cw: this article discusses experiences of sexual violence
*Sexual violence has been used in this article to encompass all forms of sexual abuse, violence and harassment.
Young Women Against Sexual Violence (YWASV) is a new project founded by UWA Students Micaela Rafel and Joey Lim, aiming to raise awareness of sexual violence in the community through collaboration with local businesses in Perth and creating a safe space to facilitate discussions amongst women with lived experiences of sexual violence. Launching on the 24th of October, I sat down with Micaela and Joey to discuss the origins on the project, the need for empowering survivors, breaking the stigma around sharing experiences of sexual violence, as well as the normalisation of abusive behaviour in our community and in our media.
Libby Robbins Bevis: What inspired you to make the project, and how did it come about? What’s the origin story?
Joey Lim: I’m taking the Bloom Launch Pad unit at UWA, they help you start a business and have mentors to help you with that. So, my tutor asked, ‘what is a personal problem you want to solve?’, and for me a personal problem is sexual violence, especially for young women. I’ve been through it, my friends have been through it, but there’s always that stigma of being a ‘rape victim’ or a fear of telling the public about experiences, due to feeling embarrassment or shame, or disappointment from relatives, friends and family. Miceala and I had a mutual friend who got us in touch, and we decided to do something and create an organisation.
Micaela Rafel: From my side, I started a project called “My Body, My Voice” which is for people who have experienced sexual violence to be able to share their stories. That’s why our mutual friend put us in contact, because we were both doing similar things [talking about sexual violence] and thought we could do something together. Also, something that was really important in processing my own experiences was hearing the stories of others, which is why I think this project can be really powerful and helpful.
Joey: Not just for us but for every other young women in our community.
Libby: How did you settle on the structure of the project? And deciding that was how you wanted it to run?
Joey: I did a few interviews with some young women that had experienced sexual violence. And what I found was that they felt a lack of community support. Speaking to a therapist, she recommended that women who had experienced sexual violence should have community support outside of therapy. I think that it’s important to be able to open up about our experiences with no judgement, and to empower and build confidence in women who have experienced sexual violence in our community.
Micaela: In developing our idea as to what the project would actually look like, as people who have experienced sexual violence, we thought about ‘what do we want?’ and ‘what would help?’. We both wanted to take action and have our voices heard, do something that is creative, empowering and not be a pity party. We didn’t want to do group therapy but we did want to connect with others, and have our voices heard.
Libby: What are some of the main goals and aims of Young Women Against Sexual Violence?
Joey: We want to raise awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence on young women in the community. One of our aims is creating creative collaborations with other organisations, to spread awareness in the public. Also, to empower young women who have experienced sexual violence by creating fortnightly sessions with them. A community to talk about our shared experiences and to give advice and strategies which helped us personally.
Micaela: We have four specific aims: the first being raising awareness of sexual violence. Learning about the normalisation of attitudes and behaviours which lead to sexual violence, because often people will do things and not be aware that its sexual assault or harassment. Or, someone will have something done to them and they won’t know what to call it. Third is breaking the stigma of being a survivor, and lastly, empowering women via actively working on and engaging with this project.
Libby: Why did you decide to focus the project off campus considering the amount of sexual assault that happens within the UWA community?
Joey: We don’t want to restrict it to just UWA students, or even just uni students. We want to expand it to the public because it would be a little selfish if we just do it for uni students. We know there is a problem with the rape culture in uni, but also people also need that support in the wider public.
Micaela: There’s no mistaking that sexual violence is an issue on campus, but it’s also an issue in the wider community. My personal experiences and the experiences of my friends were off campus, so I wouldn’t want to limit the conversation to a space that doesn’t necessarily represent our experiences.
Joey: Most of the women that we know have experienced sexual violence off campus.
Libby: Outside of your own personal experiences with sexual violence, why do you feel it’s important not just for you, but for young women to be involved in activism and social impact initiatives and projects?
Micaela I can only speak from my own experience, by imagining how what has helped me may help others. Something I know that helped me was having my voice heard, because when you are assaulted you have your voice taken away from you. Just having our experiences seen, acknowledged and believed helps. I don’t think it’s any person’s duty to take action when they’ve experience an injustice, but I do think that if in your own time it’s something that you feel yourself wanting to do, I think it can be very empowering.
Joey: Cultures are very different from generation to generation. In pasts generations, I feel it’s been something that has been hushed over and was considered taboo. Now that we’re speaking out about it in our culture, such as with the #metoo movement, that was really important because now people are realising, not just in our generation but older generations, that this is an issue.
Micaela: Also in silence, there is no recognition of a problem. We just let things continue. Sexual assault isn’t necessarily a violent thing. It can happen through coercion, persistence, manipulation, through ignoring someone, or by taking advantage of someone who isn’t in the state to consent. So, it’s important to talk about it, because otherwise actions which are assault continue to be normalised and considered as acceptable.
Joey: People often don’t realise that what they experienced is sexual violence even though it is. People think ‘oh what I experienced wasn’t rape or assault’ because it doesn’t look like what it does in the movies or media. Even for me personally, when I told my friends and about my experienced they would unintentionally victim blame and I think it’s important that we educate the public about victim blaming and why it’s damaging to survivors.
Micaela: It’s important to educate people on what consent is and what it isn’t. When I told my friend for the first time about what happened to me she said “oh, that’s not really rape, he just didn’t listen when you told him to stop”.
Joey: People say, “why didn’t you stop?”, or “why didn’t you runaway?”
Micaela: People can say really unhelpful things, which is why it’s important to have that conversation of what are affective ways to respond, and what are unhelpful things to say. If it was more ingrained in people’s minds that rape and assault don’t have to be super violent acts then people wouldn’t be making those comments in the first place.
Libby: Who is the project open to? At the moment you have fortnightly events that are just for women who have experienced sexual violence. Do you want to take a more educative role within the public?
Micaela: At the moment we have 6 weekly events that are open for the public. The intention for those events is to raise awareness. We want to be engaging people in conversations on sexual violence who wouldn’t necessarily be having those conversations otherwise. The fortnightly meetings will only be for women with lived experience.
Libby: I understand you want to go into places in which there are people that wouldn’t necessarily be engaged in the conversation otherwise. Was that something that you always envisioned?
Micaela: Since the beginning we wanted to raise awareness. It’s one thing to talk to people that are already having these conversations or are more inclined to have these conversations, and it’s another thing to enter a public space and bring it to the surface of people’s attention. That’s what we’ve wanted to do from the beginning, and hope to do so by collaborating with businesses on projects throughout different venues across Perth.
Libby: Why do you think people are hesitant or feel restricted when it comes to having conversations about sexual violence, or feel like they can’t engage in them?
Joey: I think fear. Most people, after their experience with sexual violence, always take more than a year to tell their friends or family. In asking them why, they talk about not wanting to disappoint their family, or don’t want to embarrass themselves or make them worry. Also, feelings of shame. One women I spoke to asked me not to mention her name because she didn’t want to be labelled as a rape victim. The stigma around sexual assault in society has created that barrier.
Micaela: One of the reasons why people may be hesitant is because of the fear of what people are going to say. For me, it took me 4 years to call what happened to me what it was; rape. After that entire process of finally being able to say what it was, I didn’t want to open myself up to having people put doubt in my head with their comments. So, from that perspective, there is the fear and shame attached to it.
In terms of society in general not engaging in this conversation, it’s something people feel uncomfortable about. No one is going to bring it up with you unless you’ve initiated it. Also, people are scared of saying the wrong thing to someone.
Also, consent is just not something that we talk about or are educated about.
Joey: I was talking to a few guy friends, who were saying that asking for permission, either to kiss someone or have sex, is lame or not smooth. So, there’s a certain stigma attached to the idea of asking for permission.
Micaela: I think it’s really important that guys be a part of the conversation and that they talk with other guys about behaviours and attitudes that are acceptable and that are harmful. That’s a huge thing, that people want to be cool, and that guys are taught to conquer girls. It’s something that we’re now beginning to bring to the surface of general consciousness and that we need to be talking about. But until now media and movies have just perpetuated this idea that it’s an acceptable way of being, which is why it hasn’t been part of the conversation, because it was seen as normal.
Libby: Guys recognising that guys need to be responsible for the conversation themselves, and that it shouldn’t on the onus of the women in their lives to discuss it with them and discuss what consent it. Guys need to take responsibility within their own community and circle.
Micaela: Man Up is a really cool organisation that will be speaking at our event. They have conversations about toxic masculinity and sexual violence. It’s something that’s really important and something that women can’t do for them, but that they have to do themselves. We can only encourage the conversation by bringing it to the surface of people’s attention.
Libby: Speaking of the Spilling the Tea Event, which is on Saturday the 24th, do you want to discuss what it’s about?
Joey: Spilling the Tea on Sexual Violence is our launch event for our organisation (Young Women Against Sexual Violence), and what we’ll be doing is having a mental health professional talking about the prevalence of sexual violence. We also have four speakers, young women talking about their experience with sexual violence. Additionally, we have two speakers from Man Up to talk about toxic masculinity and how it relates to sexual violence against women. With that event we will have a brief introduction to what the organisation entails. There’ll be live music too!
Libby: Sounds like an awesome event! How can people get involved, not just with YWASV, but with combatting sexual violence in general? Any organisations you want to shout out?
Micaela: People can get involved with Young Women Against Sexual Violence in many ways. Anyone with lived experience can approach us, either in person or online. Out fortnightly Sister Connect meetups, are for women with lived experiences, we do activities together and it’s a space to facilitate connection. People can also help us in organising events, which is something that the meetups will dedicate time towards.
The general public are welcome to attend our events, follow us on Facebook, and share our events with your friends. That’s really what we want; for people to actively engage in this conversation and reflect on the ways that we interact with others, that we might have been taught are normal, but are actually really harmful. We have a GoFundMe page which people can contribute to. We’re a two women operation, so any assistance is welcomed.
Joey: Other small organisations that people are doing is My Body My Voice.
Micaela: That’s an online platform where people can share their stories either anonymously or not. For me, reading other people’s stories was extremely helpful in processing my own experience. Stand Against Silence is another organisation started by Monei Thomason, which is similar to My Body, My Voice, it’s focused on campus at UWA.
Joey: It allows people to talk about their experiences in a private forum. No matter how minimal or large. They also give resources, and you are able to talk about your abuser if you want to.
Young Women Against Sexual Violence are holding their first event on Saturday, October 24th, 1-3pm. Check out the event here.