On Survival: Lessons from a Festival Exploring Sexual Abuse

It sounds like a hard sell; a four day festival talking about sexual abuse and consent. Discussion panels, open houses, theatre, spoken word, art and yes, even comedy. It happened at /I’klectik/, an art space and cafe in central London which, for four days at the end of July, played host to Clear Lines, the UK’s first festival exploring the issue of sexual violence. I was there as a contributing artist. So were a lot of other people.

the Clear Lines Committee

the Clear Lines Committee

Some weeks before, I received an email from co-founder Winnie M Li asking whether I was happy to have a short play I’d written restaged as part of the theatre night at Clear Lines. I said yes enthusiastically – it’s one of my favourite pieces – and called a writer friend to gush.

“That’s really great,” she said. My friend then asked, “Can you have a festival about sexual violence? I mean… who’s going to go to that on a weekend?”

You can. We did. And as to who turned up, Clear Lines estimates that the equivalent of one man and ten women are raped every hour in England and Wales, and that a fifth of girls and one in twelve boys will be sexually abused. There is a devastating lack of spaces to talk about what these experiences mean for us. And, when I say ‘us’ I mean it; my play, ‘This Is How it Happens’, is a retelling of my first year as a survivor of date rape.

Clear Lines Festival

Robert Thorpe-Wood as ‘the Boy’ in Tanaka Mhishi’s This is How it Happens. Photo credit: Kenneth Jay.

I wrote my play because, in the months after I was raped, I scoured my own bookshelves, then a local library for the stories of other survivors, like myself. I was looking for an acknowledgment that what had happened to me was real, that I could overcome it, that I still had some kind of future. I came up almost empty handed. I wrote this play because my friends, when I told them, didn’t know what to say.  I wrote it because I was in pain and I desperately needed to have a conversation about it. At Clear Lines we had that conversation.

At the Theatre Night the front row was reserved for the playwrights. We chatted nervously beforehand. The productions did not just talk about the experience of sexual and domestic violence, but also about the aftermath; invasive forensic examinations, gruelling police interviews (if you’re lucky enough to be believed), victim blaming, shame. We also spoke about survival, endurance and emergence.

Afterwards, some of the actors and playwrights took to the stage for a Q&A. We were all, I think, pretty raw. I had only decided around an hour beforehand to be open about the autobiographical nature of my play (no one ever asked). I felt physically nauseated at the prospect of trusting a room full of people with that knowledge. At one point in the Q&A, a woman in the audience asked a question about the ‘disclosure void’- a moment of intense anxiety and shame often felt immediately after disclosing survivor status. It was all I could do not to cry on stage; I hadn’t realised there was a name for it.

The power of these conversations is enormous.

Afterwards, I lingered to chat with audience members. A few people came up to thank me, but it felt far more like they had given me something. We shared things. I nerded out over Babylonian mythology with someone who was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. We kept stumbling over the word ‘enjoy’; the plays weren’t enjoyable but they were positive. They laid the groundwork for connection. (A small esprit d’escalier: the word we were looking for is Robert Heinlein’s excellent epithet, grok – to understand intuitively or by empathy. There was a lot of grokking going on.)

The rest of the programme was as varied as it was brave. There were workshops on reclaiming sexuality after abuse, a conversation on harassment and revenge pornography, a resilience workshop, comics, a crime fiction panel. The Chief Crown Prosecutor for London took questions from the audience. Sometimes it became too much; a lot of us took breaks to decompress, eat and recalibrate. It was hard. It was emotionally exhausting. It was amazing.

Clear Lines Festival

Panel discussion with Clear Lines co-founder Dr Nina Burrowes. Photo credit: Suzanna Kane

I spoke on another panel, about male survivors and the challenges we face in both social and therapeutic contexts. I was able to leave the bulk of my shame at the door, knowing that I would not be judged for what I had been through. I do not believe many survivors have that opportunity; honestly I hadn’t ever dared to dream it was possible. The relief was almost too intense, but it is vitally important. The questions people asked are the questions we never hear in the media. Never ‘what were you wearing?’ Always ‘how can I help?’

The difficulty  in surviving sexual violence (there is more than one, obviously, but I count this among the most challenging) is not simply in learning how to live with what has happened to you, though this can seem impossible sometimes. The real struggle is to remain truly alive; to recover the capacities for trust and compassion. My experience tells me that sexual abuse and the culture(s) that sanction it exist primarily as tools of dehumanisation.

The only possible response is to be radically and irrevocably human, to commit and recommit to the project of human empathy, however fraught the cause may seem and however implacably the voice of shame may try to keep us apart. It is in the spirit of this endeavour that Clear Lines represents a safe space, and an opportunity to be part of that work.

The conversation started at Clear Lines continues on social media at #clearlinesfest, on Twitter @clearlinesuk and at clearlines.org.uk.

Video footage from selected events at the Clear Lines Festival is scheduled to be posted over the coming months. Check www.clearlines.org.uk for details.

 ‘This is How it Happens’, a theatre project exploring men’s experiences of surviving sexual violence is currently in development. For more details or to join the mailing list for regular updates, contact TKMhishi@googlemail.com