How far do these voices travel?lauramba

The issue of female silence – or perhaps more pertinently the silencing of females – is topical. Investigations into both historical and ongoing high profile cases of sexual harassment and abuse have acted to uncover the persistent ubiquity of sexism and misogyny in our society. The gravitas of the problem lies not only in its scale, but in its invisibility – why, for so long, has the sexual abuse of women from all walks of life been characterised by its silent victims?

Recent ‘silence breaker’-style movements have attempted to subvert this characteristic. The #MeToo social media campaign against sexual harassment and abuse was reported by Facebook alone to have engaged 4.7 million people in its first 24 hours. Likewise, the Everyday Sexism Project, dedicated to ‘every woman who raised her voice and made the world listen’, is a protest against routine gender discrimination, collating women’s stories about the everyday, and not so everyday, experiences of misogyny, aiming to get everyone #ShoutingBack. These movements have liberated the voices of victims, and begun to change the narrative of female silence that has suppressed the discourse surrounding sexual abuse.

However, many have begun to question the ability of what are effectively publicity campaigns to enact real change.

Megan Nolan argues that we need more than strength and solidarity to allow female voices to be truly heard. She argues that #MeToo has led to a lack of nuance and discussion, and thus dampened the potential for change. In a narrative where women are “expected to play (their) own history as a trump card,” and are “sour feminazis” until they do, she writes, the core issues are not being tackled – “there is no room… for an impersonal non-narrative criticism of the culture”.

“The success of ‘Breaking the Silence’ lies in the fact that the words and stories of women’s experiences are not just heard, but listened to”

A reading of Nolan’s article evokes a sense that simply listening to once silent victims, though important, is in itself not enough. Too often, such awareness raising campaigns, in which the abuse is never detached from the victim, can be dismissed as the subjectivity of experience in a culture where objectivity precipitates change. Essentially, it feels as if the voices of women talking about sexual abuse are heard but not listened to. The fact that only 15% of those who are sexually assaulted report it to the police serves to cement this feeling of futility.

Importantly, this article does not seek to suggest that the impact of campaigns which aim to raise awareness of the scale of sexual abuse are worthless – our very own Cambridge ‘Breaking the Silence’ campaign has made huge progress in changing the culture and approach to sexual assault on campus. It does seem, however, that the success of ‘Breaking the Silence’ lies not only in its awareness raising but in its creation of a comprehensive system of consent workshops, reporting systems, and educational programs. The success of the campaign lies in the fact that the words and stories of women’s experiences are not just heard but listened to – digested and mobilised into a meaningful and tangible movement.

Too often, however, it feels as if the larger, particularly online campaigns lose sight of the need for practical solutions, and become entangled in a cycle of raising voices louder and louder, without recognition that to create real change, we have to have an interactive conversation. And, a conversation is as much about the listener as it is the speaker.


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To get the voices of female victims of endemic sexual harassment listened too on a global scale, we need to change our approach. Issues of misogyny and abuse can’t be solved by #ShoutingBack alone. We have to tackle the culture which forces women to shout.

Ultimately, we must do more than make female voices loud; we have to dismantle the structures that have enabled the creation of silent victims. We need representation and legislation. It is the only way to ensure that people listen. change the discourse from one of individual exposure, to collective reflection.

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