Content Warning: mentions sexual assault, trauma.
Felix Beck, a fourth year University of Edinburgh student, has been convicted of sexually assaulting a first year student by the High Court. In a climate where fewer than a third of young men prosecuted for rape are convicted, any conviction feels like something worth celebrating.
Beck is yet to be sentenced and has been told by the Judge “you should not assume you will retain your liberty”. Beck and I lived in the same student accommodation in first year and our social circles overlapped, so for me, the celebration is more personal. All day, women I lived with in first year and I have sent the news back and forth, sharing our feelings of gratitude for the news. Despite this joy, every friend mentioned a simultaneous feeling of dejection or fatigue at the news. I too feel deeply distressed. What is the name for the exhaustion we are feeling? What explains the sensation of sick pooling in our stomachs? Why is it that, even though it wasn’t us, we feel like we’ve absorbed the trauma of other women?
This collective dimension of trauma is a lesser discussed side effect of living in rape culture, and the constant painful discussions about blame and sexual violence that come with it. Each time another case opens up, from Brock Turner to #MeToo, or the current ‘thong protests’ in Belfast, it can be extremely tiresome and grueling for survivors of sexual violence. However, even for women who have not had those experiences, it too can be incredibly disturbing and saddening. Whilst these feelings are in no way comparable to those of survivors of sexual assault, they are still legitimate and deserve acknowledging. Broadly explored the phenomenon of ‘vicarious trauma’ in the aftermath of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The Office of Justice Programs explains that the term ‘vicarious trauma’ has traditionally been applied to professionals whose jobs involve “continuous exposure to victims of trauma,” such as counsellors, social workers or medical professionals, and according to Broadly is “the secondhand trauma we can experience when someone with whom we’ve come in contact is going through a traumatic event.”
Now the phrase ‘vicarious trauma’ is being opened up to describe the way people respond to difficult or challenging news. The acknowledgement that being personally involved in a situation is not the only way to feel affected by it is enabling women to better articulate the pain and distress felt in response to sexual assault cases. A 2013 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study looked at how “media coverage of collective traumas may trigger psychological distress in individuals outside the directly affected community,“ exploring differences in response to the Boston Marathon bombing between those with direct exposure to the event and those whose only exposure had been indirect. The study found that people who were exposed to six or more hours of media related to the attack reported higher levels of acute stress than those who were exposed to it at the time.
Meera Atkinson in Traumata writes that trauma is ‘chronic, commonplace, sometimes dramatic and often tedious in its stranglehold of repetitions, daily struggles, and predictable and unpredictable outcomes.’ In her book, she speaks of a ‘traumarchy,’ a term that attempts to unpick how the patriarchy itself perpetuates trauma. Rather than seeing trauma as a singular isolated event, she seeks to situate it as a symptom of a traumatic society. In an article for The Guardian, she writes of trauma that, whilst “individuals bear its burdens,” such as rape or sexual violence, “it’s not an individualist phenomenon.” It is important to note that racism, homophobia and transphobia are all caught up in patriarchal reproductions of trauma.
So how do we process this news about Felix Beck? Do we share stories about who knew what, to try and convince ourselves that nothing could have been done differently? Is it all an exercise in trying to reclaim our power in the face of a brutal assertion of violence? Do we conduct a postmortem, picking apart each moment? We talk about the women we know who have had to drop out of university due to the sexual violence they have endured. How can, on graduation day, we not hear their names echo in McEwan Hall? We talk about how Felix was voted Maddest Fresher in The Tab’s Maddest Fresher contest, where The Tab described him as someone who ‘Never misses a WhyNot Monday. You can always find him in the LED room with the Goose Squad and a bottle of Moet in each hand. In terms of a shag leader board, we have clear winner’.
However, in this mess of despair and celebration, I find solace. I find it in the messages with my female friends, each message acting as a stitch in a blanket, that we wish we could wrap around each other. I find it in the ferocity of Patricia Lockwood’s poem ‘Rape Joke.’ I find it in the incredible work of Sexpression and the Consent Collective on campus, that makes me think things might one day be different.
Image: it’s me neosiam via pexels.com