Discrimination Commission. It's your right. It's our rights.]

See, Hear, Speak is a great summary of what needs to be done in regards to violence against women in all it’s forms. A lot needs to be done to improve the understanding and knowledge of the general public of the prevalence, persistence and preventability of violence against women. It’s happening all around us, all the time and we can all do something about that. But only if we SEE – if we know what to look for, how to spot the warning signs.

Then we need to HEAR – we need to know the facts, we need to listen to the testimony of those who’ve been affected, we need to hear what’s being done to challenge this behaviour, these attitudes, these cultures. We need to be aware of what’s happening – the good, the bad and the ugly.

And, of course, we need to SPEAK. We need to know how and when and to whom to speak out, to speak up. How to speak up for our own rights, and for those of others. How to engage in Bystander Prevention. Because we can all protest this behaviour. We can all challenge sexist, racist, discriminatory and criminal cultures. We can all be part of the shift to a safe and equal culture. In fact, this may be one of the few positive takeaways from the 2012 report by the AHRC – 51% of those who witnessed or learned about sexual harassment in the workplace (bystanders) took action to prevent or reduce harm. A bystander is a powerful person to be and knowing what to do, acting in support of the victim, speaking up may be one of the best things you ever do.

Also, check out Hollaback! - another great, international, campaign about countering sexual harassment, this time in the street, where laws don’t offer the same protection. Their concept of ‘I’ve got your back‘ is a powerful one. Knowing there’s a whole, ever increasing, international community out there who do not accept sexual harassment, who are prepared to document it and to speak out in support of each other is pretty brilliant. And reminds us that things won’t always be this way. These exploitative, unequal and unsafe cultures are dinosaurs – they won’t be around for ever, they won’t even be around all that much longer. The times are indeed a-changing. Check out their brilliant guide to being an (effective) bystander.

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Day 12. Project Respect & Freedom Advocates: Ending slavery

Today’s slavery. Slavery in Australia. These should be anachronisms. But they’re not. Slavery, incredibly, remains a reality in Australia today. Human trafficking is a massive international crime, creating profit equal to the international trade in weapons. Globally, 21 million people are estimated to be currently living in slavery. People are trafficked for all sorts of purposes: sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, domestic servitude, marriage. 80 per cent of the victims trafficked across international borders are female and 70 per cent of those women are trafficked for sexual exploitation. It is estimated that there are about 1,000 women and children in Australia trafficked into debt-bonded prostitution at any one time and that this constitutes the major purpose of human trafficking in Australia. (See ACSSA research into Trafficking in women for sexual exploitation)

In 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur in Trafficking in Persons visited Australia to investigate the situation here and the responses to human trafficking by governments and services. Whilst the Rapporteur, Joy Ezeilo, commended Australia for its “strong leadership regionally and domestically” she also observed that “the scale of the problem appears to be underestimated and underreported” and that “a victim-centered approach is still lacking” in Australia. She reenforced that “a human rights based approach to trafficking requires the needs of all victims to be placed at the core of any response” and that “vulnerability to trafficking is exacerbated by lack of equal opportunity and gender inequalities”.

Human trafficking constitutes a massive international trade in violence against women, men and children. A human rights abuse that should be unimaginable in the 21st century.

There are many organisations working locally to end slavery, to support victims and to advocate for change to prevent human trafficking. Two of those who take to heart that human rights based response articulated above are:

Freedom Advocates, The Salvation Army

Freedom Advocates, The Salvation Army

Freedom Advocates is a program run by the Salvation Army and is part of their response to victims of human trafficking which also includes a Safe House and case management. However, the innovative part of their program is what they call ‘Freedom Advocates‘. These are women and men who have been victims of human trafficking who then use their experience to advocate for the abolition of slavery. As they say: “it is not easy to trust anyone after our experience, so it is good to have other people who share the same experiences. Our goal is to reach out to other survivors internationally, and we invite you to join us in unity and strength.” This is advocacy with an appreciation for the power and value of experience, for the needs of the victims, for the value of learning from those who have been there, survived and emerged, at its heart.

Project Respect

Project Respect

Project Respect works with women in the sex industry, including those trafficked to Australia, providing practical help and support whilst advocating “to help prevent the exploitation and enslavement of women, by the industry”. Project Respect provides non-judgmental outreach and support to women to facilitate them to rebuild their lives outside the industry and, similarly to Freedom Advocates, promotes advocacy and activism based on the expertise of women in the sex industry, in order to tackle the discrimination and structural inequalities which support prostitution and trafficking.

You, too, can speak out to voice your support for the abolition of slavery.

The ILO is running a campaign called “End Slavery Now“. Download the poster and send in your photo of support. 21 million in slavery – perhaps, more than ever in history. It’s time it was abolished for good.

Learn more:

  • The Gillard Government has recently released its fourth annual report on Commonwealth responses to human trafficking
  • The United Nations Special Rapporteur in Trafficking in Persons report subsequent to her fact-finding mission to Australia in 2011
  • Nicholas D Kristof’s piece in the New York Times, ‘The 21st century slave trade‘,  April 22, 2007
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Day 11: A culture of belief

Attrition in sexual assault cases is a major cause for concern. Research shows that sexual violence, and violence against women, is vastly under-reported. Yet, of those crimes that are reported, successful prosecution rates remain very low. And this is despite substantial legal, procedural and policy reforms designed to make the system more accessible to victims of sexual violence and better resourced to effectively respond to crimes of sexual violence (for more on this see ALRC research on attrition in sexual offence cases).

What’s going on here? Why are these reforms not seeing the intended results? Recent research conducted by Professor Liz Kelly and brought to attention in Australia by the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault highlights a key factor that continues to hijack chances for, not only successful prosecution in sexual violence offences, but equally for an experience of the legal system that is not newly traumatising for victims. Sexual violence is a gendered crime – a crime committed overwhelmingly by men. Sexual violence is also a crime accompanied by a ‘culture of skepticism’, as Professor Kelly calls it. Dating from at least the 17th century, with the influential judgments of Matthew Hale, the judicial response to allegations of rape has been preoccupied mostly with protecting the reputations of men and insuring them against the possibility of false accusation.

As such, rape has been considered to be a crime that is tarred by an intractable question of he-said vs. she-said. A fear of the supposed power of women to ruin a man’s reputation, an assumption that false allegations must be rife and an expectation that rape must be an impossible crime to prove. Women, who judicially have primarily been seen as solely the property of a man (be it father or husband), have long been considered doubtful as witnesses. The word of a woman has not been seen to be credible testimony. All of which adds up to a powerful ‘culture of skepticism’ heavily loaded against women, and in favour of men.

What’s interesting in Professor Liz Kelly’s research is the prevalence of assumptions of false accusations is rampant amongst both the police and prosecutors and yet their own statistics show very low rates of false accusations. So, why does the belief persist, even in the face of all the evidence to the contrary? Why, in the 21st century, do we still find it so hard to believe the word of a woman?

What her evidence shows is how readily stereotypes speak louder than real witnesses. How assumptions and expectations predetermine how a victim will be heard and how their case will be responded to. That the weight of this ‘culture of skepticism’, this fear for the reputations of men (and not for the livelihoods of victims) taints our ability, as a society, to hear the testimony of victims. Everything they say, everything they did or do, everything about them, will be held up to the stereotypes, the prejudgments, the assumptions to see whether it conforms or not. And so what we find, is that whilst the law has evolved in terms of sexual violence, the reception of victims has not. They continue to be subjected to biased, prejudicial stereotypes – to a system more invested in providing perpetrators with immunity from false accusations, than victims with restitution and societies with protection from criminals – that make it almost impossible to provide victims with the right to a fair-trial and far too easy for perpetrators to get off.

Professor Liz Kelly argues on the basis of her research that what is needed is a replacement of the ‘culture of skepticism’ with a ‘culture of belief’. I couldn’t agree more. As a society, as individuals, when abuse or assault is disclosed to us the only humane response is one of belief and support. Victims who are believed and supported will find themselves able to come forward to police. Victims who receive a fair and just response from those they disclose to will be able to pursue the crime, and the offender, through the justice system. And, if the police and the legal system, operate from a position of belief, from a culture of belief, whilst standing  by their usual principles of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ there is no need to fear false accusations. For too long, the gendered construction of sexual violence has been a cloak of impunity for perpetrators to hide behind. It’s time we abandoned these outdated and prejudicial stereotypes and invested instead in a ‘culture of belief’ and true justice for all.

Learn more:

  • “The (In)credible words of a woman: false allegations in rape cases”, Professor Liz Kelly, ACSSA webinar, 21 September 2012
  • “Sexual violence offenders:Prevention and intervention approaches”, ACSSA, Issue no.5, June 2006
  • “Attrition in sexual assault cases”, ALRC
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