Trigger/Content Warning: this article discusses sexual violence and the justice system.
The past few weeks have felt like a toxic haze for me where I have been unable to escape the bombardment of news stories, personal accounts and constant thoughts about sexual violence. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, I gave consent workshops to hundreds of freshers which meant discussing the ins and outs of sexual violence on a personal and societal level. This experience was largely positive, interesting and thought-provoking but more than anything, it was intense. On top of that, the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh have dominated headlines for weeks, bringing a reminder of #metoo and its ongoing fight. At SOAS, the ‘Account for This’ campaign has been raising awareness through protest theatre, an open forum, and their online petition, about the injustices at SOAS when it comes to survivors getting support and justice.
“I would have sworn to these ideals without question but since these realisations, I haven’t been so sure.”
This has increased my awareness when it comes to sexual violence and called into question a lot of things for me. It has made me look back on past experiences, I have come to realise that I was a survivor of sexual assault, when at the time I tried to brush the situations off. This is an uncomfortable and upsetting realisation. The process has highlighted the extent to which I normalise sexual harassment in everyday life. But it has also made me examine more fundamental pillars of my worldview. Namely, the ideas of natural justice and the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”. Previously, I would have sworn to these ideals without question, but since these realisations, I haven’t been so sure.
When the Senate voted on whether to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as the Supreme Court nominee or not, a key swing voter, Republican Susan Collins, voted for his confirmation. This decision was based on upholding the value of presumption of innocence. This justification made my stomach turn. Listening to Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, brought me to tears – she is vulnerable and hurt, but most importantly believable. The burden of proof is always on the survivor and for cases such as hers (that happened long ago, or where there are no witnesses or DNA) this is incredibly difficult, so perpetrators face no punishment. According to Rape Crisis, in the UK, “conviction rates for rape are far lower than other crimes, with only 5.7% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction for the perpetrator.” If you compare this to the statistics we have on false accusations, which according to the BBC, only make up between 2-10% of reported cases, it becomes clear the majority of survivors do not get justice. With this in mind, Rape Crisis figures that “only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report to the police” are unsurprising.
Furthermore, the processes for reporting and dealing with sexual violence at SOAS are no more encouraging, as the ‘Account for This’ petition makes clear. It is confusing, time-consuming, clinical, unsupportive and traumatic. No wonder so few people make complaints through it. The campaign is doing an excellent job of highlighting SOAS’ shortcomings when it comes to its treatment of survivors and demanding reform. We need an overhaul of the entire system, in SOAS, in the country and worldwide, if survivors are to be treated fairly and with respect, and for ‘justice’ to have any meaning when it comes to sexual violence. I have no clear idea on how to achieve this, but on an individual level, it starts with believing survivors, showing solidarity and compassion, and joining campaigns such as ‘Account for This’ that actively pursue change. For me, this is the first step to achieving authentic justice.
INDIGO LILBURN-QUICK, BA HISTORY AND POLITICS @indigo_lq