Classic Review: Surviving Sexual Violence 1
Ever since it began publishing in 1983, T&S has included an occasional ‘classic review’ feature in which a contemporary feminist re-reads an important text from the past. The latest addition to the series features Liz Kelly’s groundbreaking 1988 book Surviving Sexual Violence. Revisiting it in 2015, Alison Boydell finds it as relevant as ever.
I first read Surviving Sexual Violence (SSV) in the 1990s for a postgraduate Women’s Studies dissertation about abusive men who murder their current/ex-partners. Today my understanding is informed by both reading and experience of working with survivors: I am involved in providing front line services to survivors of sexual violence, and will be shortly working in the domestic violence sector. I’m also studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Advocacy for Victims of Sexual Violence: SSV is on my reading list. Since it’s now more than a quarter of a century since it was first published, this is surely a testament to Liz Kelly’s work.
In the 1970s, feminists had analysed rape as an act of male power, raised awareness about its prevalence and deconstructed the myths that surrounded it. However, it was only later that literature about other forms of male sexual violence began to emerge. SSV focused on a wide range of manifestations: it was one of two ground-breaking books published in 1988 which forced childhood sexual abuse onto the public agenda (the other was an American self-help book, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis’s The Courage to Heal).
The word ‘surviving’ in Kelly’s title was significant. As she observed, ‘the term victim…makes invisible the other side of women’s victimization: the active and positive ways in which women resist, cope and survive’ (p.163). This resistance figures among the book’s main themes, which are summarized at the beginning (p.1):
• most women have experienced sexual violence in their lives;
• there is a range of male behaviour that women experience as abusive;
• sexual violence occurs in the context of men’s power and women’s resistance.
Acknowledging sexual violence: something ‘most women have experienced’
Liz Kelly writes in her preface to SSV that
most men and many women do not want to acknowledge the extent of sexual violence in, and its impact on women’s lives. It is still illegitimate for us to refer to it as being of “epidemic” proportions, threatening women’s “basic human rights” (p ix).
The research reported in the book is instructive about the true extent of the problem. As well as asking her 60 research participants about their own experiences of sexual violence, Liz Kelly asked them about their female friends’ experiences. A total number of 435 women known to the participants had experienced rape, incest or domestic violence; only 6 [10%] did not know any women who had experienced these forms of sexual violence (p. 95). There was a considerable range of experience of sexual violence within the group, which was also diverse in ‘age, class of origin, marital status, work experience and sexual identity’ (p. 11).
Yet the statement that most people do not want to acknowledge this is as true today as it was 25 years ago. We still frequently hear and read that acts of male violence (including fatal ones) are ‘isolated incidents’; recently, Julie Bindel wrote about the perils of single case campaigns and petitions which obscure structural and endemic male violence.
Researching sexual violence: feminist research practice
The research SSV is based on was innovative, reflecting Kelly’s view that ‘we should shift our attention from discussions of “feminist methods” to what I now call “feminist research practice”’ (p. 7). She argued that the originality of feminist research did not lie in the methods it used so much as ‘the questions we have asked, [and] the way we locate ourselves within those questions’.
Sixty women drawn from a wide range of women’s groups took part in Kelly’s research. Her design rejected previous methodologies predicated on ‘analytic definitions into which women’s experiences are slotted’: rather, ‘an important principle of this project’s methodology that women define their own experience’ (p. 140). The questions were carefully worded to avoid presuming a shared understanding of sexual violence, and to respect women’s own understandings. In the book women are quoted directly rather than paraphrased. This allows the reader to communicate directly with them and has a powerful impact. As someone who works directly with survivors, I feel it is important not to put women’s experiences into a third person narrative which is itself disempowering.
Creating an alternative to the dominant patriarchal discourse is critical to feminist analysis. To reflect the range of women’s experiences, Kelly created new terms to describe women’s own perceptions and definitions. She deliberately created a ‘continuum of non-consensual sex’ (p. 109): the term ‘pressurized sex’ was used for what previous studies called ‘altruistic’ or ‘compliant’ sex, and ‘coercive sex’ was introduced to cover experiences women described as being ‘like rape’. This ‘continuum within a continuum’ may seem contentious in a climate where there are apologists wishing to minimize rape by renaming it ‘non-consensual sex’. However, the dominant narrative of rape as an act perpetrated by a stranger wielding a weapon, leaping out of the dark in a public place, exerted and continues to exert enormous influence on the public’s understanding of sexual violence. Given that reality, Kelly’s approach was the most effective way of capturing the range of women’s actual experiences, most of which do not match the dominant narrative. Some sexual experiences were defined by some women as neither rape nor consensual. It is worth noting here that language is also very important in the Rape Crisis counselling context: counsellors are guided by the clients’/survivors’ choice of language and would never use terms such as ‘rape’ or ‘abuse’ without the client/survivor being able to deal with that language.
Women’s definitions of sexual violence altered a number of times following an assault. At different stages of the research, they went through a process of ‘redefinition’, remembering more incidents of sexual violence between the first and second interviews. This is an indication of how carefully constructed research can be a consciousness raising process.
Defining sexual violence: ‘a range of male behaviour’
Sexual violence does not happen in a vacuum; it is both cause and effect of sexual inequality and manifests structurally and institutionally. As Kelly states, ‘feminist analysis sees all forms of sexual violence as involving the exercise of power, functioning as a form of social control by denying women freedom and autonomy’ (p. 41). The definition of sexual violence she uses in SSV
. . . includes any physical, visual, verbal or sexual act that is experienced by the woman or girl, at the time or later, as a threat, invasion or assault, that has the effect of hurting her or degrading her and/or takes away her ability to control intimate contact (p 41).
This was the first time that a comprehensive woman-centred definition of sexual violence focused on its impact rather than the behaviours and acts involved. What is also especially prescient here is the qualifier ‘or later’. Today we are witnessing unprecedented reporting of ‘historic’ abuse.
Kelly says her definition is ‘rather lengthy’; yet it is comprehensive and enduring. A quarter of a century on it continues to be used in academia as well as in the training of front line service providers supporting women survivors. I continue to engage with it in both arenas, having completed the Rape Crisis National Training Programme a year ago and now embarking on the new academic journey I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. A number of us on my course have discussed the continuum in our presentations. Three separate training programmes I have in been involved with in the past year, two in sexual violence and one in domestic abuse, have quoted Kelly’s definition.
The continuum she identifies encapsulates the myriad different forms of sexual violence as follows: threat of violence; sexual harassment (includes street harassment, workplace harassment and harassment in other public spaces); pressure to have sex; sexual assault (ranging from any unwanted physical contact to attempted rape); obscene phone calls; coercive sex; domestic violence; sexual abuse; flashing; rape and incest. Threat of violence and harassment were the most common forms of sexual violence; a glance at the Everyday Sexism project’s website shows that this is still the case today.
The placement of each behaviour on the continuum does not indicate its seriousness, but its incidence, i.e. the most prevalent forms that women are most likely to experience on multiple occasions. Kelly stresses that ‘with the exception of sexual violence which results in death, the degree of impact cannot be simply inferred from the form of sexual violence women experience or its place within the continuum. What is fundamental is that these behaviours are not discrete; they blend into one another. Men use a variety of coercive and abusive methods to control women.
Kelly’s careful avoidance of a hierarchy of abusive behaviours has been criticised. Writing in 1990, Lynne Segal suggested that SSV renders all men guilty, and fails to acknowledge that there are ‘different types of violent men’ or to discuss how violent men differ from their non-violent counterparts. Another kind of criticism was made in Sheila Jeffreys’s book The Idea of Prostitution, which noted that while Kelly ‘includes a particularly wide range of abusive male practices within her continuum of sexual violence, [she] does not mention the violence of prostitution’ (p. 247). Reviewing Jeffreys’s book, Liz Kelly responded: ‘Sheila makes the point powerfully that prostitution should be included in the continuum of violence against women, and rightly takes me to task for not doing so’. I would argue that although it is not explicitly included within the continuum, it is implicit in Kelly’s definition of ‘sexual violence’. Jeffreys herself states that ‘there is nothing… about Kelly’s definition that that would exclude the abuse of prostitutes, and much that would seem to relate to it’.
Criticisms have been made regarding so called ‘honour based violence’. Kelly addresses this herself in the preface of The Handbook of Sexual Violence (2012) which revisits the continuum in a series of multi-disciplinary essays written by researchers and practitioners. One of the concerns that many feminist activists have tried to address is that certain forms of sexual violence should not be ‘othered’: this is something that Southall Black Sisters, for example, have campaigned about for years.
Resisting sexual violence: ‘men’s power and women’s resistance’
Feminists who work to expose the widespread nature of male sexual violence against women are often criticised for making all women into victims. Kelly argues that this is a lack of understanding of the avoidance strategies that women employ. She questions the theory of ‘learned helplessness’ that was popular at the time, since her research indicated that women’s resistance increased before leaving. (p. 181)
Drawing on Black feminist critique, Kelly stresses that coping with sexual violence is an active process (p. 185) and that women had varied forms of resistance and survival strategies (pp. 183-184). Minimising was found to be a common coping strategy: women expressed it in forms like ‘it could have been worse’ and ‘it wasn’t that bad’. This can control the impact by mitigating the pressure to take action and/or respond in a certain way. Furthermore, women were reluctant to be ascribed ‘victim status’ given the pervasiveness of the image of a pathetic and downtrodden woman. They indicated that they had not accessed specialist women’s services as they felt that others were in greater need. In my experience of working on a specialist helpline for women, this is not an atypical response.
Kelly sees links between women’s experiences, feminism, collective action and resistance. She ends with the powerful message ‘No matter how effective our services and support networks, no matter how much change in policy and practice is achieved, without a mass movement of women committed to resisting sexual violence in all its forms there will continue to be casualties in the “shadow war” and women’s and girl’s lives will continue to be circumscribed by the reality of sexual violence’ (p. 238). This, I totally agree with: we must go beyond being service providers.
New times and new challenges
Some things have changed the book’s publication. Our language has evolved: for example, terms such as ‘battered women’ are no longer used as this is a barrier to abused women recognising the coercive control that can occur in the absence of physical abuse.
Sadly, societal attitudes have changed little. Myths, stereotypes and dominant media narratives are still barriers to survivors identifying and naming their experiences of sexual violence. One of Kelly’s conclusions was to call for further research to inform social policy. Today we also need to use this research to bring about cultural change.
Kelly noted ‘how many women had experienced more than one form of sexual violence, yet these forms were separated from one another in service provision’ (p. 2). That continues to be the case. At the same time, specialist women’s services have had their funding slashed and some have disappeared altogether due to the Coalition’s austerity measures. Many organizations have also been forced into providing a unisex service. This weakens the feminist model of empowerment used by women’s services to support survivors. It is also unnecessary, since sexual violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men (and boys) against women and girls, as reflected in Kelly’s definition.
It is critical that we keep up the momentum. As Kelly writes about Savile and Assange in 50 Shades of Feminism, published a quarter of a century after SSV:
Yet again sexual violence sits at the heart of a crisis that rocks institutions. I am left wondering whether we have made more change that we recognize. Have there ever been more feminist and survivor voices – in the mainstream media and social media – refusing to be belittled or silenced? (p. 137)
We witnessed this very recently with the Ched Evans case, where a veritable chorus of feminist and survivor voices rang out in mainstream and social media.
A few months ago I gave a presentation for my course, where I argued that Kelly’s continuum should inform our practice as Independent Sexual Violence Advisers (ISVAs); we should never assume the impact of any form of sexual violence or treat them separately. This is the very antithesis of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, sentencing guidelines (2014) and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme (2012).
If Surviving Sexual Violence were to be updated, it would need to include the forms of abuse made possible by new media, mobile phones and the Internet. We also, as Kelly says, need to explore how incidences of sexual violence correlate with individual and collective attempts at resistance via feminist activism. We are currently experiencing a misogynistic backlash against the gains feminists have made in the last few decades. We must continue to challenge sexual violence both individually and collectively. For me, revisiting Surviving Sexual Violence has been a consciousness raising exercise in itself.
Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach (eds) Fifty Shades of Feminism (Virago 2013)
Jennifer M Brown and Sandra L Walklate (eds) Handbook of Sexual Violence (Routledge 2012)
Sheila Jeffreys The Idea of Prostitution (Spinifex 1997)
Lynne Segal Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities Changing Men (Virago 1990)
Liz Kelly’s Surviving Sexual Violence was published by Polity Press in 1988, and is still available in paperback and Kindle editions.
Alison Boydell works with survivors of sexual violence and is one of the organizers of JURIES, a campaign for jurors to receive mandatory briefings on the myths and realities of sexual violence. Find the campaign here, and follow it on Twitter @UnderstandingSV.