Nurturing my inner activist. Dreaming of an end to sexual violence

It doesn’t matter how you enter this space. Whether it’s through personal experience, professional interest, or a concern for others. It’s almost impossible to stay here without being changed.


I am changed.


I never considered myself to be an activist. I’m a psychologist. I’ve been trained to work collaboratively, diligently and quietly towards incremental change. But I work in a sector that doesn’t need incremental change. It cries out for radical change with a volume I find impossible to ignore. So whilst my natural inclination is to be the kind of person who sits down and fits in, I’m challenged to stand up and stand out. It’s a hard and constant challenge.


As I try to meet this challenge I’ve been searching for a fuel to sustain my energy and help me find my courage. I see plenty around me that merits anger, but anger has never been my fuel of choice. In my search for ways to nurture my inner activist I’ve found that dreaming, imagining the world as I want to see it, gives me the courage to stand up and the energy to go on. Because those of us who want the world to be a better place, whether we call ourselves activists, survivors, politicians, practitioners, or policy makers we are all engaged in a process of fantasy. Change is the work of imagining how the future could be. How it should be. And then making that dream a reality.


Hindsight can downplay the role of dreams. Looking back, the path behind us can look deceptively clear. As if it was always going to lead us here. But the rear view mirror can obscure our view. When we look back do we see an inevitable journey of changes in policy, practice and legislation, or can we still see them? The dreamers? The people who had the audacity and passion to imagine a world where it’s no longer legal to rape your wife; a world where victims don’t have forensic examinations in police stations; a world where judges do not remind juries that women can sometimes lie or get confused; a world where many people have woken up to the scale of sexual violence in their communities and are less likely to say ‘that doesn’t happen here’. Now we get to live in the world of their imagination. Who will live in ours and what will that world look like?


I worry about the answer to that because dreaming isn’t easy. Raw hope and aspiration come hand in hand with doubt. Doubt that you are dreaming the right dream. Doubt that dreaming will ever lead to anything. Fear that in the end all you’ll be left with is unfulfilled hope. It takes energy and courage to hold on when the thing you are holding is a fantasy. And it isn’t just our own fears that can get in the way. We live in a system that doesn’t want us to have big dreams because dreaming is an act of rebellion. When we dream we push against current norms, current conventions. We choose not to accept the status quo. Dreaming is disruptive.


We need to be disruptive if we want an end to sexual violence and we need our imaginations to lead the way. But it’s hard to dream in this space. How many of us are just trying to survive? Trying to do the best we can whilst clinging on to our wellbeing with our fingertips? How many people work in this sector without job security? How many organisations are in a constant state of crisis? Crisis because of funding, crisis because of politics, policy, growing pressure without growing resource? When simply still being here is in itself a small miracle and a small act of rebellion how can we find the space and the courage to dream of a world far beyond this?


I don’t know how we can. But I do know why we should.


No one can do our dreaming for us. If we don’t find the space and the courage to imagine the world as it could be we’ll never live to see it. If we’re not audacious the changes we’ll see in our lifetime will be incremental, incidental. If we can’t fantasise about the way things should be our children will never inherit those dreams. They will live in a world not too different, or worse, than ours. If we don’t dream big I fear that we will settle for survival.


So let’s put some dreams out there. Let’s imagine what that future world could look like. And let’s be audacious. Whilst we may always be limited in what we’re able to achieve let’s not limit ourselves by dreaming too small.


Let me start that process of giving shape to dreams by sharing mine.


My dreams are about life after abuse. A full, supported life. A life where you’re never just a symptom or a statistic. A life where recovery means all of you, not just part of you. A life where you thrive rather than just survive. I dream of life-long support, not a few token weeks of counselling. Support in spaces that offer a sense of community as well as clinical care. I dream of a world that helps more survivors come together, heal together, be role models for each other. A world that sees how much survivors have to give, as well as how much help they need to have.


My dreams are about prevention. I dream of a world where we recognise that the only people who are able to stop abuse are the abusers themselves. And the only way to stem the tide of abuse is to work with those who are at risk of abusing. I dream of a society with the maturity to see that sex offenders do not grow on trees, they grow in families and in communities. They have parents, siblings, friends and colleagues. Their abuse is monstrous but we need to stop looking for monsters. We need to open our eyes to their complexity, we need to talk more about why they abuse, we need to work together to stop it.


My dreams are about men. I dream of a world where men and boys who are survivors of sexual violence have their seat at the table and are no longer an afterthought in an acronym that couldn’t find space for them. A world where we don’t question whether a man is still a real man if he’s been raped. A world where our sons as well as our daughters are given the support they need to heal and a platform for their voices. I dream of a world where men who’ve experienced abuse are loved and supported by their wider community of brothers in the same way that women give shelter and support to our sisters who have been violated.


I dream of a world where more men find their voice. A world where they are no longer happy to be seen as a potential threat to women and children just because they are a man. A world where they realise their silence and inaction is part of the problem. When they say nothing and do nothing how can we tell the difference between the few men who abuse and the large majority who do not? I dream of a world where more men realise that their silence and inaction is read as approval by men who abuse. A world where men no longer wait for their wives, sisters, daughters, sons or themselves to become a victim before they find their reason to say something and do something about sexual violence.


My dreams are about the places where abuse can happen: families, schools, universities, prisons, military bases. Places of work, of worship, of education. Places of community. Places that are supposed to look after us, not turn a blind eye when we need them the most. The kind of communities we need are the kind that are able to keep their eyes open to abuse rather than bury their head in the sand. We need communities that are able to provide safe supportive spaces for survivors. We need communities that are able to recognise that there are perpetrators amongst us and we get it wrong when we fail to confront them, and when we write them off as if they were nothing to do with us.


I dream about justice. These are the dreams that keep me awake at night. Our justice systems should keep all of us awake at night. My dreams here have become more and more ambitious as the distance between where we are and where we could be becomes painfully clear.


I began by dreaming about juries. In my dreams juries were given the support they needed to do their jobs. Emotional support, for the details of abuse they were about to hear, but more importantly an education that helped them overcome the common misconceptions about sexual offences that all of us who work in this space come up against on a daily basis. Our common sense about sexual abuse is broken. It is not based on truth, it is based on a desire to push these crimes away from us and our families. Common sense tells me that if I watch my drink, stay with my friends, and get a taxi home I can prevent my own rape. Common sense tells me that if I teach children to avoid strangers they will be safe. Common sense tells me that if I am a victim of rape I will fight or say no. Common sense is misinformed. In my dreams we recognise that common sense has very little to do with how things actually are, and much more to do with how we wish they were. How can we expect juries to hear evidence in a way that delivers justice if we don’t give them more help to overcome the way they may have thought about abuse for their entire lives?


My dreams of justice grew. I dream of a day when I’m talking to some young person who’s new to this field. And they look at me wide-eyed and incredulous as I tell them stories about third party disclosure. That back in 2016 is was still too often common practice to go on a no-holds barred fishing expedition into a complaint’s past. Health records. School records. Information from social services. Looking for what? In truth – any sign that they might be a liar. We have all told lies. We have all be accused of lying. Not all of us have it on record. We all have photos on Facebook that could be misunderstood when taken out of context. But no matter how dubious our past might be there is nothing in our past that removes our ability to tell the truth. When prosecutors struggle to get previous convictions for sexual offences admitted into court it seems absurd that we would fumble through our victim’s entire history especially at a time when reporting levels are so low and our investigators and prosecutors are already struggling to keep up. In my dreams no one is found unworthy of a day in court because of something in their past, because our past is the one thing about ourselves that we can’t change. If a prosecutor decides not to take a case to court because of something in my past does that mean I can be raped with impunity because that health condition or school report will always be there? In my dreams we take these cases to court and lose them there if we must. But they’re my dreams, so of course I get to train the investigators, prosecutors, and advocates and we make these cases about the suspect, about what they did and did not do. A proactive investigation and prosecution that focuses on the person accused of committing the crime – the stuff dreams are made of.


My dreams of justice grew. There’s always been something about the nature of our justice system that has felt incongruent to me. This complex issue of sexual offences. The strong reactions it evokes in the public. The nature of the evidence in most cases. The impact on the victim. The fact that these crimes happen within families and close communities. The importance of suspects being seen as innocent until proven guilty. The need to ensure offenders are punished but also somehow allowed a life after their sentence has concluded. This complex, fraught, and sensitive issue needs the best in us. It needs wisdom and compassion. As a society we need wise and caring elders to help us navigate this space so that we are able to deal with the complexities rather than dismiss them, so that we feel that justice has been done, so that we all feel safe. But we have a justice system that is adversarial. A system that sets us up against each other. A system where defending one person invariably means attacking another. A system that too often feels like sport, or combat, or theatre. And our system is binary. Black and white. A binary tool for navigating a space that is full of complexity. There are some very smart people working in our justice systems. They believe in what they are doing. In my dreams these people begin to feel a lot less comfortable with how things are now and start to work towards a system that is better fit for purpose. A system where a solid defence and a solid prosecution can be delivered with wisdom, compassion, and collaboration. I dream of a world where our justice systems are able to be the wise caring elders that we need.


My dreams grew. I dream about the intersections. I dream of a world where we break down the silos, recognising that we face a common cause, common impact, common barriers. A world where those of us who want change come together because sexual violence, domestic violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty, exclusion, even climate change can all be traced back to a common cause. A cause that was once a dream that sadly came true. A dream that in a world that had enough for everyone the resources would be held by a few and denied to the many. A dream that in a world where people are born equal we’ll construct inequality. A dream called patriarchy. A system where men are put above women, white is put above black, wealth is put above need. A system that tells a boy he must not cry and a girl that she must sacrifice her needs for others. It’s a system that tells a man he must be strong but gives him no power. He’s just a cog in the machine. Do we wonder then why some men will resort to the only power they feel they have? Their ability to dominate the women and children in their lives physically and sexually?


Patriarchy is a dream that dehumanises all of us. Even those at the top of the pile. Sexual abuse is a symptom of this wider problem. This system that we live with awards status but leaves you feeling empty and alienated because your status was not earned. It isn’t real. Real power isn’t given. Real power isn’t something you hold over another person. When we treat other people as objects for our use, a means to an end, we lose sight of both them and us. When we’ve lived with entitlement for so long we can no longer see it, we’ve become blind to our own humanity. When we care more about securing the trappings of success than we do about the impact our privilege has on the people who grow our food and make our clothes we’ve pawned the best of ourselves for the Emperor’s new clothes.


It’s time for us to wake up.


I don’t know about you but I’m not prepared to sit back and see what changes society hands us during the time I’ve got left working in this space. I don’t want to see what progress will be made with the passive passing of time.


My dreams are too big for that. I suspect yours are too.


This world of sexual violence needs all of us to find our inner activist. It needs us to reject incremental change and demand the radical. It needs us to dream about our future and have the courage to stand up and make those dreams our shared reality.



Adapted from ‘Dreaming of an end to sexual violence. Are our dreams big enough?’ a speech given at St Mary’s Centre Conference, April 2016. To hear the original speech click here.



To the conference team at St Mary’s for giving me a platform and a free reign.

To Davina James-Hanman for sharing her dreams with me.

To Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha, editors of ‘Octavia’s Brood: Science fiction stories from social justice movements’ which was the kernel of inspiration for this talk.

To Carol Gilligan for writing ‘The birth of pleasure’ which helped me join the dots.