How photographer Megan Bowers-Vette got 50 sex abuse survivors to speak outby Julie Hill
Photography Megan Bowers-Vette
Megan Bowers-Vette survived childhood abuse. Now, the “fighty and fuck you” photographer is encouraging others to speak out about sexual abuse, and taking these stories to a national audience.
The “textbook, garden variety kiddy fiddler” who abused her was a friend of her family, and when she was seven, she decided to tell on him. But she didn’t have the words to describe what was happening, and her parents didn’t understand what she was trying to say. So it continued, and the feeling that her parents could protect her vanished.
Up to a third of all girls in this country, and one in five boys, are subjected to an unwanted sexual experience by the age of 16. But we rarely talk about it. And in recent years, funding for agencies like Rape Crisis and Women’s Refuge has been severely cut. So those who suffer do so alone, and in silence. “My initial idea is if it happens to one in three women, that’s a hell of a lot of women,” says Bowers-Vette, a fashion photographer. “So there’s a potential to make a community.”
She made a YouTube video, asking people to be part of her book and touring photography exhibition, the only stipulation being no anonymity: “Show your face, say your name, be proud of who you are.” It took three months and 30 takes, she says, to produce a 90-second clip. “I was too apologetic, then too demanding, then I waffled on about myself for too long.” Eventually she finished it, and “it just kind of went viral from there”.
She recorded interviews on her phone, but found she didn’t have to ask many questions. “For 90 percent of them, once they started talking it just flowed out, and I asked very minimal questions.” Many had never told a single soul what had happened. So why did they tell her? “A lot of people saw it as drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘right, I’m going to get out of this prison now.’”
She promised that anyone who wanted to participate was in – and ended up with 200 responses. “I thought, oh my gosh, how am I going to do 200 people?” However, some found that revisiting their experiences triggered their post-traumatic stress disorder, and were advised not to go through with it. Many others were blocked by their family. “Probably about 20 people were instantly told no by their mothers.” The stories also had to be heavily edited so as not to identify the perpetrators. “So a lot of crucial moments had to be taken out when they were too obvious – especially when it was people’s brothers or fathers.”
Of the 50 people in the book, only four are men – but far more than that came forward. Bowers-Vette says they were just as desperate to offload their secrets but less keen to see them in print. The reasons are complicated. “Martin [who features in the book] believes it’s seen as a women’s problem, so it’s harder for men. He was constantly turned away by Rape Crisis, because they said men don’t get raped and we don’t have resources for you. And there’s a whole thing about being seen as gay because they’ve been raped by a man, which is a whole other layer of confusion.”
I’d anticipated that reading Us would be distressing, and it often was. But it was also strangely uplifting to hear the survivors’ accounts verbatim, and to see their names and faces, without also finding out what they were wearing when they were attacked, how much they’d had to drink, and what a swell guy the perpetrator was. In contrast, interviewee Amberleigh describes how an experience in court damaged her irreparably. “If I knew someone considering pressing charges, I would beg them not to,” she says.
Is that a view Bowers-Vette backs? “I just think she’s being honest. If you’re going to do it, you’ve got to be strong. Out of the 50 people, most of them didn’t even think about going to the police. Only the twins [Nicole and Yvette, who were attacked by their grandfather] got a successful conviction. So that tells you what the stats are.”
The litany of ways the subjects find to blame themselves is heartbreaking. “I think it’s a female thing,” says Bowers-Vette. “When something bad happens, you automatically go, ‘What did I do wrong? How could I have done things differently?’ But if someone read all these stories and had something happen to them, from the outset they’d say, this wasn’t my fault. It was the perpetrator’s fault. That level of guilt wouldn’t be there.”
In October, news broke about US former movie studio boss Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual harassment, abuse and rape of women over several decades. Shortly afterwards, women tweeted their own stories of being groped in the workplace with the hashtag #MyHarveyWeinstein, and on Facebook, women who’d been harassed or abused wrote “me too” as their status.
Bowers-Vette says while media coverage like this can be “extremely triggering” for people who have been assaulted, she admires the way women, especially younger ones, are becoming more inclined to discuss rape culture in public. “It’s great that something like this breaks and inspires a massive influx of openness on social media.”
And she commends the men who respond with supportive posts, but says it needs to go further. “The one thing that really, really needs to change in order for society to adopt a consent culture is support from the men that respect people and gain consent for their sexual encounters, to speak up and tell the others it’s not acceptable behaviour.”
After Bowers-Vette finished sixth form, she left home, got a safe distance away from her tormentor, and went straight to university armed with a strong photography portfolio. She was “fighty and fuck you” but, on the other hand, had no qualms telling people what she had been through. She encourages others to do the same – though admits that sometimes disclosure comes with its own cost. One interviewee, for example, told a friend what happened to her while they were driving to Piha. The friend stopped the car, left her by the side of the road for an hour, and on her return said, “I just can’t handle it.”
Likewise, the survivors’ stories of shabby and even abusive counsellors are alarming, and it’s probably not surprising that many become therapists or social workers themselves, to provide better help. But if your friend turns out to be an arsehole, or your therapist makes you feel worse than you did already, Bowers-Vette recommends to keep talking until you find someone who understands. The correct response, by the way, is: “I’m glad you told me. It’s not your fault. I’m here for you.”
Bowers-Vette’s dream to create a community is already coming true. A private Facebook group she established has enabled survivors to share their experiences, meet for coffee and form friendships. But her book and exhibition aren’t just for victims; they’re also for family and friends – which, if the stats mentioned above are anything to go by, means pretty much all of us. “I had a young man come up to me and say his little brother and sister were victims of a paedophile, and he didn’t know how to talk to them about it. There’s nothing out there to show people what to do. For supporting people and to relate to people and to react to people, there’s literally nothing.”
Which is why Bowers-Vette’s work is so important. “What I wanted was for people to start putting their adult pants on and deal with it. Just stop being dicks, basically.”
Martin; Paige and Raewyn, all feature in Bowers-Vette’s book Us.
The Us exhibition opened at Whāngārei Art Museum in August 2017 and will visit other galleries around New Zealand and Australia. See more at meganbowersvette.co.nz/us-project/
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