THE BLOG

Why I Co-Founded a Festival Dedicated to Discussing Sexual Assault

24/07/2015 19:44 BST | Updated 31/07/2016 10:59 BST

Are you one of us? There's millions of us out there.

That's a question (and an answer) posed by a group of rape survivors in our recent video for the Clear Lines Festival, the UK's first-ever festival dedicated to talking about sexual assault and consent through the arts and discussion. You can watch our video here:

Despite being made on a non-existent budget, our video was still an international effort, involving not just the Clear Lines team in England, but also American YouTube star Chrissy Chambers (currently fronting the #EndRevengePorn campaign) and the Irish campaigner Mairia Cahill (whose story was the subject of a BBCNI Spotlight documentary last year).  We asked survivors to film something on their phones or laptops and send it to us to stitch together. And that very grassroots approach is indicative of our entire festival, which will take place July 30 - August 2 in Central London.

Like our video, Clear Lines strives to start a new conversation about sexual assault. That being a rape victim is not something to be ashamed of. It's not something we should try to hide. And yet, society implies we should stay silent about what's happened to us. Even when millions of us have been raped and assaulted -- and so few people understand the complete truth.

That sense of the collective silence of so many survivors is something I've gradually come to realize since my own rape in Belfast over seven years ago. My rape was the stuff of headlines: Chinese Tourist Brutally Raped in Park by Teenager, etc. In some ways, my rape was so public in the news that it felt ridiculous to keep it a secret to those who knew me. So I was very open from the start: I sent a mass email to my friends to tell them what had happened (to pre-empt anyone asking how my weekend in Belfast went). I even replied to a work contact saying, "Sorry, but over the weekend, I was assaulted and raped -- could you please deal with my colleague about this?" To me, having been raped was enough of a burden, why shoulder the even bigger burden of pretending everything was normal (when in fact, everything was falling apart) -- especially when none of it was my fault?

Some people were taken aback with my frankness, but most were immediately sympathetic. And some even quietly shared their own stories of when they were raped -- or their sister or their aunt. I had known these friends for years, but it was only when I started speaking openly about the issue that others felt they could, too. And that's when I realized that sexual assault, a crime which leaves many of us feeling utterly isolated -- is, ironically, an experience which millions of us have in common. So instead of suffering in silence, why can't we come together and start to speak about it? Openly. Publicly. Constructively. In a way that will make the rest of society realize how widespread this crime is, and how we can bring about change.

Since my own rape, I've turned to writing to explore the issue -- in essays, articles for The Huffington Post, plays, and currently, in my debut novel (I'm finishing my second draft). It's an issue I haven't been able to escape and one that my professional life now revolves around, especially after co-founding the Clear Lines Festival. But the issue is so huge that it's something I don't feel l can walk away from, just like that. It's something that requires you to go back and use the skillsets you have as an individual -- in my case, as writer and producer -- to change things for the better.

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I'm not alone in feeling that urgency to change things. I started the festival with Dr. Nina Burrowes, over coffee with a number of other women, all of whom work in the field of sexual assault or are survivors themselves. Since then, in only three-and-a-half months, we've put together a truly diverse programme of artists, activists, comedians, playwrights, actors, directors, novelists, poets, journalists, filmmakers, and experts, who will be speaking and performing at the Clear Lines Festival. These people all want to bring about change, too. And they'll each be using their own unique talents and skills to contribute to the conversation.

But more than anything, Clear Lines is a festival for the public, and this is reflected in how we were able to make the festival happen. We weren't able to get any public funding in time for the event, so we crowdfunded it. People started pledging from as far as the US, the Middle East and Asia -- and our Crowdfunder campaign ultimately raised more than 200 percent of its initial goal. And while some people have been very generous with their money, others have been with their time. So Clear Lines has been made possible through the efforts of a handful of volunteers, all of us touched in some way by the issue and committed to making a positive impact.

In the past few years, the Internet has exploded with hashtags advocating awareness about sexual assault: #EverydaySexism and #NotGuilty and #ThisDoesntMeanYes and #BreaktheSilence and #IamBrave, among many others. These hashtags are important, but Clear Lines aims to go beyond the virtual community, bringing together real people, to hear real stories. Where people can watch a film or a play, hear poetry, laugh at stand-up comedy, listen to a panel discussion and maybe participate in a Q&A afterward. Where people can learn that if you're One of Us, you're not on your own. And if you're not One of Us, you can still join our conversation and help us bring about change.

The Clear Lines Festival will run July 30 - August 2 near the South Bank in London (Venue: I'klectik, Old Paradise Yard, 20 Carlisle Lane, London SE1 7LG). For more information, visit our website. Many events are free and open to the public, but you can register in advance on EventBrite.