When 16-year-old Rhea from Shetland put a call-out on an anonymous social media app in June, asking young women to share their stories of sexual harassment, she expected to get quite a few submissions.
But she was taken aback to receive over 60 in a 24-hour period, detailing experiences from unwanted touching to horrific sexual violence like rape.
Now Rhea, who does not want to use her second name, is working with Rape Crisis Shetland to publish 65 of the stories, which she hopes will help raise awareness of how common sexual violence is, even in a “peerie [wee] rural community” like Shetland.
The schoolgirl, who volunteers with Rape Crisis Shetland’s Bee (Bold, Equal Empowered) Inspired young activists’ group, was galvinised by the #MeToo movement to raise awareness of the experiences of young women around her.
Rhea wanted to show that although small rural communities are often tight-knit, they are not immune and is using the hashtag #Wistoo (Scots for ‘is too’) to share the Shetland stories she received.
Rape Crisis Shetland is also publishing them in a report called Towards a Safer Scotland, with an introduction that defines sexual violence or violation as “any form of sexual contact that is not freely agreed to”. The definition includes harassment, sharing of intimate images, groping, pressuring someone into sexual acts, assault and rape.
The stories submitted by women and girls tell of experiences that happened to them between the ages of eight and 26 years old. The incidents involved both young person on young person abuse, and violations by older men.
Rhea told The Ferret she wanted to show the full spectrum of sexual violence, including less serious incidents alongside the most violent.
“I wasn’t expecting to have as much response as I did,” she said. “I was only expecting a few stories but within about ten minutes loads and loads were coming in at the same time.
“A lot of the stories are really hard to read. And they go through all sorts of different things. There were quite a few that I had no idea about and it was especially hard to read knowing that these were coming from our community.”
Reading all of those stories the night Rhea sent them through was breath-taking, especially because you are reading such young women and girls stories. And they are so reminiscent of the stories we have been hearing our whole lives. Lisa Ward, Shetland Rape Crisis
Lisa Ward, service manager of Rape Crisis Shetland, helped Rhea to anonymise the stories and put them out in a way that kept all those who shared their experience safe. She said reading all of the stories together was “devastating”.
The agency predominently supports women, but also supports a number of men and boys who have survived sexual violence. “Obviously we work with that type of content in Shetland day in and day out,” Ward added.
“But even in the context of that, reading all of those stories the night Rhea sent them through was breathtaking, especially because you are reading such young women and girls stories. And they are so reminiscent of the stories we have been hearing our whole lives.
“I think nationwide we have a problem with recognising how prevalent sexual violence is or even recognising what it is or what it means,” Ward continued.
“In Shetland in particular there is a feeling of ‘this doesn’t happen here’ because we have a very safe community. Which is not the case, it’s just slightly different. It tends to happen more behind closed doors or in domestic spaces.”
According to Rape Crisis Scotland’s most recent figures just over 50 per cent of its clients reported sexual violence to the police. It is claimed that an “adversarial” judicial system – in which survivors have to prove that violence took place – means under-reporting is endemic.
For those cases that go to court, conviction rates are low. A Scottish Government report published in March revealed that the rate for 2018-19 was just 56 per cent – a drop of 17 percentage points on the 2009-10 figure. One in five rape and attempted rape trials resulted in a ‘not proven’ verdict. The overall conviction rate in Scotland is 87 per cent.
Ward said that women in remote communities sometimes faced additional barriers to reporting.
“We do probably see less street harassment,” she said. “It’s not so easy if you know someone’s mum and they are shouting at you from a van on the street. There’s a public accountability there.
“But if you’re at a house party, or on a school trip, or it’s someone within your own family – that makes it so much harder, particularly when that person has a high standing in the community.”
Rhea said these inherent difficulties were the reason she chose to closely protect the identities of those submitting stories.
“When I collected the stories I did it on an anonymous app and I think that helped a lot,” she added.
“A lot of people think if they do come out with their story they’ll get a lot of backlash from it, and people don’t believe them.” But she urged those who had experienced sexual violence to speak up, even if only to seek help. “They will always get the support they need from places like Rape Crisis,” she added.
Michele Burman, professor of criminology at Glasgow University whose research specialises in sexual violence, said there was no evidence that sexual abuse or harassment was any more, or less prevalent in rural or island communities, than in urban areas.
“However living in isolated rural or island communities often means that access to specialist support is limited or non existent and there may be a greater risk of stigmatisation, she added. “This can inhibit reporting.
“Younger girls may consent to sex because they feel they don’t have a choice,” she continued. “It may be easier to consent than decline due to power imbalances, which may be exacerbated in situations of close knit communities where coercers are known to them or where girls feel that they may be ridiculed, or shamed or harmed if they don’t consent.”
Listen to, and download, the podcast on Anchor.
If you have been affected by these issues you can call the Rape Crisis Scotland helpline on08088 01 02 03, email email@example.com or text 07537 410 027
Photo from iStock