‘Sexual Violence Against Women: Voice and Representation’, June 17th, 2016. A report on the symposium.

The day opened with an Introduction by Georgina Colby (see the full transcript below).

Professor Jacqueline Rose’s opening lecture was titled ‘Feminism and the Abomination of Violence.’ The paper drew on the work of Hannah Arendt and Melanie Klein as a means to explore the nature of violence in the contemporary world. The paper addressed Arendt’s critique of the phantasmagoria of control and examined the intrusion of violence into politics. Governments’ recourse to violence was positioned as a result of the decline of power. Arendt’s work The Human Condition (1958) provided coordinates with which to think through the idea of true thought, statelessness, and the life of the mind. Professor Rose discussed Melanie Klein’s child analysis and the way in which Klein’s case study of Richard in her ‘Narrative of a Child Analysis’ (1961) raises questions of masculine identification in terms of what the male child is summoned to be in the world. Professor Rose explored the relation of this masculine identification to violence. The final part of Professor Rose’s lecture drew on works by two writers: Temsula Ao’s These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone (2006) and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013). Professor Rose’s paper examined the importance of literature as a counter myth and a talking cure in stories of sexual abuse. Professor Rose’s lecture will be published in full in September 2016. Details of how to access the article will be posted on this site.

Bringing together the fields of Law, Humanities, and public-facing bodies was a cornerstone aim of the day. We are extremely grateful to Keir Starmer, MP, for his time and generosity in giving a lunchtime keynote paper on Friday 17th June.

Keir Starmer’s address opened with a moving tribute to Jo Cox. Keir’s paper focussed on three cases that concerned violence against women and girls that he worked on as Director of Public Prosecutions and head of the Crown Prosecution Service from 2008 to 2013. A number of very significant issues emerged from the talk that offered insights into the struggles that women and girls who have been the victims of sexual violence face when reporting the crimes to the police. A key issue at hand in Keir Starmer’s talk was the need for safe places to report crimes of sexual violence against women and girls. This aspect of Keir’s work was taken up extensively throughout the afternoon panel discussions. Keir discussed cases that revealed the importance of understanding the difficulty that victims of sexual violence experience in voicing their experiences to police and within a Court of Law. Keir wrote a piece for The Guardian on the same day as the symposium outlining the need to bring the Criminal Justice System into the work place, and for employers to offer help to victims of domestic violence. This was a subject he discussed with our audience, many of whom were from public-facing bodies and had questions for Keir surrounding the way in which more provisions could be provided for women and girls who have been the victims of sexual violence. The need for proper access to counselling was a central issue that Keir raised, and a point that was addressed throughout the day. The case studies that Keir discussed revealed the way in which the legal system hinders the confidentiality of victim’s narratives if they choose to have counselling. Keir Starmer’s paper was invaluable to the day. It offered a knowledge of, and insight into, the Criminal Justice System that became a framework for the panel discussions in the afternoon.

The first panel of the afternoon, ‘Sexual Violence: Belief and Credibility’, brought together three speakers from public-facing bodies: Akima Thomas, Clinical Director and founder of the Women and Girls Network; Dr Carlene Firmin, MBE, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bedfordshire and head of the MsUnderstood partnership; and Debora Singer, MBE, Policy and Research Manager at Asylum Aid.

Akima Thomas gave a brilliant, inspiring, and important talk that centred on the profundity of women’s experiences and the issue of critical remembering. Akima’s paper resonated with Keir Starmer’s concerns over counselling provisions for victims of sexual violence. A practising therapist, Akima offered an understanding of the essential role that therapy plays in helping women with the pain and the struggle of coming to terms with their traumatic experiences. Akima opened by reading affirmation cards written by women and girls who have experienced sexual violence. The affirmations voiced survivors’ testimonies and highlighted the importance of storytelling and testimony as modes of resistance.

Carlene Firmin offered a rigorous and enlightening position paper that took up the issue of credibility. Through a number of revealing analytical slides and empirical analysis of statistics, Carlene brought to light the struggles that women and girls meet in terms of credibility. Carlene’s paper took up vulnerability factors, and discussed violent and unsafe contexts and the exposure of young women to sexual harassment. One slide detailed the narrative of a young girl’s testimony by the Crown Prosecution Service, and the problematic language used to narrate the young girl’s experience. Carlene’s paper exposed the issues surrounding credibility, and the way in which cross-examination of testimonies misinterpret the women’s and girls’ voices and can lead to a perceived lack of credibility within a culture of disbelief. Carlene’s paper revealed that in focusing on young women’s behaviours and choices, rather than the contexts in which those behaviours or choices occur, the professional response to sexual exploitation fails to sufficiently recognise the social nature of abuse.

Debora Singer offered a vital paper that addressed the issues of credibility for women seeking asylum. Debora’s paper took up the ‘culture of disbelief’ and cases in which women have been refused asylum on negative credibility. Debora discussed her recent work for Asylum Aid on double standards facing women seeking asylum in Europe and the Protection Gap Campaign. The question of interpretation and oral testimony was a critical issue taken up by Debora. Inconsistent narratives for women and girls who have experienced sexual violence are often the result of trauma, subsequent gaps in memory, and, for women seeking asylum, language barriers and errors in translation. Deborah’s important paper ‘Double Standards Facing Women Seeking Asylum in Europe’ can be found in the ‘Related Materials and Papers From the Symposium’ section of this site.

Three vital issues emerged in the papers and the discussions during the first panel: critical remembering, contextless accounts, and the struggle of women and girls to narrate their testimonies within a cultural of disbelief. The question of language was central to all of the papers, particularly Carlene’s presentation. Women and girls face a double oppression in terms of narrating their traumatic experiences of sexual abuse. Trauma often creates non-linear testimonies for women and girls who have experienced sexual violence. These testimonies are often discredited on the basis of their non-linearity. Such non-linearity is often read as a form of inconsistency. Furthermore, testimonies are personal, subjective accounts. The objective language of the law often oppresses testimony told in subjective language, and submits personal accounts to an institutional interpretation of those accounts.

The second panel of the afternoon, ‘Empowering Voice and Enacting Change Through the Arts and Humanities’, was composed of three scholars and writers: Dr Fiona Vera-Gray, Dr Jennifer Cooke, and Una, author of Becoming Unbecoming. The second panel in many ways responded to the first panel and the keynote papers, taking up the way in which the arts and humanities can empower voice, and enact change, in the area of sexual violence against women and girls.

Dr Fiona Vera-Gray’s enlightening paper addressed the way in which women negotiate public space, and the range and impact of modes of sexual harassment encountered in public space. Fiona discussed her creative transcript (available in the ‘Related Materials and Papers From the Symposium’ section of this site) that constructs a poem solely from the words of fifty participants. Fiona discussed her work as a means to achieve a ‘shared experience between research, audience, and participant’. Fiona also discussed her recent work with Dr Maria Garner and the Dollseye Theatre, Might Never Happen. The play is composed of seven vignettes that represent a different aspect or perspective on sexual violence against women and girls. Fiona also showed a very powerful short film by Imkaan’s young women team, Purple Drum, and the End Violence Against Women Coalition, that voices women’s experiences of sexual harassment, and the way in which they navigate public space as a consequent of the threat of sexual harassment.

Dr Jennifer Cooke’s important paper, ‘The Lessons of Life-Writing’, took up the way in which life-writing offers a means of voicing women’s experience of sexual violence. Jennifer critically analysed a section of Tracey Emin’s Strangeland and discussed the way in which the account revealed that women often do not recognise sexual violence when it happens. Jennifer then discussed sexual violence against women and girls and pedagogy. The issue of safe spaces was taken up in relation to the seminar room at universities, and the way in which pedagogy can offer a safe space for the discussion of the issues surrounding violence against women and girls. Jennifer explored strategies to combat sexual violence against women and girls and the need for solidarity in tackling the issues surrounding sexual violence and sexual harassment.

Our final speaker of the day was Una, author of the powerful graphic novel Becoming Unbecoming. Una discussed her work and her art and the way in which she narrates sexual violence against women and girls in Becoming Unbecoming. Una talked about her choice to narrate the protagonist’s experience of rape against the backdrop of the West Yorkshire murders in 1977 as a way to contextualise sexual violence. Una discussed her use of text and image and the power of visual language to depict women’s experiences of sexual violence. Links to Una’s work and website are available on this site.

Throughout the day it became apparent how vital it is for people to network across disciplines when thinking through the way in which positive change can be brought about in the area of sexual violence against women and girls. We would like to thank our brilliant keynote speakers, and our panel speakers for their invaluable contributions. We would also like to thank the members of our audience. The stimulating questions during the questions and answers sessions opened up many issues and created a forum for thinking through the issues addressed in the papers. The symposium is the beginning of a larger project ‘Sexual Violence Against Women: Empowering Voice and Enacting Change through the Arts and Humanities’. We hope that in forming a cross-disciplinary community, we will be able to foster solidarity and create the conditions for bringing about positive change in the area of sexual violence against women.

Georgina Colby

Related Materials and Papers from the Symposium

Keir Starmer, ‘Victims of Domestic Violence Need Help From Employers As Well As Police’. The Guardian. June 17th, 2016 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/17/domestic-violence-victims-need-help-workplace-criminal-justice-employers?CMP=share_btn_tw

Keir Starmer, ‘A Voice for Victims of Crimes’, Sunday 6th April, 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/06/victims-law-criminal-justice-labour-plan

Debora Singer, ‘Double Standards Facing Women Seeking Asylum in Europe’, Double-standards-briefing

Asylum Aid, The Protection Gap Campaign, http://www.asylumaid.org.uk/protectiongap/

Dr Fiona Vera-Gray’s paper presented on the second panel of the symposium can be found here: SV Voice and RepresentationFVG

Dr Fiona Vera-Gray’s poetic transcript, published in Qualitative Inquiry is available here: Qualitative Inquiry-2014-Elsgray-509-21 (2)

Might Never Happen (Dollseye Theatre) trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9ogXtSBoaA

Una, Becoming Unbecoming (Myriad Editions) http://www.myriadeditions.com/books/becomingunbecoming/

UNA https://unacomics.com/

Georgina Colby, Report on sexual violence against women and credibility for Women’s Asylum News, 136 June/July 2016 http://www.asylumaid.org.uk/symposium-sexual-violence-women-credibility-georgina-colby-university-westminster/


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