Friday, 25 October 2013

Anti-Rape Wear

I woke up this morning and checked my Twitter feed (which makes me seem very sad, but I was actually searching for details on the DW 50th anniversary screening... Not helping my case), when I saw a very heated debate being fought by feminist Roweena Russell and the EVB Campaign.

Under normal circumstances, I don't read many posts and links of that nature in Twitter. There's only so much of society's victim-blaming attitude that I can take, and you get to a point where if you read everything that crops up, you're going to lose the will to live.

But something about this caught my eye.

"Anti-rape clothing".

Sure, the suggestion of rape prevention as a female responsibility is misogynistic and dangerously avoiding the real issue of male perpetrators in control. But I was sure the situation couldn't be as bad as EVB were making out. Surely all those outraged feminists were over-reacting, at least a little bit. I was also mildly curious. How could a pair of shorts actually prevent rape? What was so special?

So I went to have a look.

The first thing that struck me was that the product seriously misunderstood the reality of rape. It was designed to protect people from assault on the street, for a start. It is estimated that most women who have experienced rape have been assaulted by men that they knew. Quite often, it is within a relationship, perhaps in bed at night, not when you'd necessarily be wearing shorts or trousers.

How would anti-rape trousers protect a woman who woke up to find her partner inside her,  are we suggesting that to protect themselves, women must wear such clothing every minute of the day that they are not willing to have sex? Would this become permissible evidence in court? And if they are raped at night, as suggested, did they consent by not wearing their preventative clothing?

Of course, it is ridiculous that a pair of shorts or trousers can prevent a woman's rape. You would need an immovable, tear-resistant gag to cover the mouth too, you see. Because the legal definition of rape also includes penetration of the mouth. So now, to ensure that women are protected, we must remember that their mouths are also fully covered at all times too!

The second thing that struck me was that all the images of women, all the prototypes, the whole campaign was geared towards young, slim, beautiful women. Some might say that this is a side effect of the fashion industry, but anyone who genuinely cares about and advocates on VAWG issues will know and understand that rape and related sexual assault happens to women of all ages, of all sizes, of all appearances and from all backgrounds. Genuinely caring and ethical companies would reflect that in their campaign, to lessen the isolation and counteract the myths surrounding society's perceived victim profiles.

Oh, the myths. It was bad enough when they talked about protecting oneself when on a run, when on a first date and so on, but then they spoke of "risky situations", they used accusatory language about "even if she's had too much to drink", as if alcohol intake is a reason for rape. It really isn't. Every single part of the video and the campaign put the responsibility on the woman for the hypothetical attack, and it also put the responsibility on her for prevention. It proliferated myths and stereotypes that research has proven to be simply untrue.

This product, and the way it is being marketed, is dangerous and damaging to women everywhere and could seriously impair and hinder the emotional well being and recovery of those who have suffered serious trauma.

And if only they were my sole concerns.

What is to stop an attacker coercing the woman into giving him the release code for the clothing? What if she has, in fear, forgotten it? The company claims research disproves an increase in violence, but what research is this?

The first time I was raped, my attacker tried to strangle me. He repeatedly smashed my head against the concrete. I don't remember him leaving, but do remembering opening my eyes and him not being there, so presumably he had left me for dead. He said he would kill me. If I had been "protected" by this clothing, would he have just killed me anyway? Would the enhanced rage and frustration given him the power to actually do it, rather than just render me unconscious?

You see, rape itself is rarely an act of passion, connected with sexual attraction or a spur of the moment, lack of control type of event. Usually, it is premeditated in some way, and it is always about control. Yes, by wearing supposed anti-rape clothing, you are removing some of that control from the perpetrator, but aren't you also opening these women up to even more danger when he loses control in that moment of anger?

I don't know the answer.

Another concern that struck me is practical and medical. This clothing is designed to be resistant to tearing cutting and all sorts of other destructive methods. Just suppose a woman is involved in an accident and needs to be rushed to hospital. There, the doctors find that they are unable to remove the clothing. What happens then? Yes, significant portions of the clothing are normal fabric, but that doesn't get rid of the leg bands, waist bands or the gusset. And in the event that there is a safety code to unlock the garments in these circumstances, what prevents potential rapists from obtaining that same code?

There are many other problems with the situation, such as the financial implications and the fact that anti-rape wear is going to heighten the unfounded stereotype that sexual assault doesn't happen in "nice" communities.

Perhaps the company genuinely thought they were doing a good thing. Yes, if women feel confident and empowered in this clothing and want that choice, it is no bad thing, but to campaign using stereotypes, victim-blaming and create a product that potentially puts women in a more dangerous position, that is not. The company has shown that, fundamentally, they don't understand what rape is, who it happens to, why it happens, where it happens or what the real implications of such violent crime are. Let's help educate.

Edit: I have been informed on Twitter that hospital scissors can cut through tough materials, such as biker gear. However, I think clarification from the company would still be a good idea on this matter!

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Girls In Action: Discussing VAWG Issues With Young People

This posts answers questions I was asked today. It does discuss violence, personal experience (though not in detail) and other things. I try to be professional and sensitive throughout!

I'm not going to go through the whole process of facilitating a workshop for young people here. Most people reading this will be friends who already have access to brilliant resources and proper training teams. Those who want to know the WAGGGS guidelines or want to ask questions are free to do so and I'll try and help if I can!

So instead, I wanted to share some of the questions that I've been asked today by friends, parents and people at the women's centre about what I do and how I approach it. I must note that most of these questions deal with the rape and sexual violence aspect, and that is because of the people who have asked me, and the nature of the questions and activities.

Because of the nature of our volunteer day, our "action" for Girls In Action was finding out about services available, particularly Nottingham Rape Crisis Centre and Women's Aid Integrated Services which are based in the women's centre. This meant that we did look in detail at sexual assault and domestic violence, but many of our activities involved more positive aspects, thinking about healthy relationships and ideal partners!

Q: How do you prepare for a volunteer day / VAWG project?
A: After the girls suggest the project (it is always their decision, not me who initiates), I discuss with parents what I intend to do. They get a copy of the syllabus (if we are working towards a badge) and full details of any other work that we're doing. I welcome discussion from the parents about anything that they are unsure of or concerned about. So far, I've not had any concerns come back and parents have even suggested that I go into more detail rather than less!

Once I've discussed things with parents, I start chatting in more detail to the members who are participating. What do they want to learn? What sort of activities do they like? I show them the pack and they can select. Is there anything missing that they want to do?

At this point, I go back to the parents and show them the final draft of activities, as well as give them access to support networks / helplines they might want available for themselves or their daughters, and show them discussion notes so that they are prepared for any questions that the girls might ask them following the sessions. Girls In Action is a great project to do, as most of this information is included either in the members' resource pack, or the guidance notes.

In terms of preparing myself, I try and connect with my own support networks in advance. One of these is the Nottingham Rape Crisis Centre and I just give the helpline a ring to chat about what I'm doing, concerns I have and my feelings about it. It's not that I'm out of control or panicking, it's just a useful way of me to get aware of my own comfort levels.

Q: Are your girls aware of your personal experience?
A: Not that I'm aware. I won't say a definitive "no" because this blog is obviously public. However, if they are aware, they haven't said anything. I think the more important question is whether I have chosen to discuss this directly with the girls or not, and the answer is absolutely not. 

I am in no way ashamed of what happened to me. I'm not proud of it, and I'm very upset and sorry that it did happen, but it is not something that I feel that I should keep hidden or guilty about. 

Having said that, there is a difference between my professional and personal life. In a professional context, and I do consider Guiding to be a professional role, there are many things that I don't discuss or don't feel are appropriate to that arena. I don't discuss my love life with pupils, Guides (or Rangers!) or even with colleagues, for the most part. When my ex-girlfriend came to camp with us last year, she was just a Leader from Leeds, and that is all that was discussed. Likewise, I don't discuss my rape(s) with the girls or pupils, because that is not something they need to know about me, and I don't think it benefits them or affects the relationship I have with them to know that.

If they found out, however, I would not be unduly worried. I see it, in many ways, like them seeing me with a girlfriend in town. It is not information I would volunteer, but if it did end up in the public arena, I would discuss with my commissioners (or senior management in a school), as well as with parents about how best to tackle the situation. It may be decided that we ignore it, or decided that we open a discussion about it, with neutral support / mediators. 

I don't know how I would respond to a girl who asked me directly. I hate avoiding questions, but am aware that these discussions need to be conducted in safe space with full parental knowledge and consent. My gut professional reaction tells me to challenge the question gently, with one in return; turn it back on the girl. So, instead of answering the question, ask if that would affect how they saw a leader? Does that matter? Why do they want to know? Is it better to wait for information to be volunteered or should we ask for disclosure? How do we respond around survivors? Choose a question (not bombard) and try to open a general and non-specific discussion. 

Q: If discussing VAWG issues affects you emotionally, why do you do it?
I think most people are affected by these discussions on some level. Most of the time, I just feel tired and drained once the adrenaline of the day wears off, and I just need to curl up with a cup of tea. I know I'm not alone - the other leader who joined me in July also felt drained afterwards, so we debriefed with a good cocktail!

The real difference is how we acknowledge that and handle self-care following the event. Many will just say that they are tired / exhausted, but my work with D has shown me that my exhaustion stems from emotions that I need to identify and process. This may be the case for a lot of people. My acknowledgement of this fact is not a weakness, but actually a sign of a strong relationship with myself and awareness of my emotional needs. 

Why do I tackle VAWG issues despite my personal connection? Well, at first, it was because my members were so passionate about it. My role as a Leader is to facilitate the experiences that they want and have chosen, and to do it in a responsible way that cares for their well-being. In tackling sensitive issues, I have ensured that I seek support and the help I need to work safely and effectively with my members, and continue to do so now.

I did say "at first", though. I never thought I would be strong enough to do this work and did explore and consider outside providers to work with the girls. I also didn't think that I would ever be passionate about the topic, because it was too close to home. But the fact that it is close to home fuels me. When I think of the statistics (one in four women experiences rape or attempted rape), and I see that 1/4 of the young women I work with will be forced to endure what I have, I realise that I will do anything in my power to change this future, and anything I can to make sure they are equipped to support and speak out for themselves and for others.

Q: But if it's affecting you, shouldn't someone else deliver?
A: As I said, I have considered outside providers, but I am fully capable of delivering these sessions and have attended appropriate trainings. As mentioned, I make sure that I am fully prepared and that I explore my own feelings, but when I talk about being affected, I'm not necessarily talking about an extreme negative impact, rather an emotional response that can be processed.

When initially discussing the project with the girls, I do speak of peer educators and other options. Realistically, I need to ensure that the best facilitator for my members is the one delivering, and I know that I am not the only one suitably trained to facilitate this. According to NSPCC research by Christine Barter, young people much prefer peers to adults. However, my members have so far opted to work with me, on the grounds that they "know and trust" me.

Q: Have the girls ever seen you affected by activities?
A: Other than a long sigh at the end of a day, no. During the day, I tend to be running on adrenaline and don't have the time to be overly affected. But thorough preparation means that I'm better able to work with these issues and activities and facilitate their exploration. Actually, if anything, I've been questioned about why I seem so "unemotional" about the subject matter!

Since engaging with the counselling process, I've found that working with my emotions has been far easier, and they don't tend to "burst out" at inappropriate moments as they used to do. Occasionally, when attending Guides straight after a session, I have done washing up or paperwork to remove myself from the girls "in case", but I'm very aware of my limits.

Q: How do you ensure you can deliver safely?
A: As mentioned above, I make sure that I prepare fully, both in terms of activities and by looking after my emotional needs. Adults need the same safe space provision as young people; we need the chance to leave a room if the session becomes too intense, we need listeners for support, and we need to reflect and emotionally evaluate the activities. Having more than one adult present is essential for this; it allows you to take five minutes, have a tea break, just have a breather. When planning, it's also vital you have plenty of short breaks and time to just chat and escape that mindset for a little time. It's much healthier to take five minutes and do some washing up elsewhere than it is to let emotions fester and potentially let the girls see discomfort.

With the volunteer days, the painting itself is a great space. It gives our young people chance to process what they've been talking about, or to escape it for a bit. By breaking up the day around the painting, it makes sure they have time to do something else and offers plenty of space for them to go and do other jobs "alone" if they need space.

Q: You give the girls the opportunity to ask questions of a survivor of sexual assault. Why is this done through writing rather than face to face?
A: It is mainly to alleviate any discomfort and embarrassment for either party. The girls are able to ask questions, knowing that they don't have to say the words out loud, and they don't have to share the questions with other girls if they don't want to. In some cases, faced with a survivor of rape, they may become uncomfortable about how they are supposed to act or what they are supposed to say.

Similarly, for the survivor, a written question means that the response can be measured, thought through for whether it is age-appropriate for the members, and it gives chance to process any emotions that arise without an audience.

Because I have experienced sexual assault, I tend to write these answers myself, and it's useful to keep the anonymity. As  the questions are for personal experience / opinion, it's something I can do, but I try to ensure another adult reads them for content to check they are appropriate. In some cases, I will get another survivor I know, or a counsellor to answer the questions, as they are better equipped to do so. But in all cases, it is made completely clear that the answer is personal experience and opinion, and try to ensure there is a positive challenge or discussion point for the girls.

Parents are, like with everything else, made aware of this activity, and many parents have chosen to discuss potential questions with their daughters in advance. Usually, my members choose to take their responses home with them, so that they can keep and discuss them later. Both parents and girls have said this is a valuable part of the day, as it is a true, personal interaction rather than secondary source learning.


I hope that this gives a little insight into how I prepare for these sorts of projects, and how vital self-care and parental contact are in the process. I know some people may find areas of this confusing or worrying, particularly the conversation with the survivor of sexual assault, but given the age range of The Senior Section and the supportive environment in which it is conducted, it is an incredibly positive experience for our members.

My main wish, though, is that it will inspire people out there to consider VAWG projects. It may be discussing gender roles and stereotypes with younger girls (you don't need to discuss rape and domestic violence!), or it may have made you consider using peer educators or providers like Rape Crisis to help you in delivery.