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Ione Wells on how #NotGuilty open letter to man who attacked her sparked global campaign to break taboo on discussing sexual assaults

Ione Wells hit the headlines after the message she penned to her assailant went viral. Now, the student is determined to change attitudes and take her awareness campaign to the next level

Published 26/08/2016

Oxford University student Ione Wells wrote an open letter to a man who sexually assaulted her
Oxford University student Ione Wells wrote an open letter to a man who sexually assaulted her
An extract from the letter

It has been 18 months since I wrote an open letter to the man who assaulted me. It was published in my university's student newspaper and, at the end of the letter, I encouraged others to write in with their experiences under the hashtag #NotGuilty. I hoped to reach out to other students who might have gone through something similar and felt unable to talk about it, or to get help.

Little did I anticipate that, almost overnight, the published piece would go viral. Soon, my letter was all over the national Press. My words were translated into several other languages and the hashtag became a global campaign.

The response was overwhelming. Since last April, hundreds of people around the world have shared their stories with the Not Guilty campaign.

My letter was the spark that fired up a movement which aims to break the taboo of talking about sexual assault.

We want to send a clear message to perpetrators that "we will not tolerate this", and to victims that "we are with you". And the good news is that it seems to be working.

One woman wrote to us after being assaulted by someone she had trusted and cared about. She said: "I have read many of the stories posted on here and feel more hopeful that, if so many women can move forward, then I can, too."

Another contributor, who was assaulted on public transport, said: "I am so proud to be a part of #NotGuilty. Why should we suffer this form of abuse?"

A woman who attended one of our workshops later told me that writing about her experience that day had finally allowed her to tell her family about the impact the attack had on her.

She also wrote a letter to her assailant: "Although they may never understand, I showed them that I can survive this unimaginable ordeal, and that empowers me."

Working on the campaign has taught me a great deal, primarily that sexual assault is an issue everyone needs to talk about - not just those who have experienced it.

As one recent contributor said: "If you have been made to feel uncomfortable, or damaged, by a sexual encounter, there are millions of women and men who have felt like you feel and who want to help you."

Open discussion about sexual assault is crucial for education, not only about the nuances of consent, but also about how and where to get help if you, or somebody you know, is assaulted.

I certainly didn't know about the support structures that existed until it happened to me. One woman told me that after she was assaulted, she googled "what to do if you've been raped".

The key, as with anything, is to begin as early as possible. This year, I ran #NotGuilty workshops in schools, covering issues from "sexting" to dispelling myths about assault and talking about the appropriate ways to support a friend who has experienced abuse.

Consent workshops have become more common at campuses and schools across the world and have been the cause of controversy.

One university student condemned them in an article for a student website as being a "smug, righteous, self-congratulatory intervention".

But, in my experience, their importance is demonstrated by the huge grey areas I have witnessed in people's understandings of what constitutes consent - particularly when alcohol, or close relationships, are involved - and I have no doubt that a large part of that is down to a lack of adequate sex education.

Talking with students gave me a real buzz, so I began to think about ways we could bring our online community together. Given that I had personally found it an incredibly restorative process, I decided to hold writing workshops for survivors.

In collaboration with Pavan Amara and My Body Back, which works to help women to reclaim their body image and sexuality after abuse, we held a workshop that allowed writers to address either their perpetrator, or anyone else they thought they needed to get through to. Despite one of the ground rules being "you can tear what you write up at any time, this is primarily for you, not anyone else", by the end every attendee wanted to read theirs to the group.

But I'm also passionate about the need to involve everyone in these conversations. Speaking at events such as the Clear Lines Festival, where I talked about enjoying sex again after the assault, made me realise that we need to get creative if we are to avoid preaching to the converted and attract audiences who are not already invested in the issue.

I ran an arts festival this year called We Need to Talk, for example, featuring three plays and a drama workshop that all incorporated themes of sexual violence - with the aim of engaging people with the issue through mediums they are perhaps more likely to approach of their own accord.

One play we put on was a one-man show by Tanaka Mhishi called This is How it Happens, which traces the struggles of a male rape survivor - many audience members commented on how they didn't realise how much the issue affected men, too.

Seeing the response to some of the more harrowing plays we showcased was moving. People were shocked to see the manifestations of trauma performed, and many told me they had "never quite realised the impact of it" before - which is exactly what I had hoped to change.

Though the campaign has given me a way to transform a negative experience into something I can feel hugely positive about and encouraged by, I can't pretend it has been an easy process to get here.

Dealing with the repercussions of sexual assault is a difficult, hugely up-and-down process for anyone, and going through this process in the public sphere was additionally overwhelming.

But when people ask me how I have changed 18 months on as a result, as well as the campaign, I think it is important to stress that, despite the media attention last year, I'm still much like I was 18 months ago.

I'm still a normal student, still plagued with the bugbears of essay deadlines and overdrafts, still enjoying the glorious freedoms and relative lack of responsibilities as one should in their twenties.

Part of normalising the discussion about sexual abuse is also normalising the individuals and the lives affected by it.

We need to emphasise that, just like the victims of any other crime, we shouldn't be defined by something that happened to us. We aren't just statistics or news stories, but individuals - just like everybody else."

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