This is the introduction for the (Un)Silenced: Institutional Sexual Violence feature, which explores how sexual violence relates to various societal institutions. The series provides a historical understanding of the ways in which sexual violence is produced through different institutional cultures of harm. This series is a collaboration with The SHaME Project—a Wellcome Trust-funded interdisciplinary research group based at Birkbeck, University of London.
Content Note: This article contains descriptions of sexual violence and abuse.
Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. For marginalised communities, the prevalence is even greater. In the UK, 1 in 5 trans people experience actual or threatened sexual violence every year. Meanwhile, more than half of women in prison in the UK have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse in childhood.
These statistics highlight the necessity of activism to end sexual violence. Today marks the beginning of Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness week, as major news outlets simultaneously present new accounts of sexual violence in sport, public safety, and educational institutions. These stories build on the viral online movements of the last decade—including #yesallwomen, #MeToo, and #Ibelieveher—that collated personal accounts of sexual violence into a loose form of mass resistance.
Yet, founder of the original #MeToo call, Tarana Burke, emphasised that despite her efforts to shape the movement to confront power and privilege, #MeToo, as performed by popular feminism, was largely focused on ‘individual bogey men’. While the genre of feminist consciousness-raising through personal narratives is deeply moving for many survivors, it also has served to individualise the phenomenon of sexual violence. This shift to an individual-level obscures the structural roots of sexual violence, reinforcing false assumptions of assault as an aberrant and unprecedented trauma. However, the prevalence statistics reflect the truth: our societal institutions are clearly reproducing spaces and structures that tolerate and, in many cases, recreate cycles of sexual violence.
This series provides a forum to discuss institutionalised sexual violence. It covers a wide range of institutions, geographical and historical contexts, and victim-survivors of sexual violence, including men, children, intellectually disabled persons and non-white, non-Western women. It shows what we all know – that sexual violence is pervasive, it happens everywhere and to anyone – but it also explores the range of different strategies that have been used (or indeed not used) by different survivors to counter the silence, shame and stigma that have historically characterised sexual violence. The series complicates the recent turn to individualising both the experience of sexual violence and the fight against it, and instead focuses on institutions and their role in perpetrating sexual violence as well as maintaining the conditions that enable acts of sexual violence.
At the SHaME Project, we focus on both individuals and institutions. Our research explores how medicine and psychiatry, in particular, have played a crucial role in shaping how we understand sexual violence – how it’s defined, identified, adjudicated, and treated. But we also focus on survivors and the different ways in which they’ve interpreted their own experiences of sexual violence, how they understand and respond to their interactions with medical and psychiatric professionals in the aftermath of sexual violence, and the strategies they employ to both support their own recovery and contribute to the fight to eradicate sexual violence.
SHaME is deeply committed to using our research to make a difference outside of academia. We have a rich programme of engaging with the public, supporting activism and encouraging culture change within academic practice and society at large. Our flagship work in this area is the groundbreaking Shameless! Festival of Activism Against Sexual Violence, co-produced with WOW – Women of the World. The first festival took place in November 2021 at the Battersea Arts Centre in London and brought together academics, artists, activists and survivors in a transformative programme that confronted and challenged the stigma surrounding sexual violence. We also have a regular blog series called ‘Spotlight On’ that centres the voices of people doing critical work in the field of sexual violence. We’ve hosted a writer-in-residence programme with the author and activist Winnie M Li and have an upcoming artist-in-residence programme with research-based artist Laia Abril. We’ve also supported arts workshops for young people who have experienced sexual violence, as well as creative writing workshops on military sexual trauma for active and retired servicewomen.
We undertake this work because we believe we all have a part to play in the fight to forge a rape-free world. For us at SHaME that means using our research, as well as our resources, to support activism and advocate for change because we believe that academic research absolutely can and ought to make a difference in people’s lives.
Dr Rhea Sookdeosingh is the Public Engagement and Events Coordinator for The SHaME Project at Birkbeck, University of London. She is an experienced public engagement practitioner and has worked previously in capacity-building roles at Birkbeck and the University of Oxford. Rhea works to develop and steward partnerships that drive humanities-led research and innovation, and she has an overarching interest in showcasing the social and civic value of arts and humanities research and practice. She is also an historian with interests in the intellectual, social and cultural history of medicine. Her first monograph on the history of anorexia nervosa in nineteenth-century Britain is forthcoming with Oxford University Press. Rhea is currently the co-chair of Birkbeck’s staff diversity network REACH (Race, Ethnicity & Cultural Heritage), which works to support and amplify the voices of underrepresented ethnically diverse staff across the College.
Allison McKibban is a doctoral student and Senior Associate Fellow for The SHaME Project at Birkbeck, University of London. Her research interests lie at the intersection of gender, law, history, and decolonising studies. Her current project confronts the ways in which U.S. federal policy utilizes settler colonial discourses to (re)produce sexual violence against Indigenous women. Allison also works as a public speaking and debating instructor for schools in the UK and the US, focusing on helping young people find their voices through advocacy. She tweets as @AllisonMckibban.