March Against Rape Culture and Gender Inequality - 2Chase Carter

Content note: this article contains detailed discussion of sexual assault, transphobia and gender-based violence

‘When I walk down the street, I want to be free, not brave.’ — Julia Davies, March 16th 2021. Davies lived in Sarah Everard’s neighbourhood in South London and identifies in this quotation that the accolade of ‘bravery’ glosses over the realities of gender-based violence. Whilst for many women, non-binary and trans people it does take courage to walk down the street, there is a misdirection in just focusing on individual acts of bravery. People’s existence should not be habitually dictated by the experience or expectation of violence; bravery should not be a routine requirement for leaving the house. This outlook serves the view that someone’s identity inevitably warrants potential abuse, and that their existence in public spaces will always require an evaluation of potential risk.

“The assault had nothing to do with me or my response — it was to do with a man and his violence”

I feel there needs to be a space within consent culture and feminist discourse to evaluate how descriptors like bravery can feed into what author and academic Katherine Angel describes as ‘confidence feminism.’ Angel’s term addresses the cultural appetite to embrace ’a feminism that places the onus on individual women and their assertiveness to overcome challenges and succeed’. This thinking implies that it’s up to individuals to intervene and overcome potential abuse. It is a feminism that once fed into my own thinking; after I had been sexually assaulted I looked for ways I could have displayed greater strength. These beliefs led me to self-blame, believing I wasn’t brave or strong enough to resist, and thus was assaulted. In reality, the assault had nothing to do with me or my response — it was to do with a man and his violence.

After my assault, the term ‘bravery’ felt pretty meaningless to me, as I witnessed how quickly it could be rescinded. A woman who I was living with at the time of my assault relabelled my strength of character and past actions as a form of naivety. Whilst she had once applauded the fact that I went to parties and drank alcohol, she later used these behaviours to victim-blame me. Her detached denial of my experience stayed with me; she even found ways to explain away and dismiss the visible wounds relating to the assault. My lived experience and discernible fear were apparently insufficient evidence that something awful had happened. She informed me that, above all, this experience (which she never called by its name — rape) would teach me to be safer! I was certainly more afraid. My experience with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — sadly common for survivors — simply made me feel like there was no conceivable way to be safe. From my point of view, if nothing was safe, there was really no way to be brave either.

“If I am brave then it’s because I sought the right support at the right time”

I believe that, while being called brave can feel affirming and grounding (as with all words its application matters profoundly), it can act as a barrier for meaningful conversations to support survivors and hold abusers to account. If I am brave then it’s because I sought the right support at the right time. This is not possible for everyone. Responses to gender-based and sexual violence are so often warped by identity and affluence. We listen to certain people’s stories, as privilege and forms of oppression often intersect, and there are fixed expectations of what survivors of sexual violence look like and how they act. This has nothing to do with bravery; it’s about social attitudes towards assault and survivors’ varying access to support.


Mountain View

Cambridge’s procedures are failing assault survivors

Survivors need holistic support: emotional, psychological, physical, academic, and financial. Crucially, they need support which feels appropriate to their needs, for instance in the type of therapy available, and the identity of the therapist. This is not the case at Cambridge. Currently, the university has one trained Sexual and Assault Harassment Advisor (SAHA), for a student population of 18,736 students. A single advisor cannot possibly meet the specific needs of potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of students — no matter how qualified they are. The university’s one-size-fits-all approach produces increased wait times for support and will not always be appropriate for survivors. This councillor is not legally able to provide help if you are reporting sexual violence. Though emotional support is invaluable, practical solutions, advice and guidance are seriously lacking from the university’s support systems for survivors.

Such negligence gives a very clear message to survivors: be brave, keep it together, but don’t expect us to do anything. This approach is shockingly common and re-traumatising. It’s uncannily similar to the mindset of the woman I was living with at the time of my assault; both doubted my experience. Did it really happen? Do we have to talk about it now? Are you sure it wasn’t your fault? Survivors need to be heard, believed, and have actions taken which reflect the gravity of their experiences. This ideal shouldn’t be explained away as naive or implausible. Such a response shifts responsibility back onto survivors to deal with trauma, thus implying they were complicit in or provoked abuse. It is vital for the university’s support services to reflect immediately on one of Rape Crisis’ core messages: ‘it was not your fault and you did not deserve this.’

It takes great strength to talk about sexual assault, but this is only heightened by underfunded and inaccessible support systems for survivors. Bravery should not be a requirement for walking down the street, and survivors should not have to perform bravery just because there is no other option.