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(en) Ireland, Talking about Sexual Violence - Report from a WSM* member womens dayschool in Dublin

Date Fri, 15 Sep 2006 09:30:11 +0300



A women's only day-school on sexual violence recently held in Ireland.
Answering difficult questions early on a Saturday morning In June, the
women members of the WSM hosted a dayschool on Women in Revolutionary
Struggle. Following on from this, RAG (Revolutionary Anarcho-Feminist
Group) decided to host a women's only day-school on sexual violence.
This was held in the in the new Seomra Spraoi space in Dublin.
I have to be honest; I wasn’t looking forward to it. Sexual violence
is a difficult, emotional and disturbing issue. Spending a Saturday
talking about it just wasn’t my idea of fun. It was something
important, that had to be done, but not exactly a barrel of laughs.

But I was wrong, there were lots of laughs, and it was fun (who’d
have thought it!). RAG are to be complimented for creating a relaxed
and easy going environment in which to discuss this most difficult of
issues.

The first thing we did was get to know the person sitting beside us
– we asked them about what they liked and didn’t like, what
they were good at and what they were bad at. Then we went around in
a circle, each introducing the person we had been talking to everyone
else. I discovered that Clair likes Organising and that Eve likes
Rossport Solidarity Camp and hates Shell. I like cats and have a bad
memory. It was an easy start to the day, but things were about to get
more difficult.

1. Questions
We were all divided into smaller group- each group was given a white
sheet of paper with a question on it, a couple of pens and told to write
out the answer. Our question was ‘Why does sexual violence
occur’?
‘Jaysus’ we said to each other, ‘that’s a bit of a
difficult question to answer’. But we gave it a go. The first thing
we wrote was drink/drugs. Later we went back to this because we
weren’t happy with the way drink/drugs is often used as an excuse
in Ireland (‘sure I was pissed’) so we added in ‘not an
excuse’.

We then wrote down ‘power imbalances in society’ both
between men and women and the other hierarchies that exist. We
discussed sexual violence as being about exerting power over others.
Rape also happens because of physical imbalances between people.
Rape is also an instrument of war. A woman from Italy talked about
how there, a man might rape a women to get revenge on her partner.

We moved on to think about the lack of sexual education that most of
us received; people don’t talk about sex or about what consent
means. There is often a basic mis-understanding about what is meant
by yes and no. This isn’t helped by the masculine and feminine
role models in society (and the media depiction of these role models,
particularly in the porn industry). We talked about how there were very
limited sexual role models within society – women were
encouraged to be passive, men aggressive. We also thought that men
were under considerable peer pressure, particularly as teenagers, to be
aggressive sexually. Coercion is seen to be normal.
We also wrote ‘because it is tolerated’- though being aware
that it is tolerated to a different degree in different cultures.

All the other groups then discussed their questions and answers.
Looking at them we thought, that perhaps we hadn’t been given
the most difficult question after all.

Q. Are there misconceptions about rape?
Q. What is rape?
Q. What is sexual harassment?
Q. Why might sexual violence not be reported/talked about?

Briefly, here are some of the answers people came up with.

Misconceptions about rape: It’s not rape because – she kissed
me; it was my boyfriend, husband; it was someone I know and not a
stranger; she was a sex worker; she put her self in a dangerous
position and should have known better; she dressed sexy; I was drunk
or on drugs; he was drunk or on drugs; it didn’t involve genital
penetration; because rape only happens to women; because he was
educated, middleclass, left-wing, an activist, he couldn’t be a
rapist. The final two mis-conceptions outlined were that women lie
about rape to blackmail men and that rape is about sexual desire.

What is rape? It’s rape if there is; emotional or physical force;
intimidation; invasion; violation; when someone is unconscious or
asleep; when sex hasn’t been consented to. Men can be raped too.

What is sexual harassment? When someone does not respect your
boundaries; inappropriate sexual behaviour; lack of sensitivity to
others body language; an abuse of power; it can be subtle; it can be
sitting too near person, invading their personal space, it can be making
unwanted sexual comments or overtures to people. Sometimes we feel
embarrassed and don’t want to make a fuss so often town
don’t say anything. Sometimes sexual harassment is passed off as
a joke so we don’t say anything because we don’t want to
make a big deal. Sometimes it is a friend and we don’t want to
upset the friendship or don’t know what to say to tell them we are
unhappy with their behaviour. All agreed that sexual harassment was
difficult because what is appropriate in one context for one person
isn’t for another. It was important that we know ourselves what
are boundaries are and are able to let people know what they are. But it
isn’t easy.

Why isn’t rape/sexual violence reported? Because there is a lack
of faith in the justice system, there is a low conviction rate; there is
fear of the police or the trial; fear of being shunned by family and
community; fear of being put on trial; being intimidated by the legal
system; because someone is dependant economically on the attacker,
or works for them, or doesn’t want to have to leave their home.
Rapes aren’t reported when people don’t have the language to
express what has happened to them, or are afraid that they will be
blamed; they might face homophobia; Among teenagers there is a fear
of sex and of talking about it; its difficult for children to access
services.

2. Self-defence
After this session we all took a well-earned break for a cup of tea and a
smoke.
In the next session we were shown some basic self-defence moves
and spent a happy while throwing each other around the room and
practicing running away. It was good to have a break from all the
talking and the running and shouting woke us all up a bit.

3. Consent
(are you still with me? It was a long day, no doubt about that)
The third session was about the issue of consent. The organisers had
devised a series of scenarios, aimed at encouraging us to think about
what consent means, how to give it, how to make sure you have it. We
were asked to think about consent not just in terms of a sexual
relationship but also in a wider way, in terms of our relationships with
our friends and family in general. Then the fun really started.

We were all dived up into pairs, and each pair was given a particular
scenario. We were also given a little information about the character
we were playing. We were then asked to write down a piece of
dialogue between the two and think about how they might respond to
the situation they were placed in. My partner and I both hate
role-playing, and although initially it was a bit weird and
embarrassing, strangely enough, it actually was also a bit of a laugh.
The situation I had to develop was one in which the woman in a new
relationship tries to convince the bloke to have sex without a condom,
though he didn’t really want to. It didn’t take long. When the
group was brought back together, volunteers were asked to actually
act out their scenarios.

The first woman to take to the floor provided a show stopping
performance as she pestered her tired and uninterested partner to have
sex. Next up was a situation in which two friends are in a social
situation, and one keeps coming on to the other, despite the fact that
she isn’t interested. This scenario was played too ways, in the
first, the woman clearly said ‘listen, I know you’re a mate, but
I’m not interested, please respect my boundaries’. The second
group dealing with the same scenario had a more difficult task as the
character in question shy and only gave non-verbal indications that
she really wasn’t interested. In another scenario, one partner in a
couple had to ask the other partner to be less clinging and to allow her
more independence, while the other partner had to be insecure and
anxious. One of the things that came up in the discussion was that
when we had given the scenarios, most of us had assumed that a one
character was obviously male and the other obviously female. We
found that if we thought about changing the genders, the scenarios
played very differently. It also made us think about how consent
operates both ways between men and women.

The facilitators drew up a chart of verbal and non-verbal signals that
indicated consent and non-consent. These ranged from consent
doesn’t exist is someone says no, if someone is crying, if they turn
their back to you, if they are asleep and unconscious. However
someone commented that while these were very clear signals, the
issue of consent could contain lots of grey areas. People can give out
contradictory signals, particularly when there is confusion within their
own head about what they want. This then lead onto a discussion
about people’s own experiences. A common theme that emerged
was how many of us had quite negative sexual experiences as
teenagers, we done things or been is situations that we would never
been in now that we are a little older and more confident. Many spoke
about having sex when they were younger (or even not so young)
because they felt a sense that they were ‘obliged to’ or to save
a bloke from the embarrassment of being rejected. Someone asked
was this ever going to change?

Finally the facilitators handed us all out a piece of paper and asked us
to note down what our own boundaries were, so that we were sure
within ourselves what our lines were. Some people found this useful;
others found it more difficult, saying that boundaries are too
dependent on context (who you are with, when or where) to make it
possible to decide in abstract what they were. I think it is fair to say
that this session was very thought provoking.

4. Safer Spaces Policy
The final session was on safer spaces policy. A member of Seomra
Spraoi and of the Rossport Peace Camp, both outlined their
experiences in developing safer space policies. A women from
indymedia said that there was also a need for safe ‘virtual’
spaces.

A common problem seemed to be that while it was fairly easy to
establish a positive statement such as ‘sexual harassment shall
not be tolerated’, it was much more difficult to work out
procedures to deal with instances of sexual harassment and
accusations of sexual harassment.

It was said that any policy had to be continually open to negotiation
and change as over time we face new problems and learn from our
experiences. It was also said that a safer space policy could only work
if people agree with it and are willing to implement it. While there was
a general willingness to have a policy, there wasn’t a similar
willingness to go through the thought processes necessary to see how
these policies are implemented in practice. We have no guidelines or
agreement on how to deal with sexual abuse or assault within our
community, we have no way of dealing with these types of conflicts
when they emerge. This session ended with a commitment from those
that attended to begin the very important process of developing our
safer space policies.

5. Closing circle
The meeting ended with everyone giving feedback on how they found
the day. Many people mentioned how relaxed they found it, how it
was a lot of fun, how there was a lot of laughing during the day and
that was unexpected. Many people said that having the discussion
among women only made it much easier to talk about the issue, the
atmosphere felt less charged. One woman said that she felt less
defensive and angry than she had felt in previous, mixed gender
discussions. Another women also thought that having a women’s
only group made easy for us to stereotype men’s behaviour. A
number of women said that while it was good to start the discussion
among women only groups, it was important to continue the
discussion among mixed-gender groups. There was no point in
educating and raising the consciousness of half of society. The next
step was to broaden the process to include our male friends and
comrades.

With that it was agreed to have a further meeting, open to all genders,
on how safer sex polices might work in practice.

The ladies of RAG are to be thanked for putting so much effort into
the day. It was I think a very important contribution to the
development of the anarchist and libertarian community in Ireland.

Lunch was lovely too.
=========================
* WSM is an anarchist federation in Ireland
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