Introduction to the ‘Sexual Violence Against Women: Voice and Representation’ Symposium. Friday June 17th, 2016. St Pancras Room. Kings Place, London, 09:30-17:00

The catalyst for this symposium, Hannah and I’s collaboration, and our wider Research Network project was a seminar paper given at the University of Westminster on consent that discussed Maddy Coy’s 2013 paper ‘“Sex without consent, I suppose that is rape”: How young people in England understand sexual consent.’ Hannah and I met during a discussion after the paper. At the time I was working on an academic article on Vanessa Place’s work Tragodía, a literary work that takes the transcripts of legal documents of rape cases and transposes them directly onto the literary page, a textual practice that draws attention to the objective language of the law and the obscuring of women’s first-person accounts of their experience by legal narratives. Hannah is a practicing solicitor specializing in domestic violence cases and a lecturer in Law at the University of Westminster. Hannah’s research interests focus on consent. We began discussing the issues surrounding sexual violence, voice, language and legal discourse, and the way in which the criminal justice system represents women who have experienced sexual violence. What emerged was a shared interest across our disciplines of literature and law in the question of voice and representation. We shared a felt need to explore the way in which voice and representation, seemingly congruous at surface level, have a very complex, often conflictual, relationship within the frameworks of both legal discourse and literary narratives that concern sexual violence against women.

Today is, we hope, the first in a much larger series of events and workshops that address sexual violence against women and in particular the issues of voice and representation. Our wider aim is to create an international and multidisciplinary network that brings the disciplines of Law and the Humanities into dialogue, and to engage directly with public facing bodies such as the Women’s Project at Asylum Aid, the Women and Girls’ Network, and Rape Crisis. We will be welcoming four speakers from public facing bodies today: Debora Singer, MBE, Policy Manager for Asylum Aid; Akima Thomas, Director of the Women and Girls Network; Carlene Firmin, MBE, who set up the MsUnderstood partnership between the University of Bedfordshire, Imkaan and the Girls Against Gangs projects; and Fiona Vera-Gray, a research fellow in the Durham Law School, who also works with Rape Crisis, South London. In fostering dialogue between the humanities and public-facing bodies, our research aims to bring about positive change through exploring the ways in which the Arts and Humanities can empower women’s voices and enact change in the area of sexual violence against women.

In the twenty-first century sexual violence against women and girls is widely reported on in the media and has become an issue at the forefront of public consciousness in the UK. The recent coverage of rapes in India; the grooming and sexual abuse of girls in Rochdale, England; the problematic discourse of rapes on college campuses in the U.S; the sexual assault of women during the ‘Arab Spring’; and the threat of sexual violence faced by many women and girls seeking asylum today, are instances that highlight respectively the national and international dialogues concerning sexual violence against women and girls. Yet within these dialogues, particularly in contemporary legal discourses, women’s voices often remain marginalized, and their struggle is often contested or overlooked. Frequently, women who have experienced sexual abuse are confronted with the muting of their accounts within legal discourse. Recent cuts to available funding for public-facing groups in the UK have meant that vital support services that facilitate the voicing of victims’ narratives of sexual abuse are struggling to continue within an unstable economic climate.

Law and literature share a fundamental concern with issues of representation surrounding sexual violence against women. It is evident that the approaches that have been adopted to date have not led to widespread positive change. Legal discourses and the humanities possess an intrinsic relation to, and have a significant impact on, cultural representations of sexual violence against women. Literature, film, and art, have the capacity to bring to light the issues of concern surrounding the muting of women’s voices within legal discourses. The voice, suppressed in legal discourse is finding other avenues of making itself heard via literature and the arts. Works such as Una’s graphic novel Becoming/Unbecoming; Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Vanessa Place’s Tragodía and Fiona Vera Gray’s poetic transcript and work with the Dollseye Theatre on the production Might Never Happen, are just a few instances of the ways in which contemporary writers, artists and playwrights are addressing issues of sexual violence in their work and offering depictions and creative outlets that often voice the experiential narratives of women and girls who have been sexually abused. We are very fortunate to welcome the author Una and Fiona Vera Gray to our second panel this afternoon to talk about their creative works.

The arts frequently challenge preconceptions, give voice to women, and provide a safe space for discussion of the issues at hand. The muting of the voice in the legal domain is often the catalyst for the transformative potential of representations of sexual violence in literature and the arts. In exploring the question of voice, and related issues of subjectivity and personhood in first person accounts and artistic representations of sexual violence, the symposium seeks to position such accounts in contrast to the abstract universal voice of institutional discourse, and in contrast to the silencing of women’s voices within institutional discourse. The empowering potential of the humanities, which challenges the institutional mechanisms of depiction, is rarely used in law. Our project endeavors to create and provide access to a new space that brings the fields of law and the humanities into dialogue, as a means to harness and utilize this potential. To begin this process, scholars and policy makers from a range of backgrounds need to be brought together with writers, artists, and filmmakers, whose works address the issues of sexual violence against women. Under these new discursive conditions, we will be able to examine the possibility for bringing about positive change.

We are honoured to be hosting two exceptional keynote speakers today: Professor Jacqueline Rose (FBA) and Keir Starmer, MP for Holborn and St Pancras, and former Director of Public Prosecutions.

Georgina Colby

Conference Programme