Cambridge Reclaim the Night, 11th May 2012

Apologies for taking a week for getting round to writing about this(!), but I wanted to share a quick report on Reclaim the Night for those who weren’t able to make it.

Reclaim the Night marches have been taking place around the world since the 1970s, giving women a chance to come together and protest against street harrassment, rape culture, victim blaming and all forms of violence against women. In Cambridge last week, over 100 women met up on Parkers Piece, including a group of FAC women with our two beautiful new banners. The group marched through the streets of Cambridge, making plenty of noise!

Large banner with the words 'Cambridge Reclaim the Night'

Group of women marching with placards reading 'Women Unite Reclaim the Night'

(Thanks to Cambridge Unison for the photos)

We joined the Men’s Solidarity demo outside King’s College Chapel and all went into the chapel to listen to speakers from Cambridge Rape Crisis (text below) and Cath Elliott from Unison (you can read her speech on her blog), introduced by CUSU Women’s Officer Ruth Graham who also offered some reflections on the march. Memories of the protests fromDominique Strauss-Kahn’s visit to Cambridge in March were still in many of our minds, and it was great to see that the energy and passion from those protests is still very much alive. The whole event was organised by the wonderful CUSU Women’s Campaign and gave an opportunity for feminists from the two Universities and town to come together.

This is my version of what happened, but please comment and share your own experiences and reflections and take a look at this article for a student’s-eye view. See you next year everyone!

Reclaim the Night Speech

Firstly, I’d like to thank everyone here today for coming on this march and for inviting me to speak. I work for Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre and it’s actually our 30th birthday this year – we were founded in 1982 by a group of feminist students and are still going strong today. We are a helpline for women and girls who have experienced or are experiencing sexual violence, and even today, we are the only specialist, women-only service for survivors of sexual violence in Cambridge. So our centre is an example of what a group of determined women just like the women who are here this evening can achieve.

I’m going to be speaking to you today about male violence against women. Most sexual violence is perpetrated by men against women, because we live in a sexist society where men and women are not equal. However it is important that we’re all aware that some of the men in our lives will also be survivors of abuse, that some women perpetrate abuse, and that domestic and sexual violence are also perpetrated against trans, bisexual, lesbian and gay people, including by their own same-sex partners.

I want to talk to you now about when I was a student here in Cambridge a few years ago, and the fact that even as a young feminist, when someone told me that 1 in 4 women in this country will experience sexual violence at some point in their life, I didn’t believe them. I didn’t believe them because 1 in 4 women would mean there were over 100 current and future survivors of rape and sexual abuse just in my college.  1 in 4 women would mean thousands of women in Cambridge and millions of women in the UK. It would mean survivors were not just a few women out there somewhere but that I was spending all day every day surrounded by survivors, amongst my own friends, my family.

And if 1 in 4 women experienced sexual violence, surely we would be talking about rape all the time. Surely every Cambridge college, every city, town and village would have a rape support centre. Surely every jail would be brimming with rapists and child abusers, surely society would spare no expense in fighting and ending this scourge on women’s safety and freedom.

So why not. Given what I now know and what I hope you all know, that 1 in 4 women really do experience sexual violence, why don’t any of these things happen? Why is the conviction rate for rape only 6.5%? Why do 9 out of 10 women who are raped not feel able to report to the police? Why aren’t we talking about rape?

When we’re raped, our rapists tell us that it’s our fault. They tell us that it’s their right as our partner, they tell us we didn’t actually say the word ‘no’ so they didn’t realise we didn’t want it, they tell us they couldn’t help themselves because of the way we were acting or the way we were dressed, they tell us we led them on and honestly, what did we expect when we invited him in for a coffee or danced with him like that?

So our rapist has already told us it’s our fault, and then everyone else around us seems to agree with him. That when a man buys us a drink or walks home with us then of course he’s entitled to expect sex. When you’re in a relationship with someone of course you owe them sex and of course you should just put up with doing things you don’t enjoy if you really care about them. That men need sex and the poor things aren’t very good at reading our signals so unless we hold up a big cardboard sign with NO written on it then how could they possibly realise we didn’t want to sleep with them?

These are all rape myths and not only are they shaming and silencing women, but they’re also often stopping us from realising that we’ve been raped or sexually abused at all. Because real rape is a stranger in an alley. Real rape is a man with a knife. No-one tells us that our men, our boyfriends, our husbands, fathers and friends can be rapists. That rapists can be of any social class or age or ethnic group. That it’s still rape if we didn’t scream or say no, and that the way most women react when they’re being raped is not to scream and fight but to freeze or go numb.

No woman is responsible for being raped. No woman deserves it. No woman was asking for it. There is no change we women can be ordered to make to our behaviour that will prevent us from being raped. Reclaim the Night is about our freedom to walk the streets at night free from fear of harassment, assault or sexual violence. Walking around Cambridge on our own, drunk in a miniskirt at 3am is our right and society has a responsibility to make it safe for us to do so and rapists have a responsibility to stop raping us so that we can live free from fear. And to me, working in a Rape Crisis Centre, Reclaim the Night is also about more than reclaiming the streets for women. Men rape women in every possible location. Most often it happens in our own homes. One third of rapes are carried out by current partners. We need to reclaim the home, we need all women and children to be safe to sleep in their own beds at night without being raped and without the fear of rape.

So I’ve told you that we can’t stop rape by telling women to stay indoors. We can’t stop rape by telling women to change how we dress, or make sure we don’t drink too much or take drugs when we go out. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. Rapists are not just a natural hazard like floods or droughts. The Rape Crisis movement aims to support survivors of rape and sexual abuse and to work towards a world where women and girls can be free from the fear and experience of sexual violence. A lot of activists are survivors, but there are lots of steps everyone else needs to take to support our work. We can all take responsibility for educating ourselves. We can learn about rape myths, read books, read websites, find out the truth and sexual violence. 1 in 4 women are survivors and all of us can make sure that we know what we should do and what to say and not say if someone we know tells us that they’ve been raped or sexually abused. We can all make sure that we feel confident to challenge rape jokes and uninformed opinions whenever we hear them. We can all speak to boys and young men we know and give them a different view of what it means to be a man, one that doesn’t involve having power over women and treating us as sex objects to be conquered and used but as genuine equals who deserve respect. We can all commit to always, unconditionally believing survivors over the excuses of rapists. If each one of us here resolves to go out and find out more about sexual violence, and if we start educating others and encouraging our friends and family to do the same, then we will be laying the foundations for a world where there is no more sexual violence and a world where all women can be safe and free.

Thank you.

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