Introducing The Next Generation Of Leaders And Thinkers

Meet the British Woman Who Is Taking Rape Culture By Storm

Trigger Warning: rape/sexual assault

Not too long ago I watched a TED talk by a remarkable woman who was using her talent and passion to take back her sexual assault. This Oxford educated woman, Ione Wells has started a movement to fight rape culture. Below is our conversation.

1. Tell us about your story and how you have become the woman you are today.

In April 2015 I was on my way back to my family home in London from seeing friends when I was sexually assaulted on my own road. The weeks following were very tough – I had never heard anyone else talk openly about an experience of this kind before so didn’t know who to reach out to for help. My mum suggested that, because I had always liked writing, it could help to write down some of the things that I was feeling as a form of catharsis. I ended up writing a letter to my assaulter, which started out as a cathartic exercise, but which I then ended up publishing in a student newspaper I was working on at the time in Oxford. At the end of the letter I encouraged others to write in under the hashtag #NotGuilty with their experiences – to emphasize that people shouldn’t feel to blame or guilty if someone has violated them. Society often blames survivors of assault for what they were wearing or for drinking, for example, even though no one is to blame but the perpetrator. I had also felt feelings of self-blame such as “why did I walk home alone” even though I knew these were irrational – I was just getting on with my life and walked a route I had done a thousand times before. What I hadn’t anticipated is that the published letter would go viral. Soon, I was receiving hundreds of stories from around the world, which I then began to publish on a website I set up – and the hashtag #NotGuilty became a campaign. I have used the campaign’s website to raise awareness about the impact of assault and also to send the message to survivors that they are not alone. Through the campaign, I have also run workshops in schools, created a guide to restorative justice and spoken on national television and radio, and at TED, to raise awareness of the problems of sexual abuse and victim-blaming.

2. Please define rape culture to our readers.

Rape culture is any culture that normalizes or trivializes sexual abuse. It is a culture where most sexual assaults remain unreported. It is a culture that blames victims of assault, just because they were out drinking or wearing a short skirts, rather than blaming perpetrators for raping. It is a culture where a man who has condoned grabbing women “by the pussy”, who has been accused of sexual assault, can become the most powerful man in the world. It is a culture that teaches their daughters not to get drunk rather than teaching their children not to rape. It is a culture where judges in sexual assault cases worry about the effect a sentence would have on the perpetrator, rather than focus on the effect the assault has had on the victim. It is a culture that doesn’t bother teaching their children adequate sex education in schools. It is a culture that can forbid abortions even in the case of rape – where a pregnancy may be a timeless reminder of trauma. It is a culture that throws around the word “rape” – even to refer to someone’s Facebook getting hacked. It is a culture that witnesses institutionalized assault – in religious organizations, in football clubs, by teachers in schools. It is a culture that still very much exists.

3. How did you become involved with TED Talks and has it helped your activism?
I was approached first by TEDx Thessaloniki, so did a talk in Greece for their TEDx in April 2016 after their team had seen the #NotGuilty campaign talked about in the press. From there, I went on to do a talk at the TED Global Conference in Banff 2016. It has been a great platform for activism. Its global reach has helped me to connect with other people who want to help the causes across the world – from the US to Australia, India and Trinidad. People from all walks of life watch TED, so it has helped me to make some connections in different fields who I am now planning collaborations with, such as political artists in LA. It also allowed me to compress my main messages about this issue into a form that is easy to share and distribute widely.

4. How can we put an end to rape culture and help survivors of sexual assault feel validated?
Education is really important. My sex education did not touch upon sexual assault and relationships at all – it just told me not to get pregnant or get chlamydia. I think this is pretty universal, if better than some. Most kids end up learning about sex and relationships from things they find online or watch, which on the whole gives them a very distorted view of what sex is like. Consent and sex education is also important for making kids aware of their own rights, too. I definitely think that, as a teen, my friends and I all assumed that certain behavior was normal or to be expected – even if it felt wrong or uncomfortable. We need to educate children from a much younger age about what healthy sex and relationships look like – so that they can treat others well but also so they know that it is okay to say “no” to something they don’t feel comfortable doing. In terms of making survivors feel validated, I think it is important to keep raising awareness about how common an issue assault is. Since starting the #NotGuilty campaign so many friends have opened up to me about unwanted sexual encounters, and the contributions to the campaign has shown me that it happens to people of all genders, sexualities, ages and nationalities. There is no “type” of person who gets assaulted, and therefore no way in which the survivor is to blame. I think it is important to stress that again and again – that the survivor is not to blame.

5. Is it possible to spark a movement while in college?

Definitely! I did. College is a great place to spark a movement because you’re much more flexible time-wise than when tied down at a full time job. There is also a fantastic network of people at college from all backgrounds so it can be a great place to get people on board with a movement, plus you have access to resources such as student newspapers or radio stations, and campuses to put up banners and host events.

6. In order to stay aware of social issues, what are some media outlets you advise us to look into?
TED is really fantastic, and often makes great playlists surrounding particular issues for you to watch if there is a cause you particularly care about. There are lots of great social media platforms too – such as AJ+ – that share short but catchy videos and audio recordings about issues happening all over the world. Following movements and liberation events on social media through hashtags can also be an effective way to keep up with their latest updates – such as #BlackHistoryMonth (this month, February!), #BlackLivesMatter, and #EverydaySexism. Some other great feminist outlets include Femsplain, The Vagenda, The F Word, and The Pool.

7. Any words of wisdom for the young people reading this?
Not being complacent is key – use the angry energy you get when you feel a sense of injustice to channel it into producing change and fighting discriminatory, prejudiced or unjust attitudes. That being said, don’t feel like a failure if you wobble along the way. Being brave and fighting back after injustice, or being an activist, does not mean you have to be “over it”. It is okay and normal to struggle too, and looking after yourself is really important in the rewarding, but also emotionally tough, world of activism.

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