This is the first of a series of interviews the Star & Crescent will be running with Shonagh Dillon, Chief Executive of Aurora New Dawn, a charity working with victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence across Hampshire. In this interview, Sarah Cheverton, Aurora’s Writer in Residence, asks Shonagh about the impact of the Ched Evans case on local victims and survivors of sexual violence and rape.
Why do you feel the Ched Evans case been so problematic?
Two things are playing out in this case. Firstly, the opinion and assumption that a convicted rapist can just return to his high-profile career having not served a full sentence or shown any sign of rehabilitation or remorse. He denies he committed the crime and is contesting his conviction. As a role model and prominent figure, to resume his career in football seems inherently wrong.
The second issue is the social attitudes towards the case, which are less about Ched Evans and more about the way people think about rape.
The Ched Evans case isn’t the first time we’ve seen this. When Aurora ran a campaign asking local venues not to book Mike Tyson on his UK tour, we were vociferously attacked for even questioning the idea of placing a rapist on a public and essentially glorified platform in our city, even though his publicly-expressed attitudes to women are so problematic.
The Ched Evans case is on a much grander scale. I see young men who are happy to tweet that, despite his conviction, what Ched Evans did isn’t rape. Those tweets are very worrying because they highlight that these people don’t know what consent is.
Look at how the Football Association (FA) have dealt with this case. They chose not to step in at first and make any statement and when they did, they backed Ched Evans to return to football.
No high profile footballer has come out against him and that could be because there are implications for their contracts, but what about ex-footballers? Or commentators? Where are they? Because the only people in sport I see making noise about this case are women: Charlie Webster, Jessica Ennis – these women are sticking their heads above the parapet and being trolled, threatened with rape, having their families threatened.
That trend to me is just as worrying as the case itself.
Are there any insights into rape culture that you think have become clear in watching this case?
The victim had been drinking, there were two men involved, the victim cannot remember what happened – you see these issues used to insinuate the victim can’t have been raped. The fact that she was walking upright on video footage has been pointed to in the same way – because ‘If you can walk upright, you can’t be raped’.
I see people on Twitter saying ‘If all these facts add up to rape, then it must be happening all the time!’
I say, yes, you’re right, it is happening all the time. This is the reality of rape in the UK. And it’s a particular concern for Portsmouth and the rest of Hampshire because our rape conviction rate is one of the lowest in the country.
With the Ched Evans case, we can see a lot of attitudes that reveal rape culture, like ‘She cried rape because she regretted having sex.’ That’s a big part of how rape culture plays itself out, in the portrayal of victims, particularly either as lying about or somehow to blame for the rape.
But the victim didn’t ‘cry rape’ in this case. She went to report her stolen bag at the police station, described what she remembered had happened and the criminal justice system, quite rightly, stepped in, investigated and realised that she had been raped.
This is how the criminal justice system works. The police stepped in, the CPS, then a judge and then a jury to find Ched Evans guilty of rape.
But what rape culture means for victims like the young woman in the Ched Evans case is that not only are you being accused of all sorts of things that aren’t true, but you’re trying to come to terms with the fact that you were raped and you don’t remember it. Somebody else has to tell you what happened to you.
Let’s remember that the victim was nineteen when this happened. She has been named – illegally – in the media. She has been threatened, has had to change her identity and has had to move out of her home. Even after her rapist has been convicted, the media and the public continue to ‘retry’ the case in the public realm. Even after a jury has established his guilt, it’s her behaviour that is being scrutinised, not his.
We blame a woman for the actions of a rapist, dismissing victims as ‘sluts’ or ‘dirty’. There’s often no discussion of the rapist at all, only condemnation of the behaviour of the victim. I can’t think of another crime where that happens, it’s almost exclusive to violence against women.
That tells you where our society is in relation to understanding and making judgments about rape.
There are football chants about this case, like ‘His name’s Ched Evans and he can rape who he wants.’ This has been heard at matches.
Let’s think about that for a second.
Thousands of people are present. There are women there, children, and you have a crowd confident enough to sing something like that. We crack down, quite rightly, on racist chants in football matches, but chant about rape and no one in the game says anything.
Those people – most often women – who put their heads above the parapet like Jean Hatchet on Twitter are instantly trolled and abused: ‘you’re a slut, you’re a lesbian, you’re a fucking man-hater, a feminazi’. It’s really vicious stuff and each part of it tells us something very important about rape culture.
Aurora is particularly active on social media and is very explicit about your feminist credentials. What role do you think that interaction has in the city?
When we started Aurora New Dawn, we weren’t sure if we could label ourselves as feminist, we had conversations about it. I was adamant that we be an openly feminist organisation. We were born out of feminist activism. We wouldn’t be here without it.
So for me it’s essential that we start by labelling ourselves as feminist and being an active part of feminist campaigns. Social media is a big part of that. Our supporters can clearly see who we are and what we stand for from the start.
Social media allows us to invite support from the local community and importantly, it also invites men to be part of the solution.
We’re the first domestic abuse service across the county to employ male IDVAs (Independent Domestic Violence Advocates, who work directly with victims and survivors of violence). Nationally, we’re also unusual in employing male frontline workers and I’m very proud of that, in part because when I started out working in domestic violence, I was against men training as IDVAs because the majority of victims we deal with are women.
I’ve changed my mind about that. I realised that men need to be part of the solution.
That’s what feminism means to me, you evolve, you change your mind.
Unlike when I first started in the sector, I have a son now and I realise every day just how important it is to have positive male role models. The men who work for us are absolutely fantastic and the clients love them. We always offer female clients the choice to work with a woman, but no one has chosen not to work with our male IDVAs so far.
The main thing with social media is that it gives us the ability to engage with the community in a very direct and personal way on a daily basis. We’re vocal, we’re quite loud, we have a personality and people seem to be responding to that. I hope they always will.
Do you think that being an implicitly feminist organisation that is actively engaged with the community has an impact on local victims and survivors of sexual and domestic violence?
In everything Aurora does, we aim to act as the voice of victims and survivors. I hope that when we post something that victims and survivors feel strongly about, they feel like someone else has got their back, someone else is prepared to say what they’re thinking. I think that can have a very big impact on making sure victims and survivors don’t feel alone.
Some of our most popular posts on social media are when we’re saying something that perhaps a lot of our followers are thinking but don’t feel confident to say. That might be an aversion to being too political on their own social media, or it might be a fear of how their friends might react to a feminist standpoint. High profile activists and organisations aren’t the only people who get trolled, actually most women and men who place feminist content on their social media are likely to get some form of trolling from within their own communities.
What impact, if any, do you think a case like Ched Evans has for victims and survivors of sexual violence living in Portsmouth?
I think it’s been horrendous for victims and survivors, particularly in terms of the case triggering trauma related to their own experiences of rape and sexual assault. We’ve had calls from survivors who have been deeply affected by that.
There’s been a lot of coverage in the past year of high profile celebrities being accused and charged of offences like rape and sexual abuse. The way these cases are covered in the media has huge implications for victims and survivors on a local level.
In terms of Ched Evans, I think it’s particularly horrendous because the coverage is everywhere – every TV screen, every newspaper. It’s very hard to avoid it. A lot of local victims and survivors are football supporters, they take their kids to football matches in the city and they’ll be hearing about the case in the stands as well.
We’re lucky here because Portsmouth Football Club is very active in its community work. We’ve worked a lot with the Club and the players on the White Ribbon campaign, which raises awareness of violence against women in Portsmouth, they’ve been huge and public supporters. I wonder how the Club has to wrestle with that in terms of the stance the FA are taking in publicly supporting Ched Evans. It must make it hard for a local club to take a stand.
I’ve wondered how I would feel if, as in Oldham, it was my club who offered to sign him. I’d have a big problem with that because that would bring the issue to the home of the victims and survivors we work with in the city. But the reality is that Oldham ignored the advice of the local Police and Crime Commissioner not to sign him, ignored their MP, ignored Ed Miliband. It wasn’t until the sponsors stood up and said they would withdraw funding that Oldham backed down.
I’d be surprised if Portsmouth FC would even entertain a signing like that because of their close links with the community, but when a club does, the likelihood of triggering trauma for local victims and survivors is very high.
Every time I see a new story on the Ched Evans case, I know a victim or survivor is sat at home somewhere in the city watching the same thing and dealing with a flashback of her rape or sexual assault. She may not be sleeping properly or having panic attacks, she may reach for a bottle of wine or even self-harm. Some victims and survivors will be dealing with that trauma in complete isolation because some of them will never have told anybody what happened to them. That makes me feel twice as passionate to let victims and survivors know there are people out there who believe them and are prepared to stand up and be their voice.
I hope they know we’re here for them when they’re ready to come forward.