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‘She’s a weapon’

Sadie Jemmett (left) and Mhairi Morrison. Photo: Kitty Logan

This article talks frankly about sexual assault, and contains triggers for sexual assault survivors.

It was one of my favorite Irish phrases when I initially misunderstood it. I thought it was deferentially respectful, and referred to a woman’s power and ability to chose whatever she wants for herself. The way it was first said to me, with raised eyebrows and something like awe predisposed me to think it also alluded to enthusiastic consent, a woman dressed to kill wielding her considerable power on a night out without having to ask anyone’s permission to be herself, leaving the men in her wake cowering in a confusing slew of desire and fear. But ‘weapon’ is in fact just another common or garden attempt to demean, living next door to tired and overused ‘cougar’ and the blatantly misogynistic ‘slag’. Bah! I could do without the 5 o’clock shadow of a insidious double meaning.

A real weapon spearing institutionalised misogyny and an anthem for the ongoing blossoming of the #metoo movement is a music video entitled Don’t Silence Me. Picked up by CBS in Los Angeles, taking Paris by storm, it is now rocketing towards Glasgow for a one time only screening and panel at Royal Conservatoire of Scotland on Wednesday April 24th.

“Don’t Silence Me” features Scottish actress Mhairi Morrison and over 40 women, many of whom are high profile sexual assault survivors from the entertainment industry. A gusty, ass-kicking demand to be witnessed and heard, Sadie Jemmett’s song is extremely moving in its rejection of the ghettoization of survivors, and their familiar role as figures of tragedy in the press.

Sadie wrote this song for our mutual friend Mhairi, who found herself triggered during the outpouring of disclosures when #metoo went viral. What sets their collaborative project apart is Mhairi’s refusal to give her perpetrator any more airtime by not mentioning his name. The best revenge for abuse is to really get on with your life and this project is one of the few I have seen that is entirely by and for survivors, dedicated to the healing power of solidarity. It also has a rockin’ tune.

Mhairi went to the same Drama school as me in Scotland, but we never really knew each other until our bikes locked handlebars one day. She was about to leave for Paris to train at Ecole Jacques Le Coq, a prestigious opportunity. Both of us talked up a storm right there on the street for 40 minutes wondering what riches it would bring. It was a moment in time, Mhairi poised on the precipice of a huge, new life adventure, and my eyes like saucers. Our paths have crossed in innumerable ways since, ending up in LA where we cemented what seems to be too many passing coincidences not to be a lifelong friendship.

In the first few years in LA, I worked as a massage therapist on a psychiatric ward, where a great proportion of my clientele were sexual assault survivors, and Mhairi forged a path as a a stand up comic. I was struck by how she had talked about leaving for Paris all those years ago, and what actually happened to her there. She was drugged and sexually assaulted by a famous French film director who was the toast of the town: it has taken her years to recover. That path to recovery, I have learnt, is typical for a survivor – symptomatic in ways we do not understand if we are not survivors – trauma remains buried until 20 years later when some sort of sacred timing makes it erupt to the surface. 

When Mhairi first talked about it to me way before #metoo, there was no hint of strain in her voice. She could talk quietly and openly about it, she was frank about the unrelenting slog of the therapy she had undergone to move through and integrate it. Healing was possible, and she could now refer to it as “an old coat she could choose to put on and take off”. I remember thinking that her experience did not seem suspiciously compartmentalized. I was moved by her courage, inspired by her and felt hopeful for those clients of mine at the beginning of the same journey. But if I had known more and looked closer then, I might have paid more attention to her sleep patterns, how she questioned herself somewhat ruthlessly before making professional decisions that involve a little risk and how much she needed stability and calm. Sometimes she still seems to visually shimmer with nervous activity. Now I reflect, in a slightly wiser post #metoo world – that’s what buried trauma looks like. It’s smoke signals to the surface will often need compassionate translation until it is completely unearthed. #metoo forced survivors into their own personal spotlights in a bid for solidarity, whether they were ready or not, which has largely been good but comes with an unimpeachable caveat that consent is about respecting the quieter voice inside of deep personal truth. Nothing is more feminist than really doing what you want, when you want, and the only person you owe your story to is yourself.

Sexual assault is a human violation that pays no heed to gender

Societally we are largely ignorant to what trauma does and looks like and #metoo has stirred an awareness that we are all responsible for – that listening and swift corrective action is needed for almost every rock we look under. Being directed to believe survivors does not mean believing allegations without reserve – it means that we need to listen to allegations, take them seriously and provide trauma-informed care to anyone who makes a disclosure. Women are just as corruptible as men but similarly sexual assault is a human violation that pays no heed to gender. Part of becoming more trauma-informed, I feel, is understanding that gender does affect the way trauma manifests. The difficulties men can face in disclosing are different – one obstacle being that many of them are terrified that people will expect them to become sexual abusers in turn. Projects like Mhairi’s harness the power of art to comment and provide a mirror that will otherwise be ignored from inside an institution, and its message is broad enough, diverse enough and crucially personal enough to be universally powerful, to translate across divides and speak for so many. Don’t Silence Me may feature women but what brings them all together is their experience and their willingness to be seen, a gesture of incredible courage. It names an experience without specifically naming abusers, shows us that “survivor” means every age, shape and skin colour, and proves the power and possible tyranny of the word.

We need a shift in consciousness and understanding to treat sexual assault as a public health issue that deserves serious provision in the right way. We cannot continue, after what survivors have been through, to pathologise and ghettoise them, and instead provide survivor-centred and trauma-aware services. Voluntary bodies step into the breach, but statutory services need to make their way more urgently into the mainstream, spending public money in a way that really reprovisions for survivors. Trauma itself is not mental illness as its symptoms result from cause and effect, and our health services need to take into account both the long term affects and those that are purely physical. If the effects of trauma looked like the flu virus there would be mass stockpiling and people would snap into action. If the trauma people suffer from sexual assault was referred to more often in criminal terms, then perhaps people would feel less terrified about its frank debate. Don’t Silence Me takes the sex out of sexual abuse, making it easier to talk about. The faces in this music video and the heartbreaking words written across tape on each survivor’s mouth show it is all about power, human rights and the law – and nothing to do with consensual sex at all.

We are complicit by remaining silent, by standing back: in this delay, abusers get the go-ahead. Society has a history of standing by just like it did during slavery, until our consciousness is raised and we intervene, and as long as our elected officials lack moral drive it is on the rest of us to take it seriously, look it in the face and stop it. Watch this video, look into these faces, and do not sit on the sidelines. Being a weapon in the movement for respect and change doesn’t even have to mean you are an activist fired up with the kind of fiest and fervour that is the beating heart of Don’t Silence Me… most of the time it just starts by listening and not interrupting.

Don’t Silence Me screens April 24th Royal Scottish Conservatory, Glasgow: RSVP

Written by Mary Jane Wells
Her one-woman play Heroine is a true story of a female soldier in the US army: an outsider who wouldn’t quit. @HEROINETHEPLAY