Interview with Lisa Thompson, Chief Executive of RSVP – ‘What is sexual assault?

Words by Emily Doyle / Pics by Lisa Bretherick, courtesy of RSVP

Since the launch of the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK campaign, many questions have been raised and discussed. Perhaps one of the most pertinent and important has been ‘what is sexual assault?’ It seems some people don’t understand the severity of their actions, whilst others can carry doubt over how to describe the aggression they have suffered.

Lisa Thompson, Chief Executive of the Rape & Sexual Violence Project (RSVP) – the city’s leading support agency for sexual violence and abuse, met with us to offer her insight and to help provide a clear answer to this question.

“Sexual assault would be any unwanted sexual contact that’s happened without your consent,” Thompson explains. “It could be loads of different things, but for example if somebody touched your breast and you hadn’t said yes, that is a sexual assault. So, the key thing is consent.”

“Consent can be withdrawn, it can be changed, and it can be renegotiated,” Thompson continues. “You might give consent to one thing on one day, and the same thing on the next day you might decide not to. Sexual assault covers a wide variety of offences, but the key thing is around that lack of consent.” No means no, a message that seems simple but one that can sadly still go unheard.

“You can go through sexual abuse or sexual trauma without being touched; you could be forced to watch sexual acts, or pornography… you could have had images that were consensually taken but then they’re shared, as ‘revenge porn’, that’s still got an element of sexual trauma.” Thompson makes it clear that there is a broad spectrum of crimes that are considered sexual assault, both in the judicial process and in more colloquial settings.

“The other thing to acknowledge is that even if somebody gives consent but it’s been under pressure or coercion,” Thompson continues, “that wouldn’t really be consent. Also, some people might not have the capacity to understand what they’re consenting to, and somebody can’t consent if they are totally under the influence of drugs or drink. So, consent on the one hand can be fairly simple and straightforward, but there are some complexities.”

RSVP provide support to all survivors of sexual assault. The organisation offers free counselling, social groups, and advocacy services, as well as self-help information, a telephone helpline and other holistic services. RSVP also offer training for professionals who support abuse survivors, and specialist support for asylum seekers and refugees.

“RSVP are a specialist rape and sexual abuse service,” Thompson tells us. “We established nearly forty years ago now, so in November we’ll have our fortieth anniversary. We established as a rape crisis service for women, run by women, but in the eighties we started to see men and now we’re a service that’s available for people of any gender who identify in any way.”

Some of Thompson’s work with RSVP also involves providing training for organisations who work with survivors of sexual assault and abuse, as well as those who have the power to challenge attitudes surrounding it.

“Preventative work is always difficult,” Thompson says. “Sometimes more of the messages are given to victims or survivors, telling them to, ‘drink less, not wear this, not go there, never be separated from your friends…’ What we need to be doing is giving more messages to offenders or potential offenders that this kind of behaviour is not OK, it won’t be tolerated here, and these are the consequences.”

Thompson talks about ‘victim blaming’, a phenomenon which sees survivors of violence retraumatised by the responses of individuals and institutions if they choose to disclose their assault.

“These messages are sometimes really blatant, but are getting more subtle,” tells Thompson. “So, sometimes it might look like you’re doing the best for victims and survivors by saying, ’be careful, be conscious of your safety’, rather than really poking the finger and putting all the focus and the responsibility on the potential offenders. I think that’s what people need to be more aware of. Victims and survivors live in a victim blaming world.”

One of the key objectives of the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK campaign is to encourage both the live music scene and wider communities to talk about, and challenge, sexual assault and aggression. Thompson is passionate about changing the conversation around sexual assault, but she’s the first to acknowledge that this leads into uncomfortable territory at times.

“When we do talk about sexual trauma and sexual offences there’s sometimes difficult conversations to have, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid having them,” Thompson affirms. “We need to acknowledge where sexual violence is happening… and acknowledge how prevalent it is. If we sweep it under the carpet and try not to have these conversations, we’re not naming the elephant in the room. We’re perpetuating silence, and it’s a silence that makes it more difficult for people to speak out.”

Thompson goes on to talk about how the silence surrounding sexual assault harms survivors on a number of levels. It goes without saying that a lack of discussion makes it harder to speak out, but the damage caused by this attitude goes much deeper.

“I think it’s very common for people who’ve been through sexual trauma to think it’s their fault. We live in a world which tells people that what they’ve been through was their fault. Because they’d had too much to drink, because of who they were mixing with, because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time… all this stuff does is perpetuate victim blaming.”

“There is a normalising of sexualised behaviour which we need to change. Sexualised behaviour, treating people as sex objects, it’s not OK. It’s not ‘banter’, it’s not harmless, and it can lead to an escalation of different types of crime. I’m not going to say ‘more serious’, because all types of sexual assault are serious…” Thompson pauses to consider this. “But in terms of what we’d look at in the law, definitely crimes that would carry a longer maximum sentence.”

NOT NORMAL – NOT OK is a campaign ‘to encourage safety and respect within live music venues, and to combat the culture of sexual assault and aggression – from dance floor to dressing room.’ And whilst it’s true that RSVP work in areas that some would term ‘more serious’ than sexual assault in music venues, when I mentioned this to Thompson she is quick to challenge the narrative.

“The message we like to give is that all sexual trauma is serious, that it’s not OK, and it could have, and usually does have, some impact. For some people, a one-off incident could be absolutely devastating. It really depends on where the person’s at; what other life experiences they’ve had, what kind of support they have around them, the context of what happened, who they are as a person… but all sexual trauma is serious. We should be able to live in a world where we give clear messages that it’s not tolerated.”

As the conversation moves to focus on our endevours, Thompson identifies how the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK campaign can help foster inclusivity in our city’s live music scene. “A number of people who have been abused and raped in other places – in home settings, within relationships – will be going to those venues. If that venue gives a clear message that this behaviour isn’t tolerated that feels welcoming and supportive of them, so they’re more likely to feel safe as well. It could work on all sorts of different levels.”

We talk a little more about the campaign, and Thompson hears how NOT NORMAL – NOT OK calls upon everyone within Birmingham’s live music scene to unanimously condemn sexual assault and aggression. With the wealth of experience from RSVP, I ask what actions people can take to challenge those cultural norms surrounding sexual assault?

“Make a decision not to be a bystander,” is Thompson’s immediate response. “They can make a decision that if they see something that isn’t right, they challenge it, they do something about it, they intervene. If they can’t intervene themselves they could always get on the phone, if they’re in a venue they could bring somebody over, they could always ring the police, they can ring Crimestoppers anonymously, there are all sorts of things. Or if somebody looks uncomfortable after something has happened, you could go over and just show kindness.”

“This is everybody’s business,” continues Thompson. “It isn’t just survivors and perpetrators; this is all of us. We’re creating a culture change – a change within the venues – that is more welcoming, diverse, and safe for all. Just a small act of not walking by something that you thought, ‘hang on, that doesn’t seem right’… an act which might seem small to you could be absolutely huge to somebody else.”

“People can educate themselves. They can challenge people and show that they have a zero-tolerance stance. Offer support if a friend is a survivor and discloses. If somebody does disclose, the key thing that they could do is believe them. We live in a world that doubts people when they disclose sexual violence –  if they disclosed a burglary the response would be shock, not ‘are you just claiming this for the insurance?’.”

Thompson shoots me a look that is mostly exasperated. “People don’t respond like that. We can show belief; we can show compassion and kindness. They’re all free things that you can do, but they’re really important to people. And they can start to challenge the kind of messages that survivors might have had from other people and other places, and restore their faith in humanity again.”

“You don’t have to have been a victim or a survivor to actually do something. We can all do something to show that together, we’re working to create a society that’s safer for all.”

RSVP is a Birmingham based organisation which offers ‘empathic services to support and inspire children and adults of all genders who have been affected by sexual violence and abuse.’ RSVP have been supporting the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK campaign.

If you have been affected by sexual abuse, assault or violence, you can access RSVP’s free services – for more information and contact details on, visit www.rsvporg.co.uk