Words by Ed King / Lead image provided by Getty Images
I want you to remember your best sexual experience. I want you to relive it, in every detail, the most pleasurable and safe experience you’ve ever had with a lover.
I want you to remember where you were, what you wore, what you had to eat and to drink. I want you to remember what they wore, until they wore nothing. I want you to remember what they ate and they drank.
I want you to remember every step of the sex itself – every physical touch and every emotion that went with it. I want you to remember what they did first, what they did last. I want you to establish a timeline.I want you to remember the strength of their body, if their skin was hot, cold, rough, or smooth. I want you to remember if, at any point, you smiled. Or laughed, even if you didn’t mean to. I want you to remember them entangled with you. I want you to paint a vivid picture of the flesh and the thoughts and the sweat and the noise.
Now I want you to go into the street and tell the first person you meet, a stranger. Tell them everything.
Now I want you to do the same for your worst sexual experience.
This is an exercise in empathy I saw the Birmingham based Rape & Sexual Violence (RSVP) organisation deliver, to a group of venue operators and licensees at a South Side Pub Watch meeting. It was a ‘tough crowd’, fidgeting through a hot afternoon and a meeting they were obligated to attend. But this stopped the room. This made us think. Can you imagine actually doing that…?
The idea is to put yourself in the position of a victim of sexual assault, to help you to respond to any cases of sexual violence that might happen around you. To better understand what a victim of sexual assault would have to go through just to report what had happened to them – just to start a criminal investigation, to hold a rapist to account, to get justice. To stop it happening again.
It gets worse for the victim too, this is only the first step – the next is a line of cross examination to see if they would be a viable voice in court, with all the clichés and rebuttals that circle cases of sexual violence like patriarchal vultures. Did you lead them on? Did you know them? Did you act like you wanted sex? Were you drinking? Were you high? Was your clothing too sexy? Did you laugh at their jokes? Did you actually say the word ‘no’…?
But the RSVP exercise has stuck with me as a powerful way to put yourself in this terrible situation, even by proxy, and to allow even only a thin line of understanding for the process a victim of sexual violence will have to go through when they report what happened to them. Just the process of reporting it. Not the violence. Just the admin around it.
This pub watch meeting was over a year ago, but it came back into my head the other day when a social media post about sexual violence in Birmingham’s music scene got challenged – in a rather immediate and short sighted response, ‘evidence’ was asked for. Now this is not an attack on anyone for being involved in this conversation, debate and open discussion is healthy. And there is a side of me that says fair enough, evidence is important. Crucial in a courtroom. As a journalist reporting on anything, not just cases of sexual violence, I would be screaming “facts, figures, and cross referencing,” into my laptop.
Also, to be falsely accused of sexual violence must be a terrible experience – it does happen, you can’t and shouldn’t say it doesn’t. People of all genders and identification, of all ages, of all strata in society, are capable of lies.
But the bigger problem – the much more serious, pressing, and pertinent issue – are all the cases of rape, sexual assault, violence, coercion, abuse, and manipulation that never get reported. With all the sexual aggressors that continue to normalise their heinous actions because the victim is too scared, too wounded, too vulnerable or unsupported to go through the reporting process. Because people of all genders and identification, of all ages, of all strata in society, are capable of causing pain.
So, what do we do? Being involved in the NOT NORMAL NOT OK campaign has been, and remains to be, a significant learning curve for me – there was a point when I may have been the one calling for something to back up someone’s claim. Although I would like to think I would have done this at a later stage, off social media, and only if it was relevant for me to do so (i.e. not challenging someone who I didn’t know about something I was not privy to). And we are all fallible.
Plus, working with RSVP and the sexual violence and modern slavery team at West Midlands Police has helped me shape my understanding – something not everyone gets the chance to experience. But the first step to take around cases of sexual violence is relatively simple.
Start there. Listening helps. Listening empowers people to recall and recant the most hideous of experiences, and to find strength to do it clearly – explaining the facts, figures and ‘evidence’ that someone at the appropriate stage will be looking for.
But the point of right and wrong, of truth and lies, is a few steps down the line. And we’re only at the first – you rarely know the veracity of what anybody is telling you, about anything, from an opening statement. You certainly don’t know it from a post on social media. Walking into this conversation immediately asking for proof will not help someone to deliver information, to explain the situation – it will only help silence them and countless other victims who need support and who need to be heard.
So, listen. Again, start there. Don’t shut someone down because you don’t want to hear what they have to say, or because you hold crossed fingers that it will turn out to be untrue. We’re not there yet, there’s a challenging and difficult process to go through until we reach a point of cross examination – one that is designed, in essence, to begin addressing what is true and to hold people to account.
And if it helps, use the RSVP exercise – put yourself in the position of someone who has experienced sexual violence and has found the strength to talk about. To speak out. To challenge it. To seek help and to seek help for others.
There is an old and troubling adage that if you’re being raped then you should shout “fire”, because people would be more likely to come to your aid.
What would you want the first response to be?
Ed King is the campaign director for NOT NORMAL NOT OK, challenging sexual violence in the music industry – from dance floor to dressing room, everyone deserves a safe place to play.