Through our work we get to meet and connect with many incredible storytellers, and someone we really admire in this sector is Winnie M Li. In this guest blog Winnie shares her experience of storytelling around her own sexual assault, and how we can harness the power of collective storytelling for change.
After you’ve been raped, storytelling takes on a whole new meaning. For most of my life, I’d been fascinated by stories – as a child, I was always reading fairytales. As an undergraduate at Harvard, I majored in Folklore and Mythology. In my twenties, I worked as a film producer developing feature film scripts. But after I was raped at 29, the prospect of storytelling became something fraught with fear, danger, and a vital, necessary power.
How do you tell someone you’ve been raped? It is an act we view with apprehension – all the shame and stigma of being a rape victim threatens to overwhelm you. You’re tempted to stay silent, to pretend and say that nothing ever happened. And yet, how could you not speak the truth about something so momentous and overwhelmingly unfair?
Suddenly, there was only one story that mattered: the one about a stranger who decided to rape me in a park, and how that single event changed every aspect of my life. Through Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression, I was transformed into a pale, joyless ghost of the person I had once been – but it was a transformation that I couldn’t afford to hide. And so I decided from the very beginning to tell the truth about my rape to the police, my friends, my work colleagues, eventually my family. I felt that the added burden of hiding the truth was simply something I didn’t couldn’t and shouldn’t deal with, on top of the medical examinations, the legal procedures, the overwhelming sense of loss that came in the aftermath of rape.
Ideologically, I still feel that we need to be honest to ourselves, our loved ones and our wider society about the truth behind rape and sexual assault. What is the cost of hiding the truth? It is a very great cost, both for individual victims who feel compelled to pretend everything is normal, and for our society, which largely remains blind to the prevalence of sexual assault and abuse. Every hour, the equivalent of over ten women and one man are raped in England and Wales. http://rapecrisis.org.uk/statistics.php If you then think about how many lives are affected with the negative impacts of this crime, it’s an astonishing burden on our society – but one which remains largely unspoken and misunderstood.
So in the eight years since my own rape, I’ve worked on fostering an environment where we can speak more openly about our experiences of sexual assault. My rape in Belfast had been widely covered by the local media at the time, but where was my voice as the victim? A year later, I wrote an article in The Belfast Telegraph about my assault. It was published anonymously.
Three years after my rape, my essay about my attack and recovery was published in a book anthology – with my own name. Six years after, I started my blog for The Huffington Post on the issue of sexual assault. Seven years after, I co-founded the Clear Lines Festival, which was the UK’s first-ever festival dedicated to addressing sexual abuse through the arts and discussion. Myself and a dedicated team of volunteers were able to crowdfund over £7,000 to deliver the 4-day festival, which brought together an estimated 500 participants, including 60+ artists, activists, speakers, therapists, and survivors who wanted to start a more open and honest conversation about sexual assault and abuse. Videos from some of the talks and performances are free to watch online, and many participants have been inspired to start their own events and projects addressing sexual assault.
Currently, I am pursuing a PhD at the London School of Economics, where I am researching the uses of social media by rape survivors to talk about their experiences. And next year, my debut novel Dark Chapter will be published – it tells the story of a rape and its aftermath from the perspectives of both victim and perpetrator.
What I’ve learned from all of this is that there are many people out there who not only want to hear other stories of sexual assault, but to also tell their own stories. After all, storytelling is about connecting – and it’s only through connecting that we can overcome the isolation and shame that often comes with victimhood. Given the right platform, this collective storytelling has the power to challenge our society’s ignorance and misunderstanding around sexual assault. Our laws, our criminal justice system, our medical system, our universities – all these institutions could be much better at helping victims and preventing future crimes. But that kind of change will only happen if enough of us speak up about our experiences. The story of sexual assault and abuse is unfortunately a story that many of us share. It’s a story that deserves to be told and listened to, and not something that we should ever have to hide.
Winnie M Li is a writer, activist, rape survivor, and PhD researcher at the London School of Economics. She is Co-Founder of the Clear Lines Festival, the UK’s first-ever festival dedicated to addressing sexual assault and consent through the arts and discussion. Her debut novel, Dark Chapter, will be published worldwide in 2017. http://winniemli.com