The Centre Against Sexual Violence Inc. thanks Jenny Gilmore for contributing her time, knowledge and support during Sexual Violence Awareness Month to the Logan & the Redlands communities. Thanks for sharing your speech with us to publish for those who could not attend.
I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this and land and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.
Those of us who have been involved in this sector for a long time can often feel despondent about the slow pace of change. But as I reflect on this issue in relation to sexual violence it seems to me that there is real reason to feel some hope that change might be moving in the right direction.
I’d like to share with you the story of a woman that I suspect many of you will never have heard of. Her name is Tarana Burke and she is a civil rights activist in America and has worked for many years with African American young women who have experienced sexual violence. Many years ago now she was supporting a young 13 year old girl who confided in her about her experience of sexual assault. Tarana says that she felt speechless at the time and didn’t know how to respond. Later when she was reflecting on this she wished that she had simply said to her, me too.
Tarana Burke was the founder of the metoo movement back in 2006 however she was unknown until October last year when the well known actress Alyssa Milano, in response to the allegations of sexual violence spreading over Hollywood, sent a tweet asking women to retweet her words with the hashtag metoo if they had too had experienced sexual violence.
It was on the 15 October 2017, around midday, that Alyssa Milano sent her tweet. By the end of that day the hashtag had been used more than 200,000 time; 24 hours later more than 500,000 times and by early November the #metoo had been tweeted 2.3 million times in 85 different countries. And on Facebook #metoo was used by more than 4.7 million people during the first 24 hours. It became clear very quickly that sexual assault was a massive issue not just in Hollywood but in all sectors and walks of life and in all countries.
Both Tarana Burke and Alyssa Milano have said clearly that their intention in beginning the #metoo movement was to raise awareness about the magnitude of sexual assault around the world. It has certainly done this. There can be no doubt that this social movement has resulted in an increase in community awareness about sexual violence.
However I believe that it has done significantly more than this too. We have also seen changes in social policy and even in legislation as a result of this movement. For example, the European Parliament convened its first ever session to discuss issues of sexual violence; in France the hashtag equivalent to metoo (which apparently translates to ‘expose your pig’) saw thousands of women posting about their experiences and the President of France expressing support and his wish for a public crackdown on all forms of sexual violence; and in December the Swedish Parliament introduced a new law that requires explicit consent before sexual contact.
But for me the most significant impact has been the opening up of previously silenced conversations. This is particularly significant in the area of sexual violence given it has been such a silenced issue where so many women have felt such shame that they have been able to talk about their experiences.
We are now having many more conversations about sexual violence and its impact, conversations that we have not previously had. Women of colour and black women have historically experienced sexual violence very differently to white women and they are now talking about their experiences; women employed in the pornography industry are also coming out and talking about the high levels of sexual violence in this area. These are very significant conversations and they will be important in our efforts to achieve change.
Interestingly the work of the #metoo movement in opening up previously silenced conversations has even been recognised by Time magazine who named Tarana Burke, Alyssa Milano and 5 other key women activists from the #metoo movement as their person of the year in 2017, calling them ‘the silence breakers’.
So where does this leave us now. Still with much to do I think. Clearly the #metoo movement is only one small part of what is required to achieve real and meaningful change. However I think that one of the consequences of this movement has been to shine light on the work that so clearly needs to be done now. In fact I think that the amount of community action as a result of this movement says something very important about the current momentum for change.
We know that in order for sustainable change to occur in any area we require momentum in the community and in the political sphere. If we don’t have both then change efforts will not be effective, at least not in the long term. The community has to want the change and our leaders have to have the courage to make it happen. More and more it feels like this joint momentum is a reality in our communities. But in order for this to change to occur we cant be complacent. We need to ensure that we continue to raise awareness and call for an end to all forms of sexual violence.
There have been many criticisms of the #metoo movement and some of course, have some real substance. But when I have looked at some of these criticisms they have really highlighted to me the sort of change that I would like to see in our community. For example, one of the comments often made about this movement is that because many of the women who have shared their experiences have talked about sexual harassment rather than sexual assault, it has been commented that this dilutes the experiences of women who have been sexually assaulted.
These comments highlight that we need to focus on the underlying issues behind both sexual harassment and sexual assault in that the common issue that unites these experiences is misuse of power. Of course there is a continuum of experiences of misuse of power but whether it is harassment in the workplace or an experience of rape, the underlying dynamic is misuse of power. And this is the issue that we need to focus on and attend to if we are serious about change to this issue and many others as well.
The other commonly heard criticism about the #metoo movement is that women speaking out about these experiences serves to further divide men and women. I think this is an outrageous comment to make and reflects a lack of understanding about these issues. Speaking our truth can never divide people. The only force that serves to divide women and men is gendered violence, not speaking out about gendered violence. We must share this understanding if we are to achieve change.
I would love to see a time when we recognise that sexual violence is an issue that impacts on us all and on our communities. Often I hear people say ‘sexual violence is an awful thing but it hasn’t happened to me so it’s not an issue I need to do anything about’. I think this is a significant part of the problem and also one of the reasons that we find it so hard to achieve change. There is no person in our society who is not impacted by sexual violence. Those of us who are survivors of sexual violence have relationships – with family, with friends, with colleagues, etc. No one is unaffected.
I’m reminded of that wonderful African word, Ubuntu – which means humanity or ‘I am because we are’. What happens to one of us, happens to all of us. If we were to have more of this spirit in our community and our world then we may be more able to achieve an end to sexual violence together.
Thanks for inviting me to talk today.
Jenny Gilmore B.Soc.Wk (Hons) PhD MAASW (Accr) MACSW
Accredited Mental Health Social Worker
Member Australian College of Social Work (Clinical Division)
PO Box 59 Red Hill Qld 4059 Australia
Phone: 61-7-3311 2329