Talking about Sexual Violence.
Report from the RAG dayschool
A bit later than I hoped, here is a report of the days events.
Answering difficult questions early on a Saturday morning
In June, the women members of the WSM hosted a dayschool on Women in Revolutionary Struggle. Following on from this RAG (Revolutionary Anarcho-Feminist Group) decide to host a women's only day-school on sexual violence. This was held in the in the new Seomra Spraoi space in Dublin.
I have to be honest; I wasn’t looking forward to it. Sexual violence is a difficult, emotional and disturbing issue. Spending a Saturday talking about it just wasn’t my idea of fun. It was something important, that had to be done, but not exactly a barrel of laughs.
But I was wrong, there were lots of laughs, and it was fun (who’d have thought it!). RAG are to be complimented for creating a relaxed and easy going environment in which to discuss this most difficult of issues.
The first thing we did was get to know the person sitting beside us – we asked them about what they liked and didn’t like, what they were good at and what they were bad at. Then we went around in a circle, each introducing the person we had been talking to everyone else. I discovered that Clair likes Organising and that Eve likes Rossport Solidarity Camp and hates Shell. I like cats and have a bad memory. It was an easy start to the day, but things were about to get more difficult.
We were all divided into smaller group- each group was given a white sheet of paper with a question on it, a couple of pens and told to write out the answer. Our question was ‘Why does sexual violence occur’?
‘Jaysus’ we said to each other, ‘that’s a bit of a difficult question to answer’. But we gave it a go. The first thing we wrote was drink/drugs. Later we went back to this because we weren’t happy with the way drink/drugs is often used as an excuse in Ireland (‘sure I was pissed’) so we added in ‘not an excuse’.
We then wrote down ‘power imbalances in society’ both between men and women and the other hierarchies that exist. We discussed sexual violence as being about exerting power over others. Rape also happens because of physical imbalances between people. Rape is also an instrument of war. A woman from Italy talked about how there, a man might rape a women to get revenge on her partner.
We moved on to think about the lack of sexual education that most of us received; people don’t talk about sex or about what consent means. There is often a basic mis-understanding about what is meant by yes and no. This isn’t helped by the masculine and feminine role models in society (and the media depiction of these role models, particularly in the porn industry). We talked about how there were very limited sexual role models within society – women were encouraged to be passive, men aggressive. We also thought that men were under considerable peer pressure, particularly as teenagers, to be aggressive sexually. Coercion is seen to be normal.
We also wrote ‘because it is tolerated’- though being aware that it is tolerated to a different degree in different cultures.
All the other groups then discussed their questions and answers. Looking at them we thought, that perhaps we hadn’t been given the most difficult question after all.
- Are there misconceptions about rape?
- What is rape?
- What is sexual harassment?
- Why might sexual violence not be reported/talked about?
Briefly, here are some of the answers people came up with.
Misconceptions about rape: It’s not rape because – she kissed me; it was my boyfriend, husband; it was someone I know and not a stranger; she was a sex worker; she put her self in a dangerous position and should have known better; she dressed sexy; I was drunk or on drugs; he was drunk or on drugs; it didn’t involve genital penetration; because rape only happens to women; because he was educated, middleclass, left-wing, an activist, he couldn’t be a rapist. The final two mis-conceptions outlined were that women lie about rape to blackmail men and that rape is about sexual desire.
What is rape? It’s rape if there is; emotional or physical force; intimidation; invasion; violation; when someone is unconscious or asleep; when sex hasn’t been consented to. Men can be raped too.
What is sexual harassment? When someone does not respect your boundaries; inappropriate sexual behaviour; lack of sensitivity to others body language; an abuse of power; it can be subtle; it can be sitting too near person, invading their personal space, it can be making unwanted sexual comments or overtures to people. Sometimes we feel embarrassed and don’t want to make a fuss so often town don’t say anything. Sometimes sexual harassment is passed off as a joke so we don’t say anything because we don’t want to make a big deal. Sometimes it is a friend and we don’t want to upset the friendship or don’t know what to say to tell them we are unhappy with their behaviour. All agreed that sexual harassment was difficult because what is appropriate in one context for one person isn’t for another. It was important that we know ourselves what are boundaries are and are able to let people know what they are. But it isn’t easy.
Why isn’t rape/sexual violence reported? Because there is a lack of faith in the justice system, there is a low conviction rate; there is fear of the police or the trial; fear of being shunned by family and community; fear of being put on trial; being intimidated by the legal system; because someone is dependant economically on the attacker, or works for them, or doesn’t want to have to leave their home. Rapes aren’t reported when people don’t have the language to express what has happened to them, or are afraid that they will be blamed; they might face homophobia; Among teenagers there is a fear of sex and of talking about it; its difficult for children to access services.
After this session we all took a well-earned break for a cup of tea and a smoke.
In the next session we were shown some basic self-defence moves and spent a happy while throwing each other around the room and practicing running away. It was good to have a break from all the talking and the running and shouting woke us all up a bit.
(are you still with me? It was a long day, no doubt about that)
The third session was about the issue of consent. The organisers had devised a series of scenarios, aimed at encouraging us to think about what consent means, how to give it, how to make sure you have it. We were asked to think about consent not just in terms of a sexual relationship but also in a wider way, in terms of our relationships with our friends and family in general. Then the fun really started.
We were all dived up into pairs, and each pair was given a particular scenario. We were also given a little information about the character we were playing. We were then asked to write down a piece of dialogue between the two and think about how they might respond to the situation they were placed in. My partner and I both hate role-playing, and although initially it was a bit weird and embarrassing, strangely enough, it actually was also a bit of a laugh. The situation I had to develop was one in which the woman in a new relationship tries to convince the bloke to have sex without a condom, though he didn’t really want to. It didn’t take long. When the group was brought back together, volunteers were asked to actually act out their scenarios.
The first woman to take to the floor provided a show stopping performance as she pestered her tired and uninterested partner to have sex. Next up was a situation in which two friends are in a social situation, and one keeps coming on to the other, despite the fact that she isn’t interested. This scenario was played too ways, in the first, the woman clearly said ‘listen, I know you’re a mate, but I’m not interested, please respect my boundaries’. The second group dealing with the same scenario had a more difficult task as the character in question shy and only gave non-verbal indications that she really wasn’t interested. In another scenario, one partner in a couple had to ask the other partner to be less clinging and to allow her more independence, while the other partner had to be insecure and anxious. One of the things that came up in the discussion was that when we had given the scenarios, most of us had assumed that a one character was obviously male and the other obviously female. We found that if we thought about changing the genders, the scenarios played very differently. It also made us think about how consent operates both ways between men and women.
The facilitators drew up a chart of verbal and non-verbal signals that indicated consent and non-consent. These ranged from consent doesn’t exist is someone says no, if someone is crying, if they turn their back to you, if they are asleep and unconscious. However someone commented that while these were very clear signals, the issue of consent could contain lots of grey areas. People can give out contradictory signals, particularly when there is confusion within their own head about what they want. This then lead onto a discussion about people’s own experiences. A common theme that emerged was how many of us had quite negative sexual experiences as teenagers, we done things or been is situations that we would never been in now that we are a little older and more confident. Many spoke about having sex when they were younger (or even not so young) because they felt a sense that they were ‘obliged to’ or to save a bloke from the embarrassment of being rejected. Someone asked was this ever going to change?
Finally the facilitators handed us all out a piece of paper and asked us to note down what our own boundaries were, so that we were sure within ourselves what our lines were. Some people found this useful; others found it more difficult, saying that boundaries are too dependent on context (who you are with, when or where) to make it possible to decide in abstract what they were. I think it is fair to say that this session was very thought provoking.
4. Safer Spaces Policy
The final session was on safer spaces policy. A member of Seomra Spraoi and of the Rossport Peace Camp, both outlined their experiences in developing safer space policies. A women from indymedia said that there was also a need for safe ‘virtual’ spaces.
A common problem seemed to be that while it was fairly easy to establish a positive statement such as ‘sexual harassment shall not be tolerated’, it was much more difficult to work out procedures to deal with instances of sexual harassment and accusations of sexual harassment.
It was said that any policy had to be continually open to negotiation and change as over time we face new problems and learn from our experiences. It was also said that a safer space policy could only work if people agree with it and are willing to implement it. While there was a general willingness to have a policy, there wasn’t a similar willingness to go through the thought processes necessary to see how these policies are implemented in practice. We have no guidelines or agreement on how to deal with sexual abuse or assault within our community, we have no way of dealing with these types of conflicts when they emerge. This session ended with a commitment from those that attended to begin the very important process of developing our safer space policies.
5. Closing circle
The meeting ended with everyone giving feedback on how they found the day. Many people mentioned how relaxed they found it, how it was a lot of fun, how there was a lot of laughing during the day and that was unexpected. Many people said that having the discussion among women only made it much easier to talk about the issue, the atmosphere felt less charged. One woman said that she felt less defensive and angry than she had felt in previous, mixed gender discussions. Another women also thought that having a women’s only group made easy for us to stereotype men’s behaviour. A number of women said that while it was good to start the discussion among women only groups, it was important to continue the discussion among mixed-gender groups. There was no point in educating and raising the consciousness of half of society. The next step was to broaden the process to include our male friends and comrades.
With that it was agreed to have a further meeting, open to all genders, on how safer sex polices might work in practice.
The ladies of RAG are to be thanked for putting so much effort into the day. It was I think a very important contribution to the development of the anarchist and libertarian community in Ireland.
Lunch was lovely too.
Learning to shout 'BACK OFF' in a loud voice
Feedback at the end of the day