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Working to end sexual violence

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SRG Podcast: Episode 1 Public Conversation Transcript

Brenna [0:01]
Hello and welcome to speaking out the Rape Crisis Scotland podcast. My name is Brenna Jessie, and I am Press and Campaigns Coordinator at Rape Crisis Scotland, Scotland's leading charity working to end sexual violence.

I work with the Survivor Reference Group or SRG, who are a group of diverse survivors from across Scotland who have had some engagement with the justice system, whether that's a police report that never went any further, right through to a trial or trials.

In so many of our meetings and chats, members of the SRG have spoken about the way that the public conversation around rape and sexual assault is so often taken out of survivors’ hands, survivors are spoken about rather than to, and sensationalist media agendas are seen as more important than the reality of survivors lives and experiences.

The Survivor Reference Group wanted to change the conversation and so here we are. In this SRG podcast miniseries, we cover loads of different topics and issues. Please listen with care and be aware that there are discussions of sexual violence and people's experiences of the justice system. You can find links to support in the show notes of each episode.

This podcast is by survivors for survivors, but it's also for anyone else who wants to hear directly from survivors about their experiences from seeking justice to self-care, from what it's like to access support to media coverage. So, make sure and give other episodes a listen and let us know what you think. Now with us today, we have Hannah and Lisa.

Hannah: Hello

Lisa: Hi

Brenna: …both long-time members of the Survivor Reference Group who have campaigned with us and loads of different issues from the Not Proven verdict to forensic medical services and more. But today, we wanted to step away from talking about systems and processes to take a broader look at the public conversation. It's something we're all part of and subject to but it's also something that massively needs to change.

Now at Rape Crisis Scotland, we talk a lot about the public conversation because it's something that we know has a very real and lasting impact on survivors. How we speak about rape and sexual assault, how we speak about perpetrators, how we speak about survivors, all of it has an impact on how and whether survivors are able to engage with support, whether that be from organisations like Rape Crisis, but also from friends and family. We often talk about needing to better the public conversation about sexual violence, and so that's what we're going to talk about today.

So, I guess, I thought I've just opened with a bit of a big question, really, which is, what do you think about the public conversation about sexual violence? Like what do you think about where we're at right now?

Hannah [2:35]:
I mean, the public conversation is definitely getting better, but it's still coming from females and charities like yourselves. So in that sense, it still seems sensationalised by mainstream media if you're talking even like Daily Mail, even The Independent, The Guardian, you don't seem to be touching quite so much upon the overall issues.

You know, they talk about it as being the police, as being isolated. I find the police conversation that's going on really interesting, just know because the Sarah Everard case, they've focused primarily on police, like, you know, they're just they're always looking for some sort of go to scapegoat. Yes, there are failings in the police, we all know that, yes, they failed here, but they're not, the media are still unwilling to talk about across the board. If this is happening in the police, where else is happening? It's clearly happening in every other business, every other room, every other public sector, every other private sector. But there always has got to be this one, you know, it's the police that failed in this occasion, and what are the police going to do next, and then they dig up all the, you know, past behaviour, this is how many domestic assault cases they've been, in the police.

So it's always got to be, it's never men, specifically, it's always got to be, there are the women and then there's this one reason on this one particular aspect. And again, the men don't really seem to be part of the conversation. Even the new adverts, oh that's better but it's not good enough. It's just kind of like, oh yes now we need to do better, there's not one piece of - again, I forgot about this, it was my main part - there's been no advice towards men in the media, there's been a sort of small message saying, “Hi guys, we need to do better.” Not “by the way, this is happening to women, women are being murdered, you’re murdering them, can you stop?” It's constantly like “here's what you have to do to change to protect yourself”. What I’m quite interested in and get really annoyed at is that it’s as if it's from some invisible force, instead of half the population which we are surrounded by daily.

Brenna [4:27]
Yeah, totally. I think that like, I mean, there's so many bits in there. I think the isolated incident thing I have seen time and time again, where people are so keen, and I think it's because it's scary, right? Like it's scary if we actually…we talk about these issues a lot like in the SRG, we talk about these issues a lot. So, I think we're quite used to just that idea of actually how big of a problem it is.

And I think there's almost like, it's almost like the public aren't actually ready to have that conversation and it feels safer for us just to be like “Oh, it's just, it is a one off by thing that happened” and then we trust that because the bad things happened, so then there's going to be consequences, then there's going to be a justice system and we don't have to think about it anymore, right? Whereas what you're saying is actually, no, the problem is so much broader than that. It's so much more prevalent than that, how do we meaningfully address it? Lisa, have you got sort of thoughts on that?

Lisa [5:21]
Yeah, just echoing both your opinions and I feel that the actual reality of the situation isn't appreciated correctly, it's like that insulated incident, it's just this one thing. It happens on a daily basis, it happens in your work, it happens like in your social circle. Like you don't know what somebody else has gone through a behind closed doors and things like that.

And it's not, yeah, there's a small bit now, I've seen that campaign of like how to do better. But the media has always been about like, “Oh, you shouldn't drink” - for a woman- “you shouldn't drink too much”, “you should dress appropriately”, “do this, do that”. There's no advice, there’s no understanding of what the actual problem is like, there's not…

I think we're starting to have that conversation, but it's not a full-blown conversation yet. I think a lot of people are still in the shadows of just “oh, it's happening, it's fine, I don’t need to worry about it because it's not happening directly to me or somebody close to me!”. I think that we’ve still got a long, long way to go.

Brenna [6:22]
Yeah, I think definitely like, and we've talked before, as well about how the media are quite constrained, I suppose in terms of what they're able to talk about it with respect to. So, they talk about it with respect to the justice system, they talk about it when there's cases that are so high profile, but in terms of the everyday, like, the mundaneness of the fact that this is everywhere, and it's every day. And so, I think, from a news point of view, it's almost like they're looking for that newsworthiness, right? So, they're looking…the ability to link it to the police make this much more newsworthy, and so yeah, there's just a real failure to actually get to grips with what the problem is, who is responsible for the problem and what we're going to do about it.

And there's all this, like you say about the safety advice: It's so often dished out, I just have such an issue with it because the idea that, like, we've all been taught, how many times have you been taught or told that you just need to carry keys, walk on the lit side of the street. The amount of safety advice that's given out to women, and the reality is that we're not the problem here. We're not the ones that need to change our behaviour, we're not the ones that need to be doing stuff differently and if we are subjected to that violence, that's not because we failed to keep ourselves safe.

Hannah [7:39]
People say, you know, they're so sorry, they want to not see it happen again. And I completely appreciate that it's human nature to look away from things that are too close to home or make you feel a little bit uncomfortable.

There is that to an extent, but then there's also…it's really easy to say “oh poor girl, this is a terrible thing that's happened” but if someone steps in front of you and says “this has happened to me”, they could be happy, they could be in a good place and just be sharing things, but the utter discomfort that people will show on their faces.

And I just think that people need to be more grown up in talking about the harsh facts of life, I think it's a human across the planet problem, which is why a lot of us have mental health issues. So, I'm not saying it applies to just this thing, but half of the population are suffering from it and half of the population are committing it essentially, you know, if you take away a few lucky ones, or a few good people, it does affect every single person, whether it's because of the perpetrator, the victim, or they definitely know someone who's a victim or a perpetrator, we all do.

So, I just don't understand why it is taking so long to have open conversations. I found myself – naively- when I was assaulted, I thought to myself, well, this is one isolated incident, you know, this will happen, put it behind you, but then to put it to be dragged to the court for three years. It's like, like what you mentioned, just to see that the justice system does not work.

So, they are, the public conversations are very much about what's happened, this is over, and justice will be done. There isn't enough conversation about the fact that the justice systems are completely broken, they're not convicting anyone, despite mass amounts of evidence against them - whether that's when it gets to court or it doesn't get to court in the first place - and assaults are increasing so despite the conversations getting better, something somewhere is going incredibly wrong.

Brenna [9:18]
I mean, there's so much in what you said, I want to pick up on like, which bit but I think for me, what stands out there is that idea of the perfect victim right? So often survivors are blamed and shamed for the violence that is experienced rather than supported. And so, it's like there's such a mismatch and a real reluctance to engage with survivors on their terms. It's like if you've if you fit this criteria of a perfect victim, then you know, if you “did everything right” in air quotes, then you get sympathy but otherwise, no.

Hannah [9:54]
I know I'm quite privileged in the fact that I think in court and in some public conversation, when I spoke openly, I was – it was a stranger attack - so I was considered to be the perfect victim and I was actually treated with complete respect from start to finish, other than the fact that jury stood up and then acquitted him, which I found quite surprising. The judge, which I did not know was allowed, but she sort of said specifically to the jury, you must disregard how much you like this woman, when coming to the conclusion of your verdict.

I had worked really hard, I thought it was going to be really difficult to, you know, to present myself in a certain way. I thought, considering myself and the perpetrator were in the courtroom, it would be easy to see that it was, that it had happened. And I think that all became clear but at the end of the day, juries are still not willing to convict because on one hand, they can't, the public can't look at victims and actually acknowledge what they're going through because it's too difficult. But on the other hand, they want to shy away from it when they don't want to take responsibility to put someone in prison for it.

So, it's very just like avoidant public conversation, the way the justice system works, and juries operate as very avoidant, if we can't blame the woman we’ll acquit or not proven. It's just a bit of a mystery, I would say.

Brenna [11:05]
Yeah. And I think also the idea of a stranger rape as being the one that will consider as more credible, whereas obviously, the vast majority of sexual violence takes place in the home by someone known to the victim. Lisa, I wonder if you've got thoughts on that?

Lisa [11:21]
Yeah, like I was, I’m probably the opposite from Hannah, in the sense of it wasn't a stranger, it was it was my ex-partner. I must admit from start to finish the justice through even like society, like work and things like that, nobody actually, I don't think many people greeted me with a bit of compassion. It was, I get faced with time and time again: “Why did you not leave sooner? Why did you not do this? Why did you not do that?” And now when I think back, I'm like, where was a bit of compassion of “why did he do that to you?”

It was always on me, it's always on the victim, it's never on the perpetrator. And even down to the police officers, one of the head officers on my case, basically said I put myself in the position to be raped because I stayed in the relationship, I was still with him and things like that. And I just think you're, you're missing the whole point of what he actually done, that's what's wrong, not whether I stayed there, or what I done after that. It was his actions that were wrong, not what I'd done.

Because that's like, when they give the advice of like don't drink too much, dress and things and I was like, well, how does that apply to like a domestic abuse case? Because I've been raped sober. I've been raped in my pyjamas. So how was I meant to protect myself there? Whether I was drinking, or dressed inappropriately, that wasn't gonna help me. I've been raped in my sleep so like, none of your advice actually really applies to somebody that's living in it day in and day out in your own home.

And then when you finally find the courage to speak out about it, you're faced with such a victim-blaming, it's always victim-blaming, it's not like, it's never, it's never their fault, it’s always like finding the fault in you rather than finding the fault in the action alone.

Brenna [13:06]
And that's totally the problem, right with all of the safety advice, and I think it exposes it as being just so unbelievably ineffective. I think we'd give it out, because it makes us feel as though we've got a degree of control, it makes you feel as though there's something that you can do, but actually, like as your case and your story, so clearly highlights, that's it's, it's ineffective.

And also, I think it's dangerous. Like I actually think it's not just ineffective, it actively prevents people from being able to seek support, because they believe - falsely - that they could or should have done something differently. And like you say, actually, where's the messages, where's the voices who are saying this was not your fault, like this is not on you?

I suppose that links on actually quite smoothly then to my next question, really, which is just like how has the public conversation about sexual violence affected both of you?

Hannah [14:03]
That's quite a difficult one for me. But I think one of the main reasons that I speak out publicly as specifically I remember a pivotal point after I'd been assaulted, it was reported as an attempted rape. I'd been asleep and I think that I'd woke up in just the nick of time. I was the only person that was violent, I like completely lost my shit. A couple hours later, I was in the police station, like hiding a broken finger under you know, a desk while someone questioned me. I was like, am I gonna get into trouble for this? They were like “no” and I was like “oh, thank goodness”, and placed on the table because I was sick of like the blood rushing into it.

I thought it was quite a cool story, I'm absolutely mental, all I care about is stories, so I had this, you know, someone's tried to rape me. I broke my finger on his face, I phoned his mom, I phoned the police and he’ll be in jail soon. Like really naive, even though I was aware and smart at the time, and you know, I'm always just interested in stories and what's going on in the world. I did naively just think that it was how it was going to go, that was how it was going to play out and it was going to be a difficult year.

But about six months later, when they were assessing whether it would go to court and they'd decided that there was enough evidence and I mean a lot, regardless of my statement, there was a lot there to go on with witnesses, DNA, and various other things. And the woman's sat me down and said “okay, this is a recommendation, we're going to charge them with rape”. And I was totally stunned. And at first, I was like, yeah, just charge them for that fling the book at him, but not really registering that what she was telling me is that no by technicality you were raped. And that completely changed my mindset. Like I wouldn't say it knocked me for six, but it took away my narrative, where I was the powerful person in that.

And I had to think a lot about what changed because nothing had changed about what I felt, and nothing had changed about what happened. And on a technicality, she was correct, because it's to do you know, the technical term is penetration, it doesn't matter, that it might not have went in the whole way, or that I might have woke up in the nick of time. The DNA was there to say was to certain extent, but that totally changed this whole story for me, which I had a lot of power into me really just feeling downgraded as a human being.

And it was really something that had to work out, why do you feel less this way? What’s changed? Nothing has changed, other than the fact that you're going to have to tell their story in court, and everyone's not going to be saying “attempted” and that you look quite badass, all of a sudden, you're a victim, and this word, “rape” is involved. And there's no “attempted” before that it was just, you have been raped. And I remember going home from the police station. And I didn't want to be associated with you guys like no offence, but to me, it was like, oh, angry, feminist, sad people completely naive.

But I was just like, this has just changed everything completely for me. And that wasn't anything to do with what had happened, myself my story, it was only to do with what I've been told my whole entire life the stories have been exposed to, in the media and by the public, it just took the whole power away from it from me completely.

And that's why I spent a lot of time preparing for the trials I've mentioned. I was really into it was like this man has gone down still don't really take that away from me, I was very violently vindictive. But I spent a lot of time reading up on trials to sort of prepare myself because there's nothing really there. And I just found, I didn't relate to any of the victims at all whatsoever. And it was just because of this narrative of the sad, broken, sorry, person whose life is over. And I would read them and just be like, “that doesn't make sense, my life's not over, maybe I'm just different”, but I'm not different. It's just that the, we're not portrayed accurately as real human beings with real lives, real stories in a sense that we should be proud of ourselves.

It's in a way that you must not tell anyone that this has happened to you, because the assumption will be there's something wrong with you, despite you not having done anything literally, except exist.

Brenna [17:34]
That is extremely powerful, I think, as a point. And as an illustration of the harm of having such a narrow construction of what a victim is. Also, there's just like the total conflation of like victim and weakness as though those two things are the same. And that is so far from the truth. Like when I think about the women of the Survivor Reference Group, and I think about the women we interact with, and see and speak to, the idea that any of the survivors there, that it's weakness, like I think that's another thing that's just so toxic and so unhelpful.

We similarly don't allow people the space to feel that vulnerability to be not okay, because all of that is valid and real too but we don't recognise the strength that it takes to survive sexual violence and to go through these systems - I say go through - be subject to very often these systems and processes. We construct, you know, even in the images that the media use, like even looking at the images that are used around rape and sexual assault, where it's like someone just hiding in a corner in a shadow, like, it's how are folk meant to relate to that?

Like, it's not a relatable image for most women and most survivors, because actually, in addition to having experienced what they've been through, and having to come to terms with that, and to cope with that, they're also having to carry on their lives, they're having to get up they're having to do the school run, they're having to go to work, they're having to continue an education, it's not just that then becomes the only thing about you. And I think yeah, it's another common trap that the media falls into. And again, a really a really dangerous one.

Lisa [19:23]
I think, growing up you see this, you hear the stories, read the stories, watch it in the news. The minute you mention the word victim you do think that it's like somebody sitting in the corner crying and like, can't function or whatever. But the reality is, we are functioning everyday people. Yeah, we have our moments and yeah it changes your life, nobody can dispute that. It does break you down temporarily, I have yet to come across a survivor and see them as weak, if anything we are like the strongest people I think I have ever met.

We empower each other because I think it's like, you see that in your growing up in that environment where victims are weak and this and that and you can't cope and they’re mentally unstable. I think that angers you more, which then pushes you forward to be more determined to go “no, that's not who I am, yes, it's a part of my life that happened to me but it's it doesn't define me”. Like, I'm a mum, I'm successful businesswoman, I’m a successful mother, I can be a loving partner. It doesn't stop me from being a human being. And I think that's where it’s as if, like Hannah said before, like that social awkwardness when you say I’m a survivor or something that's like, everybody just stops in their tracks and doesn't know how to communicate you. They could have known you for like, months and months and had great conversations but the minute you mentioned that, it's like “oh, how do I talk to you?” But again, I think that's down to the media, because we aren't having that proper conversation.

It’s like the conversation is, either it's the victim’s fault or the victims weak and it’s like destroyed their life. No actually, we still get up every day we still function, yeah, we have our moments, but we are like, the person next to you in work. We are human beings, we still live, we breathe, we move, we laugh.

It’s as if you’re not allowed to enjoy your life after being raped or sexually assaulted. And I think that's where it gets frustrating, because it's like, am I allowed? Should I be enjoying myself? Like I know from my point of view, sometimes I think, should I be enjoying myself, you know, when somebody knows that you've, you've been through it. And then you can get that, that look of “well it couldn’t have been that bad” type of thing. And I've had those comments of “well is it as bad as you say it is” and I think that's just down to pure lack of understanding and education and like how human beings can be, even after trauma.

Hannah [21.58]
I really find it quite a difficult balancing act to not prove that I’m okay but demonstrate that absolutely fine in my own way, but then also articulate how shit it was. Like you get really, really stuck in between having to explain how various things for me, like the justice system in particular is so traumatic, without then people then kind of writing in you off as a person, all the good parts of you.

It is notable, I was honest, all throughout but you meet a lot of people during the process, so I would keep it from new people in my life who hadn't been around at the time, because unfortunately for me, it became years long ordeal. So, there was the people who had known from the beginning, and there was people that maybe joined my life at various points who didn't know. And when they found out when I started speaking publicly, especially after receiving the not proven verdict, it was like they looked at you like you're an entirely different person overnight.

But because of the duration in which I went through or suffered through, as you mentioned, the justice system, they knew me for up to three years before they found out that this had been going on, and that's what I'd been going through the whole time. But suddenly, I was looked at differently treated differently, they just, whatever they thought of me seem to disappear overnight. And I was like “I'm still here, actually, if anything, you should think I'm better, to be perfectly honest. Like, give me a pat on the back. Don't stare at your feet. I don't understand.”

Brenna [23:06]
It's just so hard isn't it, to suddenly go from like feeling seen and like, you know, valued and you've got friends who you think get you in your own same level, and then yeah, this this one thing changes how people look at you.

Hannah [23:18]
I think in general, public conversation just across the board has to get better when we talk about all topics. Like people can't seem to talk about stuff without blatant discomfort, unless they can see it as definitely not affecting them, which is why you have to sensationalise not just this but I'm sure quite a lot of topics. People only seem to be willing to discuss things that are happening to them every day, if they think I cannot relate to this so it must be someone else's fault.

Brenna [23:45]
I suppose our final question, then, I guess, is what message both of us would have to any other survivors who are frustrated or maybe annoyed or upset at the coverage and the representations that they see of survivors? Like is there anything that you would say to folk in that position?

Hannah [24:05]
I think it's just very important to keep hold of your own self-image and try not to be affected too badly, you need to really be able to take a step back, which is difficult at times. Just to remind yourself who you are, what's happened, how you feel about it, if you would have the same opinions, even though the, you know, it's quite hard to not absorb certain things sometimes, but you really just have to fight back and truly, take a minute to think about what matters to you and who you are.

And take a little bit of joy in every day. Build your life back slowly if that's what it takes. And I think honestly, I cannot recommend this enough but I'm a big advocate for it, but I think people really need to learn how to be their own best friends as well, learn to spend time alone, and enjoy it because especially if something really adverse happens to you, you're not going to get the answers from other people. You know, you might reach out looking for reassurance. You might not have to find that you do have to learn to sort of build that for yourself.

Lisa [24.55]
Stay true to yourself. Right now, we are overwhelmed by stories in the media, whether it be news coverage or social media. It affects you in your own unique way, what affects me might not affect Hannah, but what affects Hannah might not affect me. So, it doesn't mean you're wrong in feeling how you're feeling. Just stay true to do what makes you keep yourself and your comfort zone where you're safe, your emotional wellbeing is safe. That's the most important thing. Take a day at a time and do what's right for you, you will get there

Brenna [25:45]
This podcast has covered a lot of really difficult issues. If you're looking to talk then our helpline can provide initial and short-term support and make referrals to other services and local support. The helpline is open from 6pm till midnight every night and all details are on our website and the show notes. Thank you as ever to our guests to our amazing producer Amanda Aiken, and to all of you at home for listening. Take care.

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