It’s almost two years since #MeToo catapulted into the Twittersphere. We read stories, many of us told our own, and it came as little surprise that such a large number of women had experienced sexual assault and harassment. But what surprised me was the willingness of women to share their experiences in a public forum. There was a distinct feeling of ‘we’re not taking this anymore’ that inspired and galvanised women across the globe.
One such woman is producer and artist Laura Desmond. In her stage show, socially (un)acceptable, she details one woman’s personal experience of sexual assault through a series of autobiographical vignettes. “I wrote my show after one instance of sexual assault which really rocked me,” she says. “When I spoke to close friends about that situation in the days which followed, every single person used their own stories. This wasn’t restricted to gender or sexuality.”
Produced by Big Mood, an Adelaide-based production company formed by Desmond and business partner (and best friend) Stephanie Mitchell, the show explores themes such as sexual assault, power and gender. The show has been performed for two years in more than 75 performances around the world and comes to The Greater Manchester Fringe Festival next month.
“I can see attitudes change, particularly with men,” Desmond tells me. “When I first come on stage in my underwear, they don’t know where to look and they think they’re seeing something they shouldn’t. By the end of the show, I don’t even think they notice. Their forced focus on me telling my stories in an uninterrupted manner helps them to empathise with me fully. More than one male has told me that they feared me after hearing about the content of my show because they had committed acts in the past. One of these men told me his story of being a perpetrator in tears after [the show] and I was able to explain that he’s on the right track if he is feeling so much remorse.”
While such interactions point to positive change, it’s difficult to ignore the violations of women’s rights still enforced across the globe, particularly the anti-abortion legislation being discussed in the US. “My emotional responses to these new laws are fearfulness and hopelessness,” admits Desmond. “I don’t have a thorough enough understanding of legislature in the US to comprehend how these hugely offensive laws could possibly come into place seemingly without effective debate. To show such disregard for the emotional and physical health of other human beings is beyond disgraceful.”
While it felt like traction was being made with the #MeToo movement, these latest developments feel like taking major steps back. So, how do we – and can we – drive discourse forward? “I don’t think we should be vilifying men for their past behaviours. What we should be doing is causing a shift so those behaviours can no longer be justified by a society which supports those actions.”
I’ve long thought that today’s ‘cancel culture’ needs to be used with caution. I’m afraid for a world where people are not permitted to learn from their mistakes. After all, toxic masculinity is a real and ingrained issue and causes an incredible amount of harm to both men and women. However, those who refuse to see their behaviour as harmful and/or dangerous should certainly be held to account.
“Of course, perpetrators who cannot see how their actions were incorrect or continue to abuse positions of power should be held accountable,” agrees Desmond. “But those who are willing to accept mistakes and work to move forward should be celebrated. The unfortunate thing is that this seems out of reach. The voices of perpetrators who are not willing to recognise their mistakes and move forward seem to be the loudest. The other major issue at the moment, which we’re seeing in action with some of the recent legislative proposals in America, is that the people who have most likely been abusing their power roles still have that power and are acting in frightened self-defence by asserting their power through their disgusting gendered legislative attempts.”
But Desmond isn’t looking to produce work around this debate, preferring to engage with stories of women with whom she has a connection. Currently, she has ideas to explore IVF, miscarriage and chronic illness linked with children and childbirth. “I find it easiest to create work which I understand more fully, which could be a self-protective measure.”
When I look back to the #MeToo movement, and the current surge of women sharing their own experience with abortion (American actress Busy Phillips created #youknowme as a way for women to support one another and share their stories), it’s glaringly obvious that only when women are forced to share their most vulnerable moments in a public forum are we believed – or even listened to.
“I have always had to give personal and extreme examples of sexism to be heard and not silenced,” says Desmond. “Even then, the rhetoric of victim-blaming is quick to the fore from many people. I have come across so few men who listen to my experiences and allow me to recount them in full without silencing me or trying to minimise my lived experience and the emotional outcome.”
Taking this into account, is a new age of sex-positive, empathetic conversation around consent and sex even possible in our current political climate? “It has been feeling like a one step forward, two steps back situation over the past few years. A lot of discourse I hear is around the US political climate, but I think we need to shift into a more global mindset with more celebration of the steps forward, like Taiwan being the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage, without ignoring and allowing the severe steps backward to become the norm.
“I do have a lot of hope for younger generations. Much of my understanding of relationships, consent and sex was based on representations of the media, generally US-based, and very hetero-normative. It has been exciting to see various shows and movies on platforms such as Netflix and Stan which are more inclusive. Normalising a variety of relationships, including LGBTQI+, pansexual, asexual and poly, is a great step toward normalising these sex positive conversations as they are so closely linked.”
She continues: “I don’t think we’re at the stage where governments and political spaces can have respectful, empathetic conversations about these issues because the representation isn’t there, and by and large, governments are reasonably conservative. I think it’s moving in the right direction, but I would almost be hesitant to poke the bear while he is still in power and can still control major decisions.”
While I’m hopeful that attitudes towards victims of sexual assault and harassment are changing, the comments section underneath articles and social media posts often suggest otherwise. But misogyny doesn’t simply come from men. I’m often astounded by the comments from other women
“The main attitude shift I’ve noticed is from the victim side,” says Desmond. “But this carries a lot of strength. I have seen victims be far more confident in calling out victim-blaming or slut-shaming when a few years ago they may not have. To move forward, it is imperative that we somehow get more people who haven’t been victims to step up, too. Maybe it’s hard to fully comprehend the idiocy of victim blaming if you’ve never been a victim, or perhaps the culture is too strong at this point? Up until I started writing my work, I thought I was to blame for my assaults and carried severe amounts of guilt and shame for my actions because I couldn’t see that it wasn’t my fault.
“I still have conversations with people about my stories from the show and my role within them – things I should have done differently and the things I should have said – but the power roles within each situation, which are held up by society, prohibited me from speaking out because I had an understanding of what my role should be in that space.”
“Discussions about what constitutes consent and how it can be approached need to be started early. At school, I didn’t have any discussions about what consent was, what it could look like, or why it was important. I understood rape to be a painful, physically forced interaction, usually between two people who were not known to each other. Due to this misunderstanding of rape, control and power, I did not even consider my past interactions to be rape until several years later, predominantly because the perpetrator was someone I knew.”
Desmond has attempted to move the conversation forward by teaching high school boys and selecting English study texts which involve themes of domestic violence, sexual assault and rape. “There were a couple [of students] who continued to victim-blame and remove blame from the perpetrators, but I received some insightful responses which had me in tears and gave me hope for the future.”
Desmond is now working towards a new collaborative show in which she hopes to include a wider range of perspectives and a more “light-hearted style of show incorporating comedy, poetry and music”. She adds: “In socially [un]acceptable, I provide an honest, but narrow, viewpoint into the complexities of sexual assault and predation. In incorporating other voices, I hope to reiterate my main point of the work that sexual assault can happen to anyone.”