The “Clear Lines” of Sexual Consent

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“It’s time to talk about sexual assault.” So goes the moniker of a brand-new festival that SheRa Mag is super excited to get behind. Starting this Thursday July 30 and taking place at the I’Klectik Art Lab in London, the Clear Lines Festival has found a clever way to talk about a very important issue: rape and sexual abuse. The first of its kind in the UK, the four-day festival will bring together comedians, performers, journalists, writers, artists, musicians, cartoonists, psychologists, activists, therapists, and the public to explore the themes surrounding sexual abuse, sexual violence, and consent.

The festival is the brainchild of Dr. Nina Burrowes, a psychologist and researcher specializing in the psychology of sexual abuse, and Winnie M. Li, a writer and a producer, and herself a survivor of sexual assault. The seed was planted in March when Burrowes contacted a few people via email and social media to see who wanted to meet up, have a coffee, and talk about the idea of having some kind of festival about sexual abuse. The coffee date took place on April 7, with Burrowes meeting Li and a several other women who were deeply affected by the issue, either as social workers, therapists, or survivors themselves. The coffee date was coincidentally the anniversary of Li’s own rape.

With one woman’s background in psychology and the other’s in event management (Li previously programmed for the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and was involved in the Unheard Festival, which we covered back in February, that dealt with the same issue but through theater), they seem like the perfect pair to stage a festival of this sort. Add to the mix On Road Media, a non-for-profit organization that works with excluded and misrepresented communities to look for solutions to social problems, and you’ve got yourself one important and quite remarkable event. “In some way, you could say it was a serendipitous meeting of individuals, circumstances, and backgrounds—all committed to bringing about change in the area of sexual assault—that started Clear Lines,” Li tells me.

The festival’s name is a cheeky throwback to Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines,” which was heavily criticized for trivializing sexual consent when it was released in 2013 (that and its use of topless models, with douchebag Thicke and his famous buddies prancing around them fully-clothed, ogling). So, in the lead-up to Clear Lines, I spoke to Burrowes and Li about their pioneering festival, what’s in store, and why there should be no “blurred lines” when it comes to sexual consent.

The statistics are harrowing. One man and 10 women are raped every hour in England and Wales; in the States, the statistics are somewhere along the lines of one in four women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. From a psychological and non-psychological perspective, can you shed some light on why rape and sexual assault are so prevalent in our societies?

Burrowes: The figures are shocking. This issue is massive. And it’s everywhere. One of the reasons why rape and assault is so prevalent in society is because we’re not talking about it. We’re not having the kind of constructive conversations that we need to have to change things. If you want things to change one of the best things you can do is to educate yourself and to start talking to the people you love about these issues. There is so much misinformation and misunderstanding about abuse. So much fear and silence. All of this suits sex offenders perfectly and makes life for their victims much harder.

Li: Sexual assault has been prevalent in many societies (not just ours), but it’s all the more shocking that it’s still happening frequently in 21st-century UK or US, where there is high level of peace, prosperity, and education. I think there’s still unfortunately a great culture of shame and silence around being a victim of these crimes. Most crimes unfortunately don’t get reported, and this leads to perpetrators being able to get away with their behavior and continue to re-offend. With Clear Lines, we’re encouraging people to be more open and honest about their experiences, so the rest of society can realize how prevalent sexual assault is and start to talk about how things can change.

What are some practical ways of helping to reduce instances of sexual assault?

Burrowes: My answer is always going to be “educate yourself.” If you don’t know what the real risks are you can’t do anything about them. If you want to protect your children then you need to recognize that teaching them to avoid strangers isn’t the way to do it. They are most likely to be abused by someone they know. Which means they need to be taught how to feel confident about their bodies, feel that they get to exercise choice about their bodies, and that they have the kind of relationship with their parents that makes it easier for them to talk about the things that are bothering them. I’m really looking forward to our event at the festival that will cover all of these issues

Li: Sadly, the statistics can just catch up with you sometimes. I agree with Nina that the majority of assaults are perpetrated by someone who knows the victim, but I went through 29 years of my life as a well educated, independent, confident woman before I was attacked in a park by a stranger—an incident that changed the rest of my life. Yes, we should protect ourselves and make sure we stand up for ourselves in our own relationships, but the ultimate way of reducing sexual assault is for society to hold perpetrators (or potential perpetrators) accountable and start to change their behavior.

How has being a survivor, Winnie, helped shape the way the festival was formed?

Li: I’ll be completely honest. I wouldn’t have co-founded this festival (or be writing a novel inspired by my rape, or starting a PhD on the topic), if I hadn’t been raped myself. Unfortunately, I never thought much about the issue until I myself became a victim. As individuals, we shouldn’t have to wait until we become raped (or our close friends are raped) to realize how huge a problem it is. Raising awareness about the issue is key, and I think the arts are one of the best ways to reach a larger audience, because you can use humor, drama, empathy to connect with people and bring to life the human stories behind experiences of sexual assault.

Let’s talk about consent. I have girlfriends who have been sexually assaulted and have myself nearly been a victim (unbelievable circumstances saved me). Some of the survivors I have spoken have said that in the moment of the assault, they become paralyzed and can’t actually utter the word “no.” Can you comment on this?

Burrowes: This is a common physiological response to assault. For many people the experience of abuse triggers what is commonly called a fight or flight response, but in reality our most common reaction to fear is to freeze. In these moments the automatic parts of our brain take over and we do what we can to survive. As a human being freezing is a smart thing to do. We are the dominant species on the planet but not because we’re the strongest or the fastest. Our brains know that our best bet when we’re faced by a predator is to freeze. It’s not something we choose to do. It’s something we’ve adapted to do over time. It’s a clever adaptation but it can be confusing for victims after abuse because you can wonder why you didn’t shout or fight like you always thought you would if you were attacked.

Li: Individuals react in all sorts of ways to assault. A lot of people freeze. I didn’t. I said no multiple times, I shouted for help, I fought back—but at the end of the day I was in a remote area and there was no one else around, and my perpetrator had a greater capacity for physical violence than me. So I had to choose the lesser of two evils. I realized I had a better chance of surviving if I stopped struggling—which unfortunately meant getting raped. To this day, I still think I made the right choice, despite all the years of trauma and depression that resulted. I had 39 separate injuries after my attack, but I might not be alive today if I’d kept on struggling in the same way. In these situations, it genuinely comes down to your survival instincts. You do what you have to do to survive. I don’t think enough people realize that this is the decision rape survivors are forced to make during their assault.

Why do you think that in this day and age sexual assault is still such a taboo subject?

Burrowes: We’re talking about abuse more than we ever have. It’s taken very seriously by politicians, the press, and the public. So we need to recognize that we have come a long way. But our conversations about abuse lack sophistication. We’re not yet ready to talk about why abuse happens. We focus on victims of abuse because it’s much more comfortable than focusing on offenders. We would rather blame victims for making themselves vulnerable to abuse than recognize that there is little we can do to protect ourselves from predators. When people are ready to open their eyes to the truth then, and only then, things will change for the better.

A long list of performances, workshops, and panel discussions is scheduled. And they sound excellent. Who are some of the performers/speakers audiences should look out for? Is there someone that you are particularly excited to see?

Burrowes: I’m so happy that we are using the arts massively in this festival. When you want to have a difficult conversation you need to have that conversation in a way that people can engage with. I’m very grateful to all of the talented people who are going to be helping us open up some different conversations. Personally I’m most excited about the staggering amount of comedy talent we have lined up for the festival. Sometimes in order to take things seriously we have to give ourselves permission to laugh.

Li: I agree with Nina, it’s been fantastic to have acclaimed comedians like Bridget Christie, Tiff Stevenson, Josie Long, and Sarah Kendall join our conversation about sexual assault. I’m also looking forward to the Theater Night. These plays were so powerful at the Unheard Festival, that I felt they needed to be re-staged again so more people could see them. On Sunday, we have two really interesting panels that explore different forms of writing: Our Crime Fiction panel features top female crime writers from the Killer Women group, who will be talking about how sexual violence is portrayed in popular crime novels. I think that’s something we don’t think about enough as readers. And another panel involves Laydeez Do Comics, graphic novelists and comic artists who will be looking at how they use this particular art form to tell stories of sexual abuse.

And finally, what do you hope to achieve with the festival overall?

Burrowes: I am keen to widen the types of conversations that we have about sexual assault and broaden the types of people who are engaged in them. I spend a lot of my time talking about sexual abuse to professionals in training rooms. I want people to be talking about this stuff in cafés, in the pub, at home. I want to hear what everyone has to say, what their questions are, and what they think about issues like consent. No one has all the answers, no one group of people owns this issue. It affects us all which is why we need to talk about it in a way that anyone and everyone can engage with.

Li: I hope the festival will foster a greater awareness and a greater understanding about sexual assault. Oftentimes as a survivor, I think no one really understands what I’m going through, except other survivors and psychologists. But the fact is people, other people should understand—because this is a crime that is inflicted by another person and therefore can be stopped, if society starts holding perpetrators accountable. Too often, everything is swept under the carpet, and there’s an attitude of “let’s just pretend that didn’t happen.” People need to feel comfortable talking about this topic openly, or things won’t change. If Clear Lines can start to open up that conversation, then I’ll know it has achieved something.

SheRas in the UK, do make sure to attend some of the awesome events taking place. The festival takes place between July 30 and August 2 at the I’klectik, Old Paradise Yard, 20 Carlisle Lane, SE1 7LG. The closest tube stations are Lambeth North and Waterloo. Most of the events are free to attend, but you must register as places are limited. Click here to do so. And be a voice in helping to stop sexual abuse. 

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