Analysis: As Promising Young Woman animates so gruesomely, the impact and roots of the conditions for sexual violence extend far beyond survivor and perpetrator, and we need to face up to the ways language we may commonly use compounds trauma.

By Charlotte McIvor, Alexandra Black and Rebecca Connolly, NUI Galway

Note: This article contains frank discussion of sexual violence, and spoilers about the film Promising Young Woman.

Last week, Emerald Fennell's film Promising Young Woman starring Carey Mulligan became available on streaming services in the Republic of Ireland after receiving rave reviews internationally, including being nominated for multiple Academy Awards and Golden Globes.

Upon its release, the filmmakers partnered with RAINN, the United States’ largest anti-sexual violence organization, to make free screenings available on US college campuses the same week, some including talkbacks with Mulligan and Laverne Cox who also starred in the film.

This partnership raised some questions about how film and artistic media can spark nuanced discussions about consent and sexual violence.

On our own soil this week, Active* Consent, Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and Galway Rape Crisis Centre concluded an eight-week national social media campaign called 'Start Here: Empowering Students and Staff to Respond to Disclosures of Sexual Violence and Harassment'.

This campaign focused on giving young people (as well as their support networks such as college staff) the basic skills and information about what to say - and what not to say - if someone tells them about a negative sexual experience they have had.

While Promising Young Woman and the Start Here campaign took a very different approach to broaching the topic of sexual violence, both look at the perspective of those who end up supporting survivors of sexual violence by hearing their stories and ask - what happens next? Not only for the survivor, but for the person they disclose to?

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From RTÉ Entertainment, Carey Mulligan and Emerald Fennell chat to Alan Corr about the Oscar-nominated movie Promising Young Woman.

We know from Active* Consent and USI’s 2020 national Sexual Experiences Survey that 79% of college students who disclose sexual misconduct (rape, sexual assault and harassment) told a close friend.

However, the story of the person who receives a disclosure has not been so often told - and Fennell’s Promising Young Woman bitingly dramatises what can go terribly wrong if someone who is disclosed to is left with unprocessed grief.

Promising Young Woman tells the story of Cassie (Carey Mulligan) who is seeking retribution for her best friend, Nina, who was raped by her classmates in medical school and then takes her own life (or so the film implies).

The violence Cassie inflicts is mostly psychological at first, before it suddenly goes much further, as Cassie tries to take on not only the perpetrators and bystanders but the tangled roots of rape culture (where a drunk woman is always "asking for it") singlehandedly.

One of the most compelling aspects of its narrative is how it animates the network of bystanders that extend far behind the perpetrator of Nina’s rape. This includes former college friends, the Dean of students who sided with the perpetrator, the defence lawyer who profited off of intimidating survivors and protecting perpetrators, and most damningly, Cassie’s boyfriend and former classmate.

By exposing this elaborate network of bystanders and their various degrees of culpability, Promising Young Woman reminds audiences that no one can be distant from this issue in a US or Irish context where we have statistics repeatedly confirm sexual violence as pervasive.

Across Irish society and particularly the higher education sector, there has been increasing attention on issues of sexual violence and harassment in the last several years, with concentrated attempts at structural change in law, education and awareness building on the decades of work done by our rape crisis centres and other activists on the front lines of this fight.

Building on the work of online activists, 'Coco’s Law’ which bans online harassment including image-based sexual abuse came into law last month. In the higher education sector, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has repeatedly called for consent, sexual violence and harassment education in third-level to be compulsory.

Also, his office has led the launch a new national survey of students and staff on sexual violence and harassment run by the Higher Education Authority, which is open until 30th April.

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From Radio 1's Drivetime, Brendan Howlin, Labour TD and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Brexit and Northern Ireland spoke to Philip about his hopes of passing a bill targeted against online bullying and harassment.

But the fight goes on. Only last week UCC law student Alicia O'Sullivan came forward to call for better training of Gardaí after she reported a fake Instagram account with explicit photos set up under her name, only to be met by Gardaí’s invasive questions about her own behaviour on social media, rather than the actions of the perpetrators - despite the incident clearly coming under the purview of Coco’s Law.

O’Sullivan’s story too brings to the forefront the need for anyone who may receive disclosures of sexual violence and/or harassment to be prepared with basic language and skills that will not retraumatize survivors regardless of whether they are a friend, or acting in a more official capacities such as college staff members or even the Gardaí.

Active* Consent, USI and Galway Rape Crisis Centre’s Start Here campaign sought to do just this - to give people somewhere to begin and start a non-judgmental and practical conversation about not only what to say - but also what not to say.

As Fennell’s Promising Young Woman animates so gruesomely, the impact and roots of the conditions for sexual violence extend far beyond the survivor and perpetrator. We need to face up to the ways in which the language we may commonly use - "Were they drunk? Why did they let themselves get into that situation?" - compounds the violence and trauma that has already occurred.

Equally, jumping to anger or vigilantism (even if only within your own head) could set even a totally sane person on a trajectory similar to Cassie’s in the film. And as some reviews have challenged, Nina’s total absence from the film does not give us access to her point of view as a survivor, so we can ultimately only view Cassie’s revenge fantasies as being about herself rather than Nina’s true wishes.

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From Radio 1's Today with Claire Byrne, Noeline Blackwell, CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, on calls to change how a victim of an alleged sexual assault or rape is treated during an investigation and subsequent trial.

Indeed, highlighting what not to say when hearing a disclosure can surface some uncomfortable truths about how our society handles sexual violence, but the pillars of what to actually say that we offer through this campaign might give more concrete hope.

"I believe you."

"How can I help?"

"What do you want to do next?"

In the final week of our Start Here campaign, we highlighted one of our disclosure tips that can often go overlooked - the importance of self-care, and looking after your mental wellbeing.

Without adequate self-care, individuals supporting survivors of sexual violence can experience ‘vicarious trauma’, a phenomenon wherein they can experience the same emotional, mental and physical symptoms of trauma as the survivor themselves - even if they weren’t the one who was assaulted.

So what does adequate self-care look like? It can range from the mundane - like making sure you get out of the house when you can, and that you’re eating healthily (including some comfort-eating, which is vital for our emotional health) - to deeper work like seeking counselling or mental health support.

Rape crisis centres across the country have dedicated counselling services not just for survivors of sexual violence and harassment, but for the family and friends supporting them too.

While self-care has now become an ubiquitous and often-maligned catchphrase during pandemic times (conjuring images of bubble baths and face masks) - it is a vital practice for anyone supporting a survivor of sexual violence, and one that Cassie might have benefited from in processing the vicarious trauma that eventually overtakes her.

Charlotte McIvor is a lecturer in drama and theatre studies at the O'Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance at NUI Galway, Alexandra Black is the creative content producer and social media manager for the Active* Consent programme, and Rebecca Connolly is a research assistant on the Active * Consent team.

All three work with the Active* Consent Programme at NUI Galway and have co-led the "Start Here" campaign in partnership with USI and Galway Rape Crisis Centre.

If you have been affected by issues raised in this article, support information is available online at http://www.rte.ie/support


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.