In our next article from This Space we hear why the role of survivors is vital in our dialogue about rape and consent.
At the start of this term, I stood in front of 20 freshers, ready to talk about sex.
Yes, I was about to lead one of those ‘controversial’ and media-frenzy-inducing consent workshops. After months of hard-work from various members of our JCR, our college had given permission for the workshops to run, and I had volunteered to help.
There is one small thing that made me different from my contemporaries: I am a ‘rape survivor’.
I put those words in quotation marks because for some reason they make me feel slightly uncomfortable. It took me a long time to actually use the word ‘rape’ to describe what happened to me, and I still feel somewhat reluctant to.
For me, the consent workshops were amazing, they were not triggering, they were supportive. They reminded me of the legitimacy of what happened to me: that I did not deserve it, that I did not ask for it, and that there was a whole community who would believe my experience for what it was: rape.
Out of all the people involved in the consent workshops at my college, only one of them knew about my experiences and she made absolutely sure that I felt sufficiently comfortable with the content before I was able to run one.
Her main concern was that it might be a very triggering environment. However, I was adamant that I could run one, and more than anything I felt it was important – for me personally, and for the success of the workshops – that I should be involved. I knew our college’s main objection to the workshops themselves was along the same lines: they would be triggering for new students. So although everyone has their own individual triggers – I knew that my being involved in the process meant I would be able to point out things which might potentially be distressing or upsetting.
It was only at the consent workshop training, run by the CUSU Women’s Campaign, that I realised just how crucial these workshops are in opening up conversation about all aspects of sex.
Consent is crucial and the workshops discussed the nuances of consent and individual boundaries, offering ideas for practicing consent. More importantly, I believe the consent workshops gave people the tools to talk about sex more generally: what they like, what they don’t like, concerns or questions they might have. They were the start of a conversation that I hope reached outside of the workshop, all the way to bedrooms across Cambridge.
After what happened to me, I really struggled to articulate how I was feeling, especially in a sexual environment, and this frustrating inability often led to panic attacks. I saw that the underlying principle of the consent workshops was truly about personal autonomy: to get people talking, to give them the tools to express themselves, and (to use that feminist buzzword) to empower them.
At the start of this article, I said I didn’t associate particularly well with the term ‘rape survivor’. Originally that was because I liked to think the experience didn’t affect me too much. I think this all comes from the weeks and months after the event where I simply pretended to most people (and myself) that it hadn’t happened and it hadn’t affected me (apart from the panic attacks, the nightmares, the self-destructive behaviour…).
So perhaps I should embrace the term ‘survivor’ because it did happen, it did affect me, I did survive it and to be quite frank I’m pissed off about it all: I’m pissed off whenever someone makes a rape joke, I’m pissed off whenever I feel panicky in an unfamiliar social environment, I’m pissed off whenever I wake up my boyfriend because I’m having nightmares, I’m pissed off whenever people engage in rape culture without even realising it, I’m pissed off that my rapist barely realises the severity of what he did and I’m pissed off that I’m writing this under a pseudonym because not everyone I know would react positively.
But being pissed off is helping me get over what happened and actively help to bring about some sort of change.
Consent workshops might not seem important to you, or they might seem like a very small step, but (to use a cliché) change doesn’t happen overnight and, whether in my case or in changing societies’ shitty attitudes, small steps are better than nothing.
Consent workshops are about giving every single person the voice to say that no, they don’t want that, or they aren’t happy with that. This sort of empowerment is about more than just sex: it is about knowing that you have value and that nobody has the right to make you do anything you don’t want to.
The consent workshops were empowering for me in my recovery and my acknowledgement that I do not want what happened to affect me anymore.
I’m not exactly happy with my body yet: there still tends to be a disconnection between mind and body, especially during sex. I still find it hard to communicate when I’m not happy with something but I am lucky to be surrounded by great friends and a wonderful boyfriend, all of whom are sensitive without being restrictive.
I do need a huge amount of reassurance sometimes: that I’m worthy, that my body is not repulsive, that I deserve meaningful relationships and, crucially, that my words have power and will be listened to. But, ultimately, I’m getting there and I’m regaining a control I felt I had lost.
The consent workshops meant a lot to me, because it gave my experiences a voice. To stand in front of a group of freshers who I didn’t know and to talk about consent was a huge step, not only because I think consent workshops are hugely important as an educational tool, but also because they represent a support network: a group of people who are attempting to eradicate experiences such as mine whilst simultaneously showing great consideration and giving legitimacy to those experiences.
I managed to run an entire consent workshop, without being triggered, without having a panic attack, and hopefully with enough conviction and insight that those who attended felt some sort of benefit. To me that is a victory, for my own health and for the fight against rape culture.
This article is written in collaboration with This Space, a submissions-based blog dedicated to mental health and reducing stigma surrounding the topic. You can check them out here, and if you’d like to submit, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.