For months after I finished University I didn’t have a plan, every time someone asked me what I wanted to do with my life- the most open ended question ever by the way- I’d just say “work for a charity.” The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do is work with purpose, and the only thing I’ve ever really done in my life is support people. Both in my personal and professional life I’ve been the rock, the carer, the support system. So when, seven months after graduating, a volunteer position in my local Rape Crisis centre became available I applied. After seven months I was desperate for something meaningful as I’d only found routine retail work since graduating and for me it wasn’t enough, I wanted out.
It must have been desperation to inject something purposeful in my life because I don’t even remember applying for the position, and I remember actively avoiding anything to do with sexual violence during this period. My time at University had been spent 50% in the library, 50% in therapy due to my own experiences of sexual abuse. After finishing therapy and University and professing I was “all done, all good, all cured” I wanted to put every hint of abuse behind me. I’d only told a select few friends about my ordeal at the hands of my ex partner so it was easy to pretend everything was okay. I was still pretending when I went to the interview at Rape Crisis, when I told them “yes I’m a survivor but it’s all behind me” and when I told my friends not to worry because listening to other survivors wasn’t going to affect me. To be honest I didn’t expect my time at Rape Crisis to mean anything to me personally, I just wanted to do something that meant something to others and charities are a perfect place to fulfil that desire.
Looking back everything changed the day I went for my interview, the only way I can describe how I felt from that moment until I left was at home. Everyone was compassionate, understanding and excited that you were now part of the team. I guess you would expect this attitude at a place where the main aim is to support victims of trauma but, honestly, I’ve worked in the voluntary and care sector now for eight years and kindness isn’t always the first port of call.
Family and friends eased into me working on the helplines, but the first reaction when I told anyone new was always shock- or even more negative. This very much reflects the opinion of survivors in society. I remember when I first started at Rape Crisis I thought everyone would be super intrigued by me working there, but the truth soon revealed itself- no one wants to hear about it. ‘It’ being sexual abuse. Yet, I loved every second of working there; I enjoyed being able to hold space for those who needed it. Permission and a safe space to talk are powerful when all you’ve been met with is silence or shame.
Working at Rape Crisis probably isn’t what you’d expect, it’s not all traumatic phone calls from young women who have just been raped and need urgent assistance. From experience and training I can tell you that when something like domestic violence (which includes sexual) is occurring people still usually only talk about it in retrospect. Thus, ‘historic’ abuse was always the most common form of abuse spoken about when I was on the helplines. This angered me because talking to these callers they would share the stories of their lives and I could see gaps where interventions could have happened, potential crisis points could have been avoided and failures by support systems. There were so many missed opportunities and now they were on the phone with me sometimes decades later and still hurting as if the trauma had just happened. Prevention is something I became passionate about.
By working at Rape Crisis, supporting survivors of sexual abuse, I realised I hadn’t dealt with my own experiences. I hadn’t even acknowledged them properly. I started talking to other survivors in my free time, recognising my experience in theirs and in turn feeling less isolated and more validated. My experience of sexual abuse was messy; it happened with a partner who I’d had consensual sex with many times, I didn’t recognise the abuse when it was happening and I didn’t go to the police about it. All of these facets of my experience had previously become reasons to minimise or invalidate it but now, through my work, I knew that abuse happened in every circumstance possible. Sexual abuse is not one size fits all, and regardless of the details of your experience what you endured matters and you deserve support. I began claiming back parts of my life, feeling more like a whole person and not letting one thing define me.
Volunteering at Rape Crisis not only gave me a home and a new sense of self but it gave me a passion I’d never felt before. They say everything happens for a reason, and I slowly began to realise that I could create something meaningful out of what I’d endured. As Beyonce so rightly says, we can turn our lemons into lemonade. The Good Sex project was the product of my time working at Rape Crisis. The more women I spoke too and the more research and involved I became in the survivor community the same gaps kept being highlighted to me. Firstly, few people wanted to engage when I tried to start conversations about sexual abuse, I kept encountering what I termed the ‘ick’ response. This is the gross feeling people have when talking about sexual abuse, the desperate need to avert their eyes and change the subject; this is down to the intimate nature of the abuse. Translated: this is due to sex being the weapon of choice. Secondly, a lot of female survivors told me that they’d missed opportunities to talk about their abuse because sex is so hushed up in society. Thirdly, female survivors were telling me time and time again that they needed a space where women could talk openly and benefit from those conversations. I put all of this together and created The Good Sex.
The Good Sex began as a podcast where women could talk freely, without limitations or shame or sugarcoating, about anything to do with their experiences of female sexuality. Podcast topics have ranged from casual sex to revenge porn to sexual abuse and body image. We’ve deliberately created a space where we talk about the good, the bad and the ugly because we believe fragmenting female sexuality is really unhelpful. From my personal experience I need a space that acknowledges I can be a survivor of sexual abuse and yet still have a healthy sex life and want to discuss orgasms.
We’ve now expanded and have a blog where the conversation is continued and a website to call home. The ultimate aim of The Good Sex is to support young women in building the most healthy and fulfilling sex lives for them. Being produced out of my time at Rape Crisis ‘healthy’ is the key word for me. When we define ‘good sex’ we emphasise sex that is right for the individual, we take into account safety and support and don’t just focus on pleasure.
The foundations of The Good Sex are very much in communication, we facilitate our aims through increasing communication around sex. By talking about sex openly and with no shame or limitations we lead by example; we are setting ourselves up as a model for what we want to see in society. We don’t want everyone to start talking about anal sex on the bus to work, but we do want sex to become an option for conversation. This opening up gives space and opportunity for those who need it to talk; for individuals who are dealing with something in this area- whether it be abuse, illness or another struggle- silence shouldn’t be the only option.
When we practice communicating about our sex lives, just like any other part of our lives, it can be empowering, liberating and create a sense of community. Too many women think what they experience in sex and relationships is unique to them and this impacts them negatively. I heard this every time I switched on the helplines and I felt it in my own life. By increasing communication around sex and female sexuality we can eliminate this experience of isolation. As we say at The Good Sex- intimate doesn’t have to mean secret.
Although I no longer volunteer for Rape Crisis, I will always value what they do and what they gave me. You only have to look at their website, at the statistics of sexually violent crimes perpetrated and the testimonials of those who have been supported by them to know their service matters. But what you can’t see in facts and figures is the lives they’ve pieced back together, the compassion that endures and the hearts they’ve made fuller just by being them. To me they’ve given a path, a purpose and the strength to accept every part of my story as it is. I’ll never forget this and I hope by building The Good Sex I’m building a support system for Rape Crisis and for survivors everywhere.
The Good Sex