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Culture Interview Literature

To Be a Woman: A Review and Interview

CW: Sexual assault

99.7 per cent of women in the UK have faced violence, whether it’s in the form of assault, harassment or rape. This is a statistic used in the introduction of To Be A Woman, a new book from GINA, a social enterprise supporting sexual assault and violence survivors. For many people socialised as women, this statistic won’t be a surprise. Perhaps a more shocking figure is the 80 per cent of women that have been sexually touched without consent before the age of eighteen.

The prevalence of sexual assault is devastating, yet it is drastically underrecorded by the police. In March 2020, Crime Survey England and Wales estimated that less than 20 per cent of victims reported incidents of sexual violence to the police. In the absence of legal action, it is up to organisations like GINA to support survivors and victims.

GINA, which stands for Grow, Inspire, Nurture, and Achieve, offers private specialist support for survivors and is the only organisation of its kind in the UK. While there are many charities established for sexual assault survivors, such as Rape Crisis or the Survivors Trust, GINA stands out as a for-profit organisation that promises waitlist-free access to their help.

GINA charges a fee for its counselling services and donates the profits to its sister organisation, the Birmingham-based charity Rape & Sexual Violence Project. Some profits are also reinvested into GINA resources: most recently, the publication of its book, To Be A Woman.

To Be A Woman is the debut publication of an anonymous university student, going by “Your GINA Sister”. And sisterly is exactly the tone that the book takes. It is an account of one woman’s experience with rape and healing. Giving realistic and practical life advice with moments of deep emotional insight and in-depth pieces on rape culture and its roots in society, the book aims to be a supportive piece for victims experiencing trauma. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of To Be A Woman is its intimate insights and the familiarity that the writer offers. “Your GINA Sister” is unfailing in her honesty about what it’s like to live through your twenties- a period marked by exploration, growth, and new experiences- while healing from trauma. 

The Student sat down with “Your GINA Sister” about her book, the healing process after trauma, tackling rape culture, and working with GINA. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: In To Be A Woman, you say, “There was no instruction book for this”. Is this your guidebook?

A: In the past, I’ve always felt like I could turn to my female friends if I had a problem or need advice. [Regarding my rape], I felt like even though I had some friends who had had similar experiences, though their reaction was completely normal, they weren’t open to talking about it, or they dealt with it completely differently from me. There was no one to say, “All of this is okay. The emotions you’re feeling, even though we may be dealing with them differently, are normal.” It’s normal to feel anger, and it’s normal to feel depressed. I couldn’t relate to my friends, but in retrospect, this too was a normal reaction and one that had little to do with them personally. So really, what I wanted to achieve with this book, was to be that older sister figure for other people. 

Q: You initially started your writing journey by writing blog posts for GINA.

A: I’ve been writing a blog since June 2021. When I first started writing the blog, it was a kind of therapeutic exercise for me because it was very early on in my recovery. I was raped in March 2021, so it was still fresh. In December of that year, I was asked to write this book. I took out some of the earlier blog posts and started editing them because I thought, “Oh no, this isn’t right, that isn’t right.” It became a process where every Friday at uni, I would go to a cafe, and I would just sit and write.

In January, I had seven or eight ideas for blog posts I wanted to write, so I turned them into book chapters. I didn’t want it to be just a book of my opinions. There are some chapters for which I had to do more research. I would often go to these cafes with friends to do uni work but I couldn’t have people sitting at the same table as me. I built this whole routine where I put my headphones in and played a rap playlist because I had to drown out the voices around me. 

The editing process was long. I sent it to different friends and family members to read through. I sent it to a couple of guys to read as well because I was keen for it not to come across as man-hating at any point. Their reaction to some of the points was so funny because I had girls read the same point and scribble on it, “100%, completely agree with you,” and the guys would come back with “I don’t understand this. I’m not disputing your point, but I fundamentally don’t understand where you’re coming from.” That was a lightbulb moment for how important this conversation was, and especially to have this conversation with men in an open-minded way.

I talk about rape culture and the role of the feminist movement in one of the book chapters because it’s so important that we have these conversations and make space for men to talk as well. Firstly, about their own mental health, but also to talk to them about our experiences and how they can help us by calling each other out.

Q: How do you handle these conversations? How do you know when to take up the mantle?

A: It’s really difficult! I’m still trying to figure it out. The biggest thing to know is that your mental health comes first, especially because so many women have their own trauma, and it can be an incredibly triggering conversation. It also depends on who you’re talking to. I’ve had long conversations with my brothers at the dinner table. They’re my favourite people to talk to about this stuff because I get a male perspective, but I know my experience will never be invalidated by them.

When it comes to other guys I’ve spoken to and engaged with, I have sometimes tended to shut down the conversation. I don’t want to do this just because someone has a different view from me, but I’ve sometimes gotten 40 minutes into a conversation and then said, “I can’t anymore. It’s too much for me.” I am very much for having conversations with other men about these topics but I also need to respect my own boundaries if I ever feel overwhelmed. I have found that it does depend on the guy and how well I know them.

Q: Some of the themes in your book are care, solidarity, and community. How important were your friends and family in the recovery?

A: My friends mean the world to me. So often, I would go to one of their flats and just have a breakdown. I wouldn’t be here right now without them. They’re always there to pick up the pieces. My parents have also had a really important role, especially my mum. The whole experience brought me and her closer together. We used to have quite a fractious relationship, but now it’s really nice. I would ring her and be really confused or frustrated about something, and she would manage to express in words what I couldn’t or what I didn’t realise I was feeling. My dad would help me in a different way. He’s very methodical about things, very rational and calm. 

I’m very grateful for the community I’ve had. It makes me feel privileged because I know there are so many people that don’t have that community. That’s why I wrote the book in the first place.

Q: What advice would you give to people who struggle to be emotionally vulnerable with their friends?

A: Having friends to talk to is really important, but if you don’t feel like you can share your experience with your friends, that’s absolutely fine. As much as my friends were there for me, I found that I was processing a lot of it on my own through journalling and therapy. Your friends aren’t qualified therapists; it’s a lot for them to take on. You may have times when you need to process things, and your friends aren’t there. Learn to have your own coping mechanisms.

That being said, if you do want to approach it with your friends, the most important thing is to find an environment and people you feel safe opening up with. You don’t need to share it with everyone, you can stick to one or two friends or whatever you feel comfortable with. Another thing is to set your boundaries for what you want to get out of the conversation. If you just want a shoulder to cry on, say that. Or if you want advice, ask for it. It will help guide your friends on how to go about the conversation because it can be a bombshell if they have little experience in dealing with such matters. 

Q: Growing up as women, we are socially conditioned to internalise the ‘male gaze’. In your book, you talk about adopting a “bad bitch mentality” to unlearn that conditioning; what is that process like?

A: It’s definitely not an overnight thing. I’m really aware of it, but sometimes I still catch myself. Even the other night out clubbing, I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’m getting all this attention.” At first, I was lapping it up, but then I thought, “Hang on, there’s a darker side to this.” Go easy on yourself. Women have been socially conditioned for years, so it’s not going to be unpacked overnight. It’s about reframing those thoughts and sitting there and thinking, “If I get a compliment from a random guy in a club, how is that actually making me feel? Do I feel under pressure, having just gotten that compliment? Do I feel like I owe him something?” Because that’s not how a compliment is meant to make you feel. A compliment should have you feeling really good about yourself. It shouldn’t be a transactional thing. 

The “bad bitch mentality” is very much about self-love and self-care. Without self-love, you can’t set your boundaries. You need it in order to have ambition, and for example, wear what you want to wear. If you want to go after a certain career, then go for it. If you’re not interested in a guy, then don’t feel like you need to reciprocate. It is much easier said than done; I still find myself people-pleasing. Give yourself time and invest in yourself. Not in the “I’m going to have a bubble bath” way but genuine self-care: looking after yourself and putting yourself first.

Q: How do you put yourself first?

A: I’m much better at saying no to a night out if I’m not bothered or not in the emotional state for it these days. I journal a lot because it helps me process my emotions, and I often have lightbulb moments during it that I might not have when talking to my friends. Equally, chatting with friends and saying, “Look, can I have a conversation with you?”, that’s also a form of self-care.

I think this is a really important method of self-care, and I think it’s something society doesn’t always recognise. Grace Beverley, the CEO of Tala and Shreddy, says that self-care is getting on with life and not procrastinating. For me, that is really important because I’m often juggling many things, and planning everything out means I feel less stressed about it all. I become a nicer person to everyone else and to myself. 

This doesn’t mean we have to engage in “hustle culture”. We need to find the balance between “I’m gonna get this done”, “I’m gonna spend time with friends,” and me-time. I’m relatively extroverted, but, especially following the events of the last few years, I need time to recharge my social batteries.

Q: It can be really hard to be productive when you’re feeling triggered. How do you work with those emotions?

A: If it’s really bad, take a step back. You don’t need to push through. Put yourself first. I’m so lucky that I work at GINA, and my boss is so understanding when I need to take a step back. Some of the work we’re doing is very triggering so that in itself has really highlighted to me that it’s okay to take a break. The biggest thing to know is that you can’t function to the best of your ability if you don’t take the time to process things. My mum always says to me, “You can’t help other people if you’re not okay yourself.” The same thing applies to work as well. You’re not going to produce a really good essay if you’re processing something.

Q: One of the difficulties you talk about in the book is accepting that you have gone through something and that it has changed you. Can you speak more about that?

A: It’s a year and a half down the line now, which isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s still a long time. Learning to say “I’ve been raped” instead of “Something awful happened to me” —  actually being able to put a label on it, is a massive step. It takes time. There’s so much stigma around sexual assault and sexual violence and how that affects you as a person. There are a lot of myths that are wildly untrue. Accepting the label can be really difficult because it can put you in a box, but the idea of the box is problematic in the first place. Everyone’s experience is different, and everyone deals with it differently. It doesn’t define you as a human being, but the labels can make you feel that way. I can now say, “I’ve been raped,” and not have that define me.

I also think that the more we have these conversations, the easier it becomes to accept what’s happened to you because it’s so normal. And hopefully, the conversations will stop it from being so normal and will reduce the number of people that are sexually assaulted.

Q: Your book is very political; you talk about how institutions like the university and the police failed you. What can institutions do to tackle rape culture?

A: One of the biggest things is knowing that different individuals who have been sexually assaulted who come forward want different outcomes and require different things. In my case, I didn’t want him to go behind bars. I don’t think he deserved that. But I think he could have really benefitted from a consent course.

At a more institutional level, accepting that these cases are really difficult and that there’s so much trauma behind them. Actually dealing with these cases and being trauma-sensitive to them; for example, not having really long waitlists and having courts and juries who actually understand the impact of trauma and how it changes your actions and behaviour. This is an extreme example, but there’s a politician in the U.S. who said something along the lines of “You can’t have been raped if you let the penis inside your vagina.” This is obviously a crazy statement to make. It indicates a real lack of awareness about how trauma works and how your body reacts in these scenarios. 

When I had my interview with the police, it felt very procedural. It didn’t feel like many steps were taken to make me feel comfortable. I was never told, for example, that I could have someone to advise me through the process in the room. There are lots of different things you can do to make the experience easier. I think in terms of prosecution numbers going up, it will take years. Systemic changes on so many levels would have to be made. 

Q: As you say, healing is an ongoing process. What lessons did you learn from writing the book?

A: It sounds really cringe, but the power within me to deal with my feelings. In the past, I was someone who would always go to other people for advice or to talk a problem through, but I learned that I often hold a lot of the answers in myself. Journalling is a really powerful way of finding those answers. Another thing is it takes time. To be patient with me and to be patient with the process. It’s not a straight trajectory. I can go for months without feeling that upset by it, and then sometimes, I’ll have a day where it really hits me again. It’s important to learn that it’s never going to go away and to accept that. I still struggle with it and being easy on myself because I am carrying this trauma around with me for the rest of my life.

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A final word: To Be A Woman is a valuable companion not only to survivors and victims of sexual assault but to any young woman learning how to thrive in a patriarchal world. It is available here.

Image courtesy of GINA CIC, provided to The Student as press material.