What we Talk About When We Talk About Sexual Assault

CONTENT NOTE: This article contains the discussion of sexual assault and victim blaming.

Bronte Cook  

The #MeToo and ‘Time’s Up’ movements have been a central focus of the media over the last few months, giving a voice to the countless women who until now have remained silent, or have been ignored, about the abuse they have suffered at the hands of men. This constant coverage has at times been difficult, and after some thought, I am finally ready to add my input; because my input is worthwhile, because I am angry and want to share my experience, and because it is cathartic.

To anyone else who has found this constant media coverage difficult to deal with: it seems almost selfish that I am adding to it. But I hope that in writing this I can contribute something valuable to the narrative. I write this not because I want sympathy but because I want everybody to be aware of the effect their offhand conversations can have- there is a concerning attitude towards consent that lies behind them.

During the first term of my final year of university, I was sexually assaulted in my university room by a fellow student. I knew him, but not well, and had returned back to college with him following a night out. I will not go into detail about what happened that night – I don’t want to unnecessarily trigger traumatic memories for anybody reading this, and I don’t want my account scrutinised and dissected in the way they often are in the media. I hope that those reading this will respect my lived experience and take my word for it. Whilst I consented to sex originally, I then withdrew this consent, and he did not stop.

Coming to terms with what occurred that evening has been a long, difficult, and continuous process. Doing so at the same time as near constant media coverage focusing on sexual assault and harassment has been both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in the sense that I have been provided with a sense of solidarity and understanding that I would never have had otherwise. I have had the comforting knowledge that others know what I am talking about, can sympathise, and will believe me. However, it has been a curse, because social media has acted as a frequent reminder of that evening. And, more so, because although everybody seems to be talking about the issue, not everybody is doing so with tact, sensitivity and understanding. This has led to many upsetting and frustrating conversations when talking about reports in the media, or that had been heard about fellow students. I will deal with four of the most upsetting quotes from these conversations that I have, unfortunately, heard far too often.

‘Why didn’t she just leave?’

I have spent many hours asking myself the same question. Why did I not just leave? I was technically free to the whole time, in fact, he was in my room. I could have asked him to leave. It has taken me over a year to formulate reasons of any coherence. So here goes:

I didn’t leave because I didn’t want to offend him. I didn’t leave because I didn’t want to make him feel as though he was in the wrong. I didn’t leave because I didn’t want to believe this was happening to me. I didn’t leave because I didn’t quite believe this was happening to me. I didn’t leave because I was in shock. I didn’t leave because I was confused. I didn’t leave because I felt helpless. I didn’t leave because I felt that, since I had consented to sex in the first place, I didn’t want to disappoint. I didn’t leave because I was scared of his reaction if I tried. I didn’t leave because when I said I wanted to, I was told I shouldn’t. I didn’t leave because when I repeated myself, so did he. I didn’t leave because when someone knocked on the door to check where I was, he put his hand over my mouth. I didn’t leave because when my nose started bleeding, he didn’t stop.

This list could go on.

But ultimately, I didn’t leave because it was made very clear that what was happening was not mine to exercise autonomy over. I was not having sex that evening, he was.

When we ask the question ‘why did she not leave?’ we put the blame, either intentionally or implicitly, on the victim or survivor. We make it their responsibility to control the situation. When I am told by (usually, male) peers ‘I would have just left’, my response is ‘good’. I really mean this too; I hope that if anybody is ever put in that situation, they are in a position that they feel they can leave. I hope it is easy to jump up and say ‘no’ and head for the door. However, I also ask that they respect that it is not always that simple.

Why didn’t she report it at the time?

I can only try and use my experiences to suggest some reasons. I did not report what happened that evening.

I didn’t want to believe it had happened.

At the time, I didn’t think it felt ‘violent’ enough to report.

I didn’t want to deal with having my account scrutinised.

I didn’t trust the welfare infrastructure around me to deal sensitively with the matter.

I didn’t report it because I didn’t want to be a victim. I didn’t report it because I didn’t think that him being punished would actually make me feel any better. I didn’t report it because it took me a long time to admit to myself what it was that had happened to me. I didn’t report it because I didn’t want to admit to him that he had made me feel how he did.

There are all manner of reasons why somebody might choose not to report what has happened to them, ranging from shame and a sense of being in the wrong, to not feeling like what has happened was severe enough, or not wanting to ‘make a fuss’. Personally, it took a number of months before I stopped giving him the benefit of the doubt. I argued with friends who referred to what had happened as sexual assault because I was not ready to accept it, instead falling back on ‘he was really dodgy with consent’, aware, with a horrible and constant feeling of violation, that this meant the same thing. There is no ‘correct’ way to deal with trauma; the fact that somebody did not report an incident should not discredit them.

She has ruined his career/reputation

Has she? Or has he?

Women do not bear the burden of protecting men from taking responsibility for their own actions. Women are taught to be submissive, taught not to question men, not to embarrass men, and not to complain. We are socialized to accommodate men. If I had a pound for every time I was told ‘don’t rise to it’, or ‘he’s just trying to annoy you’ as I was growing up, my overdraft would be much less of a concern right now. It was not his action, whoever he in this circumstance happened to be, but my reaction that was a problem. As far as I am aware, a man’s career should not be considered more important than a woman’s bodily autonomy.

But he’s so nice/friendly/’woke’/’on board with consent’

As well as being misguided and upsetting, this phrase provides insight into a concerning and dangerous attitude towards consent. These are all terms I’ve heard used to describe alleged abusers, either in relation to the man who assaulted me, peers, or women in the media.

It is very difficult to hear somebody who has violated you and made you feel so uncomfortable described as ‘nice’ or ‘friendly’. If we maintain this idea that the average ‘nice’ guy is not capable of acting in this way, we allow men to distance themselves from such behaviour. Men need to be open to challenging their own behaviour, and that of their friends, if we are to move forward. This is not limited to clear-cut cases of assault, but is a call to examine behaviour that is commonplace, often seen as acceptable, but also incredibly questionable. One thing I have noticed about the media coverage over the weeks is that if something is not clearly illegal, people have been quick to condemn the accusation being made public, as though if somebody is made to feel uncomfortable and violated they should keep it to themselves until it borders on the criminal. There is no logic to this at all. Something does not have to be illegal for us to question it and consider whether it is positive, consensual practice. Was it okay to put their hand back on that girl’s thigh after she removed it? When she hesitated and said ‘I don’t know about this’, should he have persisted? If she is nonresponsive and does not seem enthusiastic about the sexual act taking place, should he not have stopped and asked her if she was sure she wanted to continue?

Persistence is too often celebrated, and no is taken to mean ‘keep trying’. Most women will have experienced a man in a club that keeps reappearing throughout the night and snaking his hand around their waist, dancing too close behind them, or repeatedly offering them a drink despite being told no multiple times. It is sad that often ‘I have a boyfriend’ is the only way to get rid of these people. ‘I have a girlfriend’ does not have the same power, I have discovered. Apparently, it is only other men’s relationships they are concerned about infringing upon. If anything, saying ‘I have a girlfriend’ only serves to escalate the sexualisation and flirting. Whilst it may sound like a small inconvenience, being aware that somebody’s attention is on you for the evening, or batting away unwanted touches, can completely ruin an evening, and make somebody feel incredibly anxious and on edge.

I have been told in the last few weeks that it is unpleasant and scary for many men to think that what they have previously been told is acceptable in sexual interactions might now be ‘called’ assault or harassment. Whilst I accept this might be concerning, I think the bigger concern must be that some men have not been aware of how their behaviour was being experienced before. It has always been unpleasant and scary for many women, daily, that so many sexual interactions involve coercion, persistence, and a sense of obligation. If we are taking steps, even small ones, towards changing this and moving towards sexual relationships in which true, enthusiastic and mutual consent is the norm, we should celebrate these steps.

This is not just a case of rooting out the bad apples; we are navigating a bad orchard. By this, I do not mean that every instance of sexual relations between a man and a woman is coercive, negative, or unwanted. I have had healthy, positive and consensual sex with men where I have felt I have been listened to and respected. What I mean, instead, is that the way in which we think about sexual interaction and consent needs to be re-examined. Consent to all manner of sexual interactions must be enthusiastic and continuous; an act taking place for both parties, not just the man. A thin, reluctant consent drawn out from persistence should never be thought of as sufficient.

My 17-year-old sister said to me recently that she thinks every woman has had sex when they didn’t want to. Not necessarily when they didn’t consent, but when they didn’t want to, whether this be through a feeling of obligation, coercion, or force. I am saddened both that this is telling about her own experiences, and that I am inclined to agree with her. If not all women, then most. And if not most, then far, far too many.

Grad Talk: Framing the Future with Izzy Kent

Izzy Kent graduated last year, having studied History of Art at Trinity, and has already found herself in her ‘dream’ role at the Wallace Collection. Her job varies hugely, from giving last-minute lectures to working in the conservation of the museum’s collection. Here she talks about applying for positions you don’t think you’ll get, the surprising things you learn on the job and the joy of turning the lights on. 

Interview by Xanthe Fuller

So, what do you do now? 

I’ve just started as the ‘Enriqueta Harris Frankfort curatorial assistant’ at the Wallace Collection. The Wallace Collection is a national museum in the heart of London. It’s relatively small but is up there with the heavy weights (National Gallery, British Museum etc.) in terms of quality. My job is a new position funded by the Centro de Estudios Europa Hispanica. As this suggests I specialize in the Spanish art at the museum including some sublime paintings by Velazquez, Alonzo Cano and Murillo.

How did you get there?

There’s a short answer and a long answer to this:

The short of it is I saw the job advert during my revision for finals and decided to apply. I really didn’t expect to get it as they wanted someone with a MA and fluent Spanish but it was such a dream position I thought I might as well. Then I went for interview and a couple of days later received a phone call saying I’d got the job.

The longer answer is a little more sentimental. I am incredibly lucky to have something that I am really passionate about, which is art and culture. There was never a moment, a lecture, book or exhibition where it all clicked and I knew it was what I wanted to do; I just can’t remember a time when I didn’t love it. So really, I’ve just been following my nose and trying to learn as much as I can wherever I can. I’ve done a lot of internships in different areas of the arts so by the time it came to applying for this job I was ready and knew, to an extent, what to expect.

Describe a typical day.

It sounds cliché but there isn’t really a typical day. It’s a small number of people looking after a large collection so I end up doing all sorts of jobs. I generally start off the day by doing a ‘gallery check’, going round all the rooms in the museum and checking that nothing is damaged. I’m usually the first one in each morning, which means I turn on all the lights to reveal the amazing art works – it may seem mundane but honestly it never gets old! After that it really depends. Currently I’m doing a lot with the conservation department, deciding which pictures need treatment and organising a major conference on Murillo happening in May, and giving tours and lectures. I’m also rewriting the gallery books (basically object labels), making audio guide recordings and researching our Spanish paintings.


What do you like about it? 

I love the diversity of the work. I’ll be handling a 400-year-old Mughal dagger one day, and researching a Velazquez painting the next, or visiting a conservator and seeing our paintings under the microscope. My colleagues have also been so supportive, teaching me about their areas of expertise and what it takes to look after the collection. Continue reading Grad Talk: Framing the Future with Izzy Kent

Time’s Up on what, exactly?

By Alfie Rosenbaum 

This is the name of the campaign against sexual violence being spearheaded by women in Hollywood. The main activity involved is the wearing of all black to the Golden Globes, and across the world people have set up mimic events to ‘stand in solidarity’ with the survivors of Hollywood sexual violence.

In Cambridge, an event has been set up on the 19th, whose organisers claim they hope to create further discussion around the issue of sexual violence on campus.

I’m unsure about this. Part of me feels that such public displays of defiance are important. Perhaps there is something powerful about people coming together to publicly make that statement. Perhaps this act will lead to further kinds of good. Perhaps it will create momentum and perhaps momentum will lead to change.

And yet part of me also wonders: what good, really, does wearing all black do for anyone? This is an issue that has appeared time and time again over the last few years. It was raised by people of colour when white people started wearing safety-pins in the wake of Brexit to signify their ‘alliance’. It was raised by Puerto Ricans when Americans responded to the Earthquake with ‘prayers’ on their Facebook statuses. Of course, unlike these two campaigns, survivors as well as non-survivors are taking part in the ‘Time’s Up’ campaign. I have no doubt that many of the women involved in writing and signing the ‘Time’s Up’ letter are genuine about their desire to affect change for people who are vulnerable to sexual violence. Nonetheless, I also believe it’s unlikely that the campaign is going to have any tangible impact on the lives of women outside of Hollywood. Like all movements centred around symbolism rather than activity, ‘Time’s Up’ has become an easy costume to put on, and many people are wearing it who shouldn’t be. Aside from the fact that the Hollywood element of the campaign feels very ‘Team America’ to me, the Cambridge off-shoot is self-congratulatory and pointless in its own frustrating way. I recognise that striking a balance between statement-making and policy shifting is difficult for all activists, but if our solution is just another black-tie protest, we’re doing it wrong.

Continue reading Time’s Up on what, exactly?

Feminist filmmaking with Pascale Lamche

Just as the Time’s Up and #WhyWeWearBlack campaigns keep the sexual and gender politics of cinema in the mainstream, Alina Khakoo talks feminist filmmaking with award-winning documentary maker Pascale Lamche. In 2017, Pascale won Best Director for International Documentary at Sundance in recognition of Winnie, her portrayal of the life and career of one of the most misrepresented public figures: Winnie Madikizela Mandela.

Winnie’s identity was highly constructed – in the film she refers to herself in the third person, she’s ‘Winnie the communist’, ‘Winnie the adultress’, ‘Winnie the criminal’. Did you feel that you were also constructing her as a filmmaker?

I felt that I was deconstructing images of her. What exist are attempts to discredit Nelson Mandela on the part of the Americans and the British by smearing Winnie in all directions. Knowing that people all over the world thought she was a murderer and a traitor to her cause, but that in South Africa she was revered, seemed a shocking divide to me. As a woman interested in history and politics and how oppression functions, I wanted to recover a significant person in South Africa and tell an important story about how women are so definitively neutralised in politics.

How do you navigate the ethics of being a white woman telling this story?

My view on the matter is that it depends entirely on the context, on where you’re coming from, on your work until that point. I’ve had a long relationship with South Africa and my late partner, to whom the film is dedicated, was Sowetan. I’d made films about Nelson, about Sophiatown. My heart lay in South Africa but I was a white European woman. I believe that any honest work which opens up the terrain should be tolerated. The industry has a duty to open its doors as wide as possible so that enough people can explore a subject that is in turn colonised by no one.

Continue reading Feminist filmmaking with Pascale Lamche

Gimme a Break

By Zahra Seyyad 

A ‘bubble’. A ‘whirlwind’. These words are commonly used to refer to Cambridge as a university environment. ‘Home’ eventually becomes a popular choice too. Those first two words, however, are what strike me the most: they serve to characterise the Cambridge experience. You’re closed off from the outside world and you’re constantly rushed off your feet during the eight-week terms, pressured into thinking you must always be busy. After all, having shorter terms means having six-week vacation periods in which to recover and reflect.

But there is a curious narrative surrounding ‘holidays’ in the Cambridge context. For starters, we don’t even get to refer them as that. ‘Vacation’ is a choice of word justified by the fact students are asked to physically ‘vacate’ their rooms at the end of term. It soon becomes clear, however, that the concept of a break does not extend much further than this process of physically ‘vacating’ Cambridge. During these six-week periods away, the expectation is that academic focus must transcend a student’s location.

The opportunity cost of having short terms is allegedly that, during them, all our energy be devoted to ‘all things Tripos’. It would appear that we all missed the fine print, though. The fine print that details how Cambridge will ultimately pervade every aspect of your life, how giving it your all for eight weeks is not actually enough. Yet, home cannot truly be healing if I am dragging myself there, shackled to reading lists or essays.

Continue reading Gimme a Break

Girl Talk Listens: Songs We’re Not Leaving in 2017

As 2018 dawns, the committee looks back on what kept us grooving last year.

We’re just a few days into 2018 and already Lana Del Rey has blessed us with a new collaboration with Børns. For Leila (Co- Blog Editor), Lana’s “Cherry” and “Coachella” from her new album Lust for Life were the songs of 2017. “They’re nostalgic and hyper-feminine and different in tone from her previous work. The whole album came at a time where I felt like my identity was shifting and I really relate to how she describes falling in love and feeling at once young but also observing girls younger than her and almost experiencing a coming of age (specifically in “Coachella”.) Also, “Coachella” has a sort of political edge to it which I like. In general I just love everything about her voice and tone and lyrics. The album makes me feel like I’m in a super-bright blue swimming pool as well, I don’t know why. The whole thing just feels like being underwater and everything around you going super slow and the light being really soft. It makes me feel nostalgic for the summer I didn’t really have this year. Also her saying “bitch” and “fuck” at random intervals during “Cherry” was my entire approach to 2017 so ultimately the whole thing is just very relatable.”

Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey, from Dazed and Confused 2017 cover edit

Nostalgia comes up a bit in our song picks; Billie Holiday’s timeless “These Foolish Things” is the song that made her year for our Artist in Residence, Grace Whorrall-Campbell. “Its blues-y swing always reminds me of this time of year. It’s a great song to unwind with – it’s kind of luxurious and it always transports me to another time and place whenever I hear it. I listened to it a lot this year and it always de-stressed me when Cambridge terms got too much.”

Continue reading Girl Talk Listens: Songs We’re Not Leaving in 2017

Manifesto for 2018 | I Resolve

By Leila Sackur 

First and foremost it is necessary to understand that 2017 has been, whilst contained within the same number of sunrises and sunsets, the longest year on record. To make 2018 better (and I believe it can be better) I declare all that I resolve, written like lines; tally marks on the wall in the purgatory of the end of December. I am itching to bury this year beneath the cold dead ground, and to never look back on it. But equally I am scared of it ending, because I want to remember it fully, and am afraid that memories I hold either fondly or with revulsion now will soon become pinpricks in my mind, and more than anything I don’t want to forget because to forget is to lose feeling.

So whilst stuck in this limbo I have written down my resolutions, my personal manifesto, my pledges to myself;

Ultimately I resolve for honesty. Most, I resolve to be honest about what I need and desire. I accept that I am deeply needy of constant love and validation, as all human beings are. So I will stop demonising neediness, I will send that vulnerable text, and when I am scared that people find me irritating or annoying (read: I am always scared that people find me irritating or annoying), I will make the effort to call them or see them to determine whether or not, this time, it is true. Even though I am terrible at talking to people on the phone. (I resolve to be better at talking to people on the phone.)

I resolve to stop sucking in when I look in the mirror, but admire the curves and planes of my stomach. I resolve to stop sucking in during sex. I resolve to become better at accepting compliments, other people find it awkward when they’re trying to be nice and you’re trying to shut them up. I resolve to stop demonising critics (EVEN THOUGH I AM PERFECT). I resolve to stop seeking validation from mediocre men. I will not judge a night out by how many Fila-clad boys find me fuckable but instead on the music and the dancing and the food at the end. I resolve to stop idolising older girls who I don’t know but deem to be cooler than me anyway. I resolve to stop spending hours scrolling through their social media. I resolve to stop projecting my insecurities onto other people. I HEREBY RESOLVE to apologise to everyone I have ever hurt, and to stop apologising to everyone else for no reason whatsoever.

Continue reading Manifesto for 2018 | I Resolve