Warning: this article contains discusses sexual violence and may be triggering to some readers.
In April of this year, news spread around the world as it was revealed more than 8,000 young people had reported instances of sexual violence and abuse in UK schools on an anonymous platform, Everyone’s Invited.
Mere weeks after the vigil for Sarah Everard, which was held in Clapham Common to honour the murder of the young woman by a police officer on her walk home, the reports have once again thrown sexual violence against women and non-binary people back into the spotlight, forcing us to interrogate the rape culture entrenched in Britain’s society.
‘Rape culture’ refers to the normalising of sexual harassing behaviours – the inappropriate rape ‘jokes’ made in school playgrounds, the gaping holes in sexual education programmes, the unsolicited dick pics and groping hands at a Christmas party – that create a toxic culture of shame, silencing and victim-blaming against survivors of sexual violence.
Activist, award-winning podcaster and now debut author Catriona Morton is changing the narrative. “It is very pervasive and it’s everywhere,” they say of rape culture in the UK. “Even when it comes to rape jokes, I remember one of my podcast guests told me that even in the Power Puff Girls there’s a joke about “don’t drop the soap.”
Sharing her own experiences as a survivor, Morton launched her website Life Continues After, a communal space for survivors to offer advice and solidarity, and in 2019 launched ‘After’, a 10-part podcast series with BBC Sounds on the nature of being a survivor in the aftermath of sexual violence.
Morton’s new book continues her push to normalise these often taboo conversations, investigating the intricacies of sexual violence and language, its impact on physical health, and an introduction to transformative justice. “It’s called auto-ethnography, which is looking at your own lived experiences and the power structures that affected them, and then using that as an outlook point to critique society,” they explain.
They spent the lockdown drafting the book while simultaneously writing her dissertation for her master’s degree in Gender and Critical Theory – a task they admit was “relief” from the emotional intensity of recounting her trauma and investigating the broken systems in place for victims. Ultimately, however, the process helped her redefine her experiences and find a purpose for the anger that so many survivors are left with.
BRICKS caught up with the author to discuss her debut release.
Hey Catriona! How are you feeling about your debut novel release?
I’m not anxious about the more memoir-side of it, the parts that are about me. To me, that’s a lot more creative. The parts I’ve always been most anxious about [publishing] is the more political side of it, especially the parts about the justice system that really go into it and I’ve been anxious about how people will receive it. I think also, I don’t want to be heralded as some kind of survivor superstar or some sort of singular representative – that’s not what I want to happen but obviously, the nature of writing a full-length book on a topic can create that kind of environment. It’s like, every time something happens in the news [regarding rape culture], and being asked to comment on it.
How would you describe what the book is about, in your own words?
The book is an interlinked group of essays on surviving sexual violence. It’s from my perspective as a survivor of multiple instances of sexual violence, looking at the society of rape culture we live in and specifically rape culture in the UK, the way that we are affected by sexual violence and how that plays out in society. It also looks at the different groups affected by sexual violence and the way that different power structures in society are affected by this.
Rape culture in the UK is a huge issue, what was your entry point to tackling this topic?
About one-quarter of the book’s content is developed from older content that I had as I’ve been writing in journals and writing pieces on the topic over the years, so some of it is a combination of that. I had a pretty clear structure in my head that I definitely wanted to talk about, using the internal world of these experiences to then look out at how that was affecting society and culture. At the time I started, I was doing my masters in Gender and Critical Theory and so it’s always interested me. I actually started writing the heavier stuff first and this might be clear in the book. One of the longest chapters is on the criminal justice system and I got so engrossed in it. Then I also relied on my website and podcast Life Continues After, looking at what people have talked about and themes that would come up a lot.
Do you feel like the book is a response to the information you had access to at the time of your own experiences as a survivor of sexual assault?
Definitely, in regards to the criminal justice system chapter. My first blog post on my website, and now it’s in the book, was about the fact there’s literally no way to find out what happens after you make a report. I remember when I was first writing this chapter it wasn’t quite working editorially, but I wrote about how the organisation Rights of Women, which is obviously a great organisation, has an information page online [about how to report a sexual assault] and, while informative, it’s so objective and lays out the steps like they’re easy. In reality, it’s fucking brutal and I feel like some people don’t realise that, like taking phones. My phone was captured for six months by the police, along with my therapy notes and medical records. I actually had a conversation with a lawyer about it once as we were discussing the legality of the book, and when I mentioned the taking of my therapy notes she didn’t know that could even happen, and I had to assure her it did.
Additionally, and I’m not the sole pioneer of this, but the book tackles the interrelations between the psychological well-being of survivors and their physical health. There are two chapters, one on complex-PTSD and one on chronic health conditions and chronic pain, and I did a lot of research for those as it isn’t easily accessible information.
“Sexual trauma is widespread and affects all kinds of people, but certain people and groups are more affected by sexual violence and indeed less supported in the aftermath – governmental cuts to survivors services affect everyone, but especially those from lower socio-economic classes, queer and Black and Asian communities.”
— Catriona Morton
I know you wrote the book during lockdown. How did you find that experience?
Publishing is a long process, so I’d been in conversation with my publishers since August 2019 and had written two sample chapters, but I got the book deal during the first week of lockdown, while I was also writing my masters dissertation. It was difficult at times, but honestly writing this book has helped me deal with my experiences hugely. I was in a very bad headspace before writing it, and it was basically like a year-long, really intensive therapy. I’m also in actual therapy so that also helped, but it has helped me reframe my experiences and work through my experiences, but there’s still rage there. There’s always going to be angry but I’ve gained a lot more peace and I see that there is a way forward and how to move alongside it. I don’t ever want to say I’ll be over it because I never will. I say it in the book, but my trauma used to just overcome me, meanwhile now my complex-PTSD feels more like it’s cohabiting.
I’m so pleased to hear the process has helped you, and the book will inevitably help your readers as it did for you with writing.
I absolutely hope so. It’s bizarre because the intensity of writing it feels so long ago now. I finished my first draft about eight months ago now and that was very heavy, but as is the nature of creativity, I’m working and feeling focused on other projects now. I think the first part is very raw and honest, and the representation of the removal of shame from my experience and talking so openly will hopefully help a lot of people.
Have you had good feedback from peers who are also survivors of sexual assault?
Not many people have read it yet as we’ve had to allow time for a whole legal reading which took quite a long time as there were a few bumps along the way. Currently, a few people are reading it who are survivors and they’ve been grateful for it. I can’t wait for more people to start reading it.
How was the process of working with publishers on an often ‘taboo’ subject matter?
I’ve had the privilege of working with other big institutions before regarding these topics and so I very much went in defensively as it can be so difficult due to defamation laws in the UK. They’re complicated, and while you may not be legally gagged you are essentially, so I wrote the book knowing the systems and knowing what I could and couldn’t say, knowing what I could and couldn’t describe things as, what place names I could use etc. I did have one instance where I’d written about an experience and already felt like I’d had to censor myself and I still couldn’t include it, and that can be tough. I do have a really lovely editor and agent, both of whom very much helped me deal with that and with all of it. My development editor Marleigh gave me a lot of creative freedom which was really important.
As someone with a deep understanding of these systems, both through your research and your own experiences, was there anything you came across while researching and writing that still surprised you?
I remember doing research on the rates of suicidality in teenage girls and how much it’s increased, and that’s wild. The research I have to do with the rates of reporting and the rates of any charges against perpetrators wasn’t new to me, but it’s still pretty horrifying. It used to be around 60,000 reports and then like 1500 charges, but this year is the first that the number of charges dropped below 1000. I remember seeing that and how impactful it was. I say this in my introduction as well, but I am sceptical of statistics and the full picture they can show. One of the most commonly used is that one in four women have been sexually assaulted, and I’m always sceptical if the number is not higher as every female-identifying person I know has definitely been sexually harassed, and an astounding number have been assaulted, and I think most young people can say that.
What do you wish more people in the UK understood about rape culture?
The fact that sexual trauma is widespread and affects all kinds of people, but certain people and groups are more affected by sexual violence and indeed less supported in the aftermath – that governmental cuts to survivors services affect everyone, but especially those from lower socio-economic classes, queer and Black and Asian communities.
Another thing I wished more people understood is that statistically either you or someone you know will be a survivor of sexual assault. So, having the knowledge on it is vital to help both the people who might talk to you at some point in your life about it, or there could already be someone close to you that you don’t know is a survivor. Having that understanding and sensitivity would help them immeasurably to know that they are safe around you.
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