IN MAY 2015, I LAUNCHED the #NotGuilty campaign against sexual violence and victim blaming with Cherwell, a student newspaper at Oxford University, after it published ‘A Letter to My Assaulter’ – a piece that I wrote following my own experience of assault. The campaign aims to encourage individuals to feel that they can speak out and get help after assault by emphasising that no survivor of assault should feel alone, and by abolishing victim blaming.
In waiving my anonymity with the letter, I hoped that I could reach out to other individuals and emphasise that victims are not just statistics or news stories, but people whose voices need to be heard and listened to. The ‘Shared Stories’ project on the #NotGuilty website has already accumulated many stories of sexual assault, or abusive behaviour, from a huge variety of voices around the world who have written in to the campaign.
As well as giving individuals a platform to speak out, and show that there is no shame in doing so, the project demonstrates how no two accounts of sexual assault are the same, and thus there is no finite way that we can or should portray sexual assault in the media. We can’t compare “I’ve known this guy for 2 or 3 months” to “my attacker was someone who I have known for a long time, someone who I have cared for deeply and always trusted”. We can’t compare “six years ago” to “only last week”. We can’t equate how individuals were affected by assault, and what is therefore best for them, as the stories also show how the consequences manifest themselves differently.
We can’t relate, “I was so embarrassed” with “I am still confused today”, or “my family were amazing… and they have really helped me. Telling them was a huge relief and I recommend anyone to do the same” with “I still feel shame, guilt, worthlessness.”
These are all real stories from those who have written in to the campaign. The ‘Shared Stories’ project adopts a similar model to an initiative that was set up in 2012 by Laura Bates called ‘Everyday Sexism’ – an amassing of voices on social media, and the Everyday Sexism website, which shared stories of everyday incidents of sexism.
Two key things have struck me about both of these campaigns on social media. Firstly, both campaigns have demonstrated just how common both everyday sexism and sexual assault are. Often, there is also an overlap between the two and the attitudes that engender them too.
The other key thing that has struck me, however much I have been thrilled by the incredibly positive support and publicity for the issues being addressed, has been what such great media attention represents. For something to make the news, given the nature of the word itself, or to go “viral” on social media we can assume that it must be something new, or even surprising. This fact, in itself, thus shows that speaking openly about everyday sexism and sexual assault is still not wholly normalised, and therefore these calls to action are still increasingly necessary.
Of course, when you launch a campaign of this nature in the public realm of the Internet there are some who ignore these needs in favour of planting negativity into the progressivity of the campaigns. Online trolls can be unjustly critical and hurtful, and therefore form one of the reasons why it is so hard for many individuals to speak out in the first place – for fear of being judged or blamed.
Solidarity of thousands
But what consistently gives me hope is that these voices are becoming ever more diluted by the solidarity of thousands of others for every one critical voice. As a victim of sexism or sexual assault, it is common to feel alone or unsupported. But the more individuals that have read of others’ speaking out, and the more that social media has emphasised the solidarity of this community, the more voices I have seen expressing hope. Hope in realising that they had not done anything wrong, and are not to blame for what happened to them.
Hope that they are not alone, and that there are networks of support out there. Hope that, finally, their voice is being heard and that a victim’s right to anonymity doesn’t have to equate to being silenced by society.
As well as providing hope and solidarity for victims, social media has helped to spread a firm message to anybody committing these sorts of behaviours. Many perpetrators of sexism and assault seem to work on the assumption that they will not ever have to know about the impact that they have had upon their victim. By putting stories out in the open, we hope to unveil to those committing these offences the consequences of their actions, thus holding them to account for enacting them.
Everyday sexism and sexual assault are both still so common that everyone will know somebody affected by one of them, or both. It is a necessity that we, as human beings with the capacity for empathy, continue to give force to movements that can help to reform the attitudes and behaviours that have no place in our society, and reshape the lives that have been affected by them.
On 29th August at 2pm, as part of the Amongst Women talk series in Belfast, Laura Bates and I will continue to discuss the issues that fuelled our campaigns, and how social media and the Internet have played a role in giving individuals a voice and promoting social change.
Ione Wells, a 20-year-old Oxford student from Camden London, came to public attention in 2015 when she wrote an open letter to the 17-year-old youth who sexually assaulted her in a London street, an open letter that she hoped would encourage other women to speak out as well.
Since then Ione has set up the #NotGuilty campaign to help others who have been assaulted, saying assaults are never the fault of the victim.
Ione will appear at the Lughnasa International Friel Festival in Belfast on 29 August in conversation with Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project.