Saskia Bamber introduces Bristol University’s new Survivors’ Network for the survivors of rape and sexual assault.
Rape is not an easy subject to talk about; despite being vilified as one of the most abhorrent crimes, people who are subjected to it are often made to feel humiliated, guilty and responsible for what has happened to them, shamed into silence.
The psychological impact of rape and sexual assault varies from person to person and every experience is different, yet certain reactions are familiar to many survivors of sexual violence; the after effects can entail shock, denial, disassociation, emotional turmoil, physical symptoms (insomnia, headaches etc) and fears about safety. Moreover, it is not uncommon for a traumatic event such as this to cause PTSD, with symptoms including intense feelings of distress, nightmares, intrusive memories and vivid flashbacks.
Indeed, many people do not know how to deal with the onslaught of feelings and emotions that they are suddenly subject to, with one survivor saying that, “these events have repercussions in every aspect of people’s lives, but they’re expected to categorise their assault in a different part of their brain [to] everyday living and it’s just not the case.”
Acknowledging that every experience is different, and that each survivor will embark upon their recovery in a different way is incredibly significant; whatever is right for them is valid. It is this that the Survivors’ Network, a new support group set up at the University of Bristol, is trying to assist, by offering a network where survivors can talk about and share their experiences in a way that helps them. They describe themselves as ‘a peer-to-peer’ support network for the survivors of sexual violence and rape for Bristol University students of all gender identities,’ and their aim is to encourage conversation around the problems with sexual violence.
There are many issues with how the criminal justice system deals with sexual assault, as up to 85 per cent of people who experience sexual violence do not report it to the police. Along with the ridiculously low prosecution rates, this is unsurprising when one considers how our society deals with this particularly difficult topic. There are many unhelpful presuppositions and assumptions about rape and sexual assault; that it is caused by ‘sexually provocative’ clothing, that the victim is ‘asking for it’ and that any genuine rape is somehow perpetrated by a boogieman in a dark alley way.
The true statistic, that 90 per cent of sexual assaults are committed by someone that the victim knows and trusts, reveals the extent to which misinformation compounds the problem, along with the idea that if this is the case, then rape is somehow avoidable, shifting the blame onto the person who has been raped as opposed to the rapist themselves.
Universities, institutions where minds are supposedly expanded are sadly often hotbeds for sexual violence and rape. According to Sarah Redrup, Bristol Students’ Union’s Student Living Officer, “NUS research has found that as many as two in three women have experienced some form of harassment in and around their institution and one in seven had experienced serious physical or sexual assault during their time as a student.”
“These figures are in line with national statistics,” she further explains, “which estimate that one in five women in the general population have experienced some form of sexual violence.” She continues to cite reports that estimate that, “3.5 per cent of men in the general population have been sexually assaulted and one in eight have been subjected to groping or unwanted advances while at university.”
The survey, however, does not cover statistics regarding the proportion of transgender students who have experienced sexual violence, however most indicate that it is around 50 per cent. There are also no available statistics for the experiences of non-binary students, however they are probably similar to those of transgender people and as for those students who are intersex, again there are no available statistics. Furthermore, statistics again vary for disabled people as disabled women are twice as likely to be raped than the general population of women. The overwhelming underrepresentation of these groups is endemic and represents a systemic problem with how sexual violence is approached in the UK, an issue that is indicative of a greater problem with the lack of dialogue about rape and sexual assault.
There is support available; charities like SARSAS and Rape Crisis do invaluable work that supports survivors. Unfortunately, because many of these charities have overwhelmingly large numbers of people requesting counselling and support, long waiting lists can cause people to be left to deal with isolating, traumatic and difficult feelings on their own. The myths and presuppositions about what constitutes a rape victim act not only to invalidate and diminish that person’s experience but can cause further damage to their mental state. Rape doesn’t just end with the act, but continues long after it has taken place.
All these factors compounded can seriously impinge upon a survivor’s ability to begin the recovery process. Going from being a victim to a survivor of rape is a difficult transition to make, as it continues to effect and impact the person long after it has taken place and many survivors are encouraged to not talk about or share their experiences.
In the words of one of the committee member, at The Survivors’ Network, “we’re trying to break the taboo and open the dialogue; giving people the space to confront their own experiences and identity as a survivor.”
Although rape charities are a great resource, they do not provide the support network for survivors to meet, especially in the university environment. This is why the Survivors’ Network is being set up, because to quote one survivor, “survival is messy and scary and courageous and survivors can help each other by even acknowledging each other. That’s why I think the network is important.”
We are seeking to provide an oasis where survivors from all gender identities can come to share their experiences on their own terms in a non-judgmental environment; a safe space where they know that they are valid and important and more than what has happened to them. There is no obligation to talk about what has happened, you can just come for a cup of tea and some biscuits if you are not ready, but equally if you need to share your story this is exactly what the Survivors’ Network is for.
If you are want to come to one of our meetings, email The.Survivors.Network1@gmail.com. In the interest of maintaining our safe space policy we are deliberately not advertising the time or place. Equally, if you want to attend but you have needs such as a disability that need to be provided for do not hesitate to contact us.
Illustration by Leyla Reynolds