Sexual assault and abuse is a taboo subject in everyday conversation. But this unique BBC Sounds podcast, After: Surviving Sexual Assault, is breaking this. Creator and host Catriona Morton talks to Stylist about how she has created a safe, empowering and bold new space for survivors.
In the first episode of After: Surviving Sexual Assault, host Catriona Morton gives you two options.
Listeners can either stick with the episode, as guest interviewee Tom goes into detail about the sexual abuse he experienced while growing up.
Or, if this is too triggering, Morton advises you to skip to episode two, which hears Tom discuss his “Now” story about his recovery.
You are in control of what and how you choose to absorb Tom’s raw, emotional and essential story.
It’s innovative. It’s empathetic. It’s bold. And it’s empowering the voices of abuse survivors.
The podcast came to be as a continuation from Morton’s blog Life Continues After, following the therapy they underwent for trauma after suffering sexual abuse and assault in child and adulthood.
“Therapy was great but they only have so much time and money, so after eight weeks it just kind of dropped,” they explain. “I wasn’t better. So, I just wanted to make a space where I could always go and feel heard and seen, like a constant therapy space but not in a clinical therapy way.”
As podcasting now seems to be the new big platform for sharing personal stories and experiences - the number of weekly podcast listeners has almost doubled in five years – transforming the blog into a podcast seemed like the next natural step in reaching individual survivors and communities.
“People who have listened to the podcast say that it’s really comforting, because you are just listening to a conversation with me and someone else, just like kind of exploring things,” says Morton. “And getting confused about things and saying how weird certain aspects are. I think it’s really good for seeing the different thought patterns that people have as well.”
Finding survivors to participate wasn’t as difficult as it might seem. Morton created a safe space by making sure they knew the purpose of the podcast and how it isn’t like usual media appearances, which can often miss the mark.
“We have had some guests who have been in the media before and talked on things, but it’s never been in this really survivor-centred way, or about what really happened, focusing on the trauma and tragedy of what happened,” they explain.
“The main point is that we just want to find out more about who they [the guests] are. So I think that was reassuring. We also always give complete control to the guests, so if they ever feel uncomfortable, we ask, and I have preliminary questions that I ask before.
“Like, I ask people what language they use - if they say ‘sexual survivor’ or ‘rape’ or ‘perpetrator’ - so that they’re very much in control of the language they use.”
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The unique format of the podcast is just as bold and empowering as the subject.
“I didn’t want anyone who wanted to listen but felt they couldn’t because they were scared of being triggered. So from the get-go I wanted to give people the option because it’s so invaluable to actually hear the voice of someone who understands what it’s like to go through,” adds Morton.
“Also, it’s probably not the kind of podcast that you listen to on the tube in the morning. So people, if they don’t have the time or have busy lives, can just listen to the ‘Now’ episode. They still want to hear about it but perhaps don’t want to have a really intense half an hour.”
The biggest challenge that Morton has faced while creating the podcast is operating around the strict legal systems. “We can’t openly talk about cases where they haven’t been found guilty in court, so we have to be very cautious,” they explain.
According to Home Office, out of 57,600 rapes recorded by police in 2017, only 1.7% of accused perpetrators were convicted. Many charities believe that this number of cases doesn’t represent the true number of assaults, as many victims still do not come forward.
So, despite spaces like After: Surviving Sexual Assault giving victims a platform, many literally can’t use their voice.
In 2014 the government established the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) to examine how institutions, such as hospitals, care homes and boarding schools, have handled their duty of care to protect children.
But Morton agrees more needs to be done to combat this problem “structurally and institutionally, but also at a general level – socially and culturally” for children and adults.
She continues: “[It would be] wonderful if [the podcast] advocates and makes the government and funding bodies think ‘oh that needs attention’ - but that’s probably not going to happen.
“The realistic aim of it is to get communities and support systems talking about it more. I think we need to come to terms with the fact that – at present – institutions aren’t going to save us all. So we can help remedy that at present by getting communities and support systems on local bases so that people can help each other, and feel equipped to help each other and to talk about it.”
They go on to proffer that more resources should be dedicated to rehabilitation and direct intervention, along with proper sex education in schools and consent training.
“With most of my guests and the people in my life who I’ve talked to and who are survivors or sexual abuse – it’s been an issue of consent with people they are already acquainted with.”
So, what other podcasts are breaking the everyday taboos? Morton highly recommends Grief Cast, citing its host Cariad Lloyd as being a great help with setting up the podcast. “I’ve never been intensely bereaved but I still love listening to it. I can imagine that for people who have, like many people listening to mine, you only know if you’ve been through it - so listening to people who have been through it is so reassuring.”
“The What’s Underneath Project is also one of my big inspirations for my podcast, and that’s people talking about their sense of self. It’s a fashion podcast but it’s not talking about fashion it’s talking about their “true style”. And that’s really lovely and there’s an episode on that where a guest talks about being abused as a kid and it was one of the inspirations for my podcast because I would listen to it on repeat, so I found someone I could identify with.”
“And Food for Thot is for queer people in America. They are hilarious, so so funny. But each episode has a theme around it, like mental health of cancel culture, and they talk about really important things but in a really engaging and hilarious way.”
It’s fantastic to see so many diverse podcasts amplifying conversations that have been muted for too long. But it will also be fascinating to see how Morton’s unique podcast format will set the trend for giving more power to the listeners and how they choose to engage with podcasts.