Moving beyond ‘shame’ to address a global health crisis

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains discussions of sexual assault and sexual violence.

Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck, Gresham Professor of Rhetoric and Fellow of the British Academy, discusses the challenging topics she tackles in her academic work and her current research project, Sexual Harms and Medical Encounters (SH+ME).

Joanna began her diverse academic career at Auckland University, New Zealand, and went on to hold posts at the Australian National University and University of Cambridge before being appointed to Birkbeck in 1992. Over the last 30 years she has undergone major shifts in her approach, writing economic, social and cultural histories, focusing on topics ranging from the body, to emotions, to violence, pain and fear.

On her attraction to these topics, Joanna explains: “In terms of studying pain and how it is inflicted or experienced, there has always been a compulsive inclination to decide who is ‘human’ and who is inhuman. But it’s rarely that simple. Having read the love letters and diaries of men who’ve done terrible things during wartime or moments of crises, you see that these are often ‘good people’. We find it difficult to understand that perpetrators are often like us, ordinary people living ordinary lives.” Her book ‘An Intimate History of Killing’ (1999), which won several awards including the Fraenkel Prize for Contemporary History and Wolfson History Prize, delves into this fascinating dynamic, looking at how people killed during wartime, how they transitioned from normal jobs to the frontline, and the toll it took.

More recently, Joanna’s attention has shifted to sexual violence. She stresses the importance of accompanying current public discourse on sexual abuse with “high quality, investigative research to dispel the misconceptions and understand what we’re talking about so we can address these issues properly.”

“One of the most devastating myths is that this kind of violence is inevitable – it is part of our evolutionary history and there will always be sexual violence. As historians we can show that this is not true, we can look back and show periods of history and contexts where rates have been extremely low, even during wartime.”

“Trying to demonstrate the scale of the problem currently is something that drives me on. In England and Wales today, every single hour 11 women are raped. That is 85,000 women and 12,000 men per year, and a further 500,000 who experience sexual assault.

“One of the most devastating myths is that this kind of violence is inevitable, that it is part of our evolutionary history and there will always be sexual violence.”

“It is such a major issue because all of us will have to deal with it at some stage, whether it is ourselves, our families or someone we know. Getting people to talk openly about it is so important, because one of the most devastating things for victims or survivors is isolation. It can come from the fear that they have done something wrong or that that they are somehow different from other people: this often leads to a sense of shame. But when people speak about it, you start to break down these feelings and understand how many people have gone through similar experiences. You start to see that ‘it’s not me, it’s the perpetrators who should be feeling the shame.’”

It was this that laid the foundations for Birkbeck’s Sexual Harms and Medical Encounters (SH+ME) project, of which Joanna is the Principal Investigator. She describes this interdisciplinary research project, which incorporates history, anthropology, social studies, law, gender studies and more, as ‘one of the most exciting’ of her career.

“Most work on sexual violence focuses on law and legal outcomes, which is crucial. But what makes the SH+ME project unique is that we investigate the important role played by medical professionals in understanding sexual violence, treating victims or survivors, diagnosing perpetrators in court systems. Sexual violence has such wide-ranging effects on people, on their physical and mental wellbeing and their life outcomes – so it is important to explore these effects from a medical perspective. Put simply, the project seeks to examine sexual violence as a public health issue.”

Sexual Harms and Medical Encounters (SH+ME) is a research project exploring the role of medicine and psychiatry in sexual violence. It aims to move beyond shame to address this global health crisis.

Public engagement is also a major part of the SH+ME project. Dr Rhea Sookdeosingh, Public Engagement & Events Coordinator at Birkbeck, has been successful in engaging with different communities, including survivors, support organisations, artists, poets and activists. Recently, prize-winning novelist and activist Winnie Li has delivered writing workshops for both academics and survivors/victims. Joanna adds: “It sounds simple, but it is not common to get real discussions going between these groups. It’s so important because it changes how academics think, it contributes to the ways survivors frame their own experiences and it helps activists engage with the theoretical framework of what they do.” 

The culmination of this public engagement piece, and one of the key outputs of the SH+ME project, is the upcoming Shameless Festival in London, November 2021, which will be delivered in collaboration with the WOW Foundation. The festival is about activism against sexual violence and will consist of lectures, discussion panels, art and poetry workshops, performance pieces, how-to clinics, creative dance and film screenings. This will be followed by a second Shameless Festival in Rio de Janeiro in 2022. Joanna is also writing the book for the SH+ME project, looking at medical and psychiatric aspects of sexual violence in a global perspective. It will be published in early 2022 by Reaktion Books.