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Sexual violence research instigates change

Led by Professor Emerita Joanna Bourke and Dr Ruth Beecher, the Wellcome-Trust funded project achieved many successes, including publications, the hosting of festivals, policy making, and the production of a film following the stories of survivors of sexual violence.

Reception held in October 2021 for the Shameless! Festival of Activism Against Sexual Violence. Left to right: Professor Joanna Bourke, Julia Gillard, Jude Kelly, and Queen Camilla. Credit: Ellie Kurttz

Sexual violence is one of the most serious problems in the contemporary world. Birkbeck’s impactful Sexual Harms and Medical Encounters (SHaME) research project sought to understand the role played by medical professionals in understanding and dealing with sexual violence. The aim of the project was to move beyond shame to address this global health crisis, and advocate for empowerment and knowledge. 

The 6-year research project culminated recently with SHaME researchers hosting two book launches and forming part of the panel discussions for Sophie Olson and Patricia Walsh’s The Flying Child: A Cautionary Fairy Tale for Adults; and Kimberly Theidon, Dyan Mazurana and Dipali Anumol’s, Challenging Conceptions: Children Born of Wartime Rape and Sexual Exploitation. 

Project Lead, Birkbeck Professor Emerita Joanna Bourke, shares her top ten project highlights and achievements: 

1. A global outlook 
The SHaME project was unique because it explored medical and psychiatric aspects of sexual violence. The focus was global, with particular expertise of abuse in the UK, France, British colonial Africa, Spain, and North America. SHaME explored issues ranging from child sexual abuse to adult survivors. 

2. Shameless! Festivals of Activism Against Sexual Violence 
The festivals were a collaboration between SHaME and gender equality charity The WOW Foundation. They took place in London and Rio de Janeiro and brought together academia, activism and the arts to confront and change attitudes towards sexual violence and share ideas.  

3. Publications 
All members of SHaME have published extensively in journals, edited volumes, and the media. One major monograph came out of the project: Joanna Bourke’s Disgrace: Global Reflections on Sexual Violence (Reaktion Books), exploring the history of sexual violence and ways to create rape-free worlds.  

4. Film 
SHaME have produced numerous videos, including interviews and recordings of our events. The most important was entitled SHaME: Stories of Survival, a documentary film co-produced by SHaME and filmmaker Sophie MacCorquodale. It follows the stories of four survivors of sexual violence as they reflect on the aftercare they received. They call for more awareness and inclusion in sexual violence services. 

5. International discussions and debates 
The SHaME team have engaged with survivors, victims, medical professionals, and other scholars globally. The most important have involved debates with people in the US, England/Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Greece, France, Germany, Spain, Norway, Belgium, Brazil, India, China, Australia, and New Zealand. 

6. Public engagement 
A great deal of attention has been paid to developing new and effective ways of doing public engagement around the topic of sexual violence. This has included collaborative events focusing on how to create inclusive public engagement programmes with sexual violence survivors, and how to navigate ethics. 

7. Safeguarding and inclusion 
The SHaME team have focused on how academics and stakeholders can work together to overcome challenges to equitable engagement and to identify positive steps towards empowering partnerships. Numerous organisations have adopted SHaME’s safeguarding and inclusion practices. 

8. Policy and training 
SHaME has contributed to policy making, especially in the field of reforming the admissibility of mental health evidence in sexual violence cases, and training medical professionals such as health visitor practitioners, physicians, and nurses. 

9. Collaborative workshops 
Collaborative workshops with survivors, practitioners and academics about historicising sexual abuse have been a major part of SHaME’s activities. Some of these events have experimented with using non-hierarchical and creative methods.  

10. Additional events 
SHaME has run many events, including book launches, film screenings, artists in residence, poetry readings, creative writing workshops, performances, blogs and podcasts, exhibitions, and reading groups. 

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