Tanaka Mhishi discusses appearing on a BBC documentary as a male survivor of rape, and what writers can do to tackle sexual harm.
Last winter, I would wake on an average morning and open Facebook to find messages from one, two, or sometimes three male rape survivors. I’d taken part in a BBC3 that followed three men after rape, looking at the different ways in which we had rebuilt our lives. Just before Christmas, it was picked up by BBC1 and re-aired.
My arc centred on building community. I’d lost most of my male friends after being raped: some found it too difficult to talk about; others responded in ways which made me feel unsafe, humiliated, or to blame – those connections I cut myself. Now I wanted male friends who understood, to whom I could talk. I searched for these connections in the only way I knew: putting on a poetry night, holding space to talk and support each other. The BBC followed me as I met other men with similar experiences. They plotted writing a script about our lives. I was collecting stories as well as friends.
When the cameras left, the connections kept coming. I’m easy to find online; I have an ‘ethnic’ name and a public profile. Survivors of all genders wrote to me, many of them to thank me for speaking out. Many messages came from women struggling to support friends or spouses who were confronting their abuse histories. These messages were beautiful and easy to take. I said thank you, wished people well, marvelled – as so many people have since #MeToo – at the solidarity that can bloom through a computer screen, the rock solid compassion, the love which can skip across space in a series of zeroes and ones.
But not all the messages were so easy. Often, I would open the computer to find that I was being asked for help. Men contacted me having realised that their childhoods had been threaded through with abuse, or that it wasn’t okay for their partners to attack them. Often, they were in crisis; often, they wanted my help.
I floundered. I found myself avoiding my message requests. I’d disclosed straight away after I was raped, whereas the average man takes twenty-one years to voice an experience of abuse I’d had friends, and I’d had a skill – writing – that enabled me to hold off the worst of the trauma. I didn’t have a roadmap. I could only listen.
Sometimes, still, this happens in person. At a party, a man I’ve just met speaks to me about a violent ex for ninety minutes. I’ve had five glasses of Prosecco and need urgently to use the toilet, but I’m also the first safe person he’s ever met – the first person he knew wouldn’t judge. I cross my legs and listen, mention a relevant charity.
At my old day-job in a bookshop, an older man at the till blurts out that he was abused at boarding school. A queue builds up behind him. I feel heartless moving him on, and ask him to meet me in a cafe during my lunch break. By then he feels anxious, rejected; he regrets the confidence. Still, I listen and, again, mention a relevant charity.
When I refer one man who has messaged me to Survivors UK, one of the country’s largest and most active support services for male survivors, he seems at once to explode and implode. He’s reached out to them already. The waiting list is too long, they’re in faraway-London, and he needs help now. He had tried to talk to his GP, but the doctor knew his abuser and he felt awkward. Watching the documentary seems to have crystallised in his mind that the abuse and trauma he’s gone through is real and urgent, but the systems he’s interacting with seem to treat it as neither.
What can I say? Yes, this is real. Yes you should have help. No, I can’t give it to you. If you want it, you must wait ten months for a place to open up, or sneak calls to the helpline in your lunch break.
I give him a pat answer, advising him to keep trying. I hate myself for it. I can feel what he’s feeling through the pixels: I thought you understood. I thought someone finally cared.
They’re wonderful. Um. There’s quite a long waitlist.
It’s not just men’s services, of course. Rape Crisis support organisations in the women’s sector were struggling with limited resources even before #MeToo. NHS mental health services are simply unequipped. Short CBT courses and the like can frequently do more harm than good, opening up issues they cannot possibly resolve in the given timeframe.
I see numerous brave plays and TV shows tackling sexual harm in our society. I aspire to be part of that great push of artists starting conversations. But when those conversations start flooding back into my inbox, I realise that it’s not good enough simply to put a phone number at the bottom of the screen and trust the grown-ups in the charity sector to take care of things. Writers and artists need to go deeper, follow the conversation, pause it when we need to breathe. Silence will not solve the systemic problems of abuse in our society, but a scream won’t either. We need to find a way of working – and writing – which is more sustained and sustainable.
What does this look like? We can’t expect writers to shy away from topics because the infrastructure to support any potential fallout doesn’t exist. We can’t ask the people who work in that infrastructure to perform miracles when we bring vast numbers of vulnerable people to their door. And we certainly can’t ask those vulnerable people to wait with their pain fluttering in the wind while funding and political will catches up.
But we writers can go slowly, carefully, painstakingly. We can talk to the people who are doing activist and support work in ways which are very different to our own. We can apply our creativity to the task of not just speaking out but doing so sustainably. That may mean it takes years rather than months to realise a project – that we miss the boat and stop being part of the click-of-the-day. So be it. And this applies outside discussions about sexual harm. It applies when we talk about bereavement, mental health, poverty, race and class – all these. I’m grateful to the people who have reached out to me. More than that, I’m lucky. So many survivors feel alone in their pain, whilst the drip-feed of messages I receive offers a cast-iron guarantee that I am not. But that connection must happen in a context, we must find a way to hold it carefully. That is what we have to build next.
Tanaka Mhishi is a writer, performer and researcher. His work has been produced on screen for BBC 3 and on stages nationwide, including the OFFIE nominated Boys Don’t which he co-wrote and performed in in partnership with Papertale and the Half Moon Theatre. He is poet in residence for the Consent Collective, a part-time Creative Writing lecturer at the University of Brighton and works with media organisations on issues surrounding sexual violence, masculinity and consent. He is currently developing This is How it Happens, a theatre show about male survivors of sexual assault. For more visit tanakamhishi.co.uk.