What is Sexual Trauma First Aid, and how can it help arts workers?


So you know, this story discusses topics surrounding sexual harassment and assault. For mental health support, contact your GP, call the Support Act 24/7 Wellbeing Helpline on 1800959500, or visit the National Association of Services against Sexual Violence for local resources.

Sexual trauma is an industry issue.

It’s an issue that close to half of Australia’s live performing arts workers have experienced. It’s an issue that victims and witnesses alike avoid reporting — because they lack faith in a system that should protect them, because they worry about damaging their career, and because they hope the matter will simply resolve on its own.

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, which published these research findings, described the way it highlights “widespread abuse and a culture of fear” in the Australian arts industry.

This is the landscape in which Australian performing artists work. Awareness of the issue is a good start, but it’s not the end of the story. And this is why we should be asking questions like: How many arts workers really know how to give an appropriate level of support and care to a person who has experienced sexual trauma? What are the responsibilities of arts leaders when their colleagues approach them for confidential advice? How can we best take care of each other and create safe workplaces and social environments?

Tasmanian theatre-maker Emma Skalicky and Bad Company Theatre founder Tai Gardner are on a mission to raise awareness about sexual trauma in the arts industry, and they’re doing so in a way that will generate positive change: they are facilitating a workshop for members of the arts community to gain essential knowledge and skills in Sexual Trauma First Aid.

The practice of Sexual Trauma First Aid is built on matters of consent, caretaking, support, and building safe environments for all arts workers. This particular workshop is facilitated through Bad Company Theatre; the speaker will be Adie Delaney, who is a primary prevention educator at Sexual Assault Support Service and herself a performing artist.

Even if you’re not in Tasmania for this month’s event, you can still read on to learn about what Sexual Trauma First Aid is, and how it may help your arts workplace in the future. In this interview, Emma and Tai introduce this unique form of care, and explain why it’s relevant — and necessary — to artists and leaders in Australia.

Arts practitioners Emma Skalicky and Tai Gardner are facilitating a Sexual Trauma First Aid workshop for members of the industry. (Supplied)

Tai and Emma, thanks so much for taking part in this interview — and for facilitating this workshop. First aid is incredibly important, and people can undertake courses in physical first aid as well as mental health first aid. But what you’re hosting is about very specific type of first aid. Tell us what that is.

TAI: Sexual Trauma First Aid, at its simplest, is how to treat people after trauma has occurred, and/or after trauma has been disclosed to you. It is also an understanding of what trauma is and how it can be prevented.

EMMA: It incorporates the latest research on what trauma is, how it manifests in the body, and how we all have the capacity to support people with trauma in the immediate aftermath, as well as in the long-term — both as individuals and on a company-wide scale. Everything from advocacy to literal first aid.

How important is it for Australian artists to recognise that sexual trauma can affect or even take place within their industry and workplaces?

T: The importance is two-fold. First, it is a protection against obvious forms of sexual harassment, such as those that sparked the MeToo movement. It is also a protection against more subtle situations. An example would be being forced to do a scene you are uncomfortable with, or is being done or blocked in a way that makes you uncomfortable. It gives tools to say ‘no’ to things you are not comfortable with as a performer, and an awareness of how to approach subjects as a theatre coordinator.

E: So much! In 2017, a Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance report found that ‘at least 40 per cent of 1,124 respondents have experienced sexual harassment’; that ‘almost a quarter […] do not make a complaint because they fear it will have repercussions for their career’; that ‘over 50 per cent reported that the situation got worse after reporting’; and that ’75 per cent say they are not made aware of a company’s policy on harassment’.

That’s a tiny fraction – imagine that research blown wide across Australia. Imagine what goes unreported.

There’s this latent belief that arts people are touchy-feely, vulnerable, and open to anything. That’s a positive image up to a point — and that point is disrespecting boundaries. And moreover, not even allowing people the space to voice their boundaries, because it’s so expected in your work and your social life. You end up with young people entering an industry that’s endured a lot and done things in a certain way for decades, with the expectation that it’s okay because ‘that’s how it’s done’. No wonder we’ve reached a boiling point.

Effectively, I’m saying the arts industry itself has trauma, and we can’t fix that if we’re not acknowledging it.

You decided to arrange this workshop primarily for other arts leaders, though I understand it’s open to the community to attend. But I’d like to know your views on the role of arts leaders specifically, and how you’d describe their responsibility in recognising when their colleagues are in need of help and support. I’m also referring to the balance of power between director or manager and artist.

T: There is an old attitude in any workplace, and the arts are no different: it is that the end product justifies how it is made. This can include dodgy practices, or overlooking problematic performers because they’re ‘talented’. And those behaviours start, and stop, with the leaders in the arts community.

An arts leader that knowingly hires a problematic performer is just as culpable as the performer themselves.

E: What Tai said – we can’t go on claiming the ends justify the means. There are so many subtle power dynamics in the arts, and a broad lack of enforced policies — especially when no one is necessarily checking in on making sure policies are being enacted properly when the time comes.

Some power scenarios, which can so easily be abused, are:

  • The director-actor dynamic
  • People that run arts boards and councils having limited priorities
  • People that bestow grants
  • Networking spaces
  • Wanting to prove your worth — and therefore being made to put up with a lot to seem resilient and easy to work with
  • Financial coercion with uncontracted shows
  • Drama teacher-student dynamics
  • People with casting power
  • Pecking orders with established workers and new/young people in theatre

Power is so fragile, it needs to be honoured with constant learning and an acceptance that to have power is to be a caretaker, to communicate, to collaborate, and to respect.

This seems to tie into your ethos for the Bad Company Theatre more broadly. On your Facebook page, you wrote that you “believe in the safety and support of our artists”, and in 2019 implemented MEAA-designed anti-bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment policies. How have you found these positive efforts have affected the culture of your arts company?

T: Our policy implementation led to two cultural improvements right away. One, by having policies we had to enforce them. But also, the actors could trust us to deal with problems, as a clear framework was in place for how to deal with issues. The second was that as we implemented the policies, other companies wanted them, and we passed ours along to others in the community.

E: Tai has worded this really well, but implementation of the safety policy hopefully communicates to people that they can feel safe working with us. We’ll respect their capacity, boundaries, and history, and we’ll keep working to improve our practices with a spirit of curiosity and compassion.

Secondly, I think public advocacy sets a precedent. This is the standard, and I’m personally very determined to see companies demonstrably meet that standard. Put your money where your mouth is, kind of thing.

Let’s talk about the Sexual Trauma First Aid workshop. What are some of the main topics to be explored?

T: The workshop covers the ideas and mechanisms behind consent, what happens in the body and mind when people are experiencing trauma, how to treat and respond to people who have disclosed information to you, and where to send them for further help.

E: It also covers supports available, referral pathways and reporting processes, a thorough look into the ongoing impact of sexual harm, sexual harm risk factors, how to apply trauma-informed practice principles, first aid responses to disclosures, how to advocate for people who have experienced sexual harm, and very importantly, how to implement self-care. And so much more!

You’ve organised for a counsellor who also works as a performer to talk about these topics. Why do you feel it’s essential to connect your attendees with a counsellor who has personal arts industry experience?

T: In the case of the arts sector, there is rarely anyone in ‘HR’ or similar who an artist can go to if there is a problem. It was important to us that we could supply an arts angle to an industry that often works at an informal level to empower freelance artists to stand up for themselves, or for arts organisers to understand the rights of their artists and respond appropriately to issues that may arise.

E: First off, I think counsellors do incredible work. The knowledge they can offer on what’s actually going on in the body and approaches we can use to help is so important. It provides legitimate groundwork that’s hard to dismiss. They also have a compassionate approach to advocacy and mental health, which connects well with people anywhere in their learning experience. Secondly, it’s great to have someone who has actual insight into how the industry works, and what unique or unseen factors play into sexual harassment and assault in the arts.

The specific counsellor for our workshop, Adie Delaney, is amazing. She’s a primary prevention educator who has a TED talk on the intersection of performance and listening to your body’s signals. She lives that practice, and it informs everything she does running The Circus Studio, too.

So tell us a bit about how Sexual Trauma First Aid can be applied in the workplace — because not only is this a sensitive topic to even discuss, but the people who would be in need of this help and support would be in particularly vulnerable places. How is this navigated in a real-world setting?

T: In a real-world setting, it is most applicable for when information is divulged to you. Sexual Trauma First Aid isn’t as immediate as medical first aid, and it can take time for people to build up the courage to talk about it. When they do, it is vital that it is handled the right way. If mishandled, it can be years before they gather the courage to try again — if ever. And all that time, they are not getting the treatment they require, and there is potentially a perpetrator who is allowed to continue causing grief.

E: Yes, disclosure first aid is primarily about knowing the signs, communicating a space of safety, and having the right response if or when someone discloses something to you. Listening rather than questioning, knowing grounding and calming techniques and stress management for panic, knowing what resources there are and supporting someone in accessing them.

It’s also about setting the environment for long term benefit – what can we do as a company, knowing people have history whether or not they feel comfortable sharing it? How do you let people with trauma backgrounds know they’re welcome and can positively contribute to the space? How can we approach power dynamics with respect?

Have you both attended a Sexual Trauma First Aid course before? What did you get out of the course, and how has it assisted you in your own work — or opened your mind to greater empathy or understanding of sexual trauma survivors?

T: I have attended a mini version of the course. We worked with Sexual Assault Support Service during our last production, as it centred heavily on sexual assault. We felt it was important to learn what to do as artists, and as people, if we ever encountered a situation like what we were dealing with in the production.

E: I sure have! I’m actually retraining as a counsellor, partly in thanks to courses like this being so inspiring. I had the opportunity to attend SASS’ Sexual Trauma First Aid program at the start of this year and it was just incredible. I walked away from that training session wishing everyone had access to that knowledge. I truly think it would completely revolutionise the empathy we have for one another, and what each of us has the capacity to endure. An understanding of trauma and consent is crucial, especially in a workspace.

I’m comfortable to also share that I have some personal experience as an SA survivor myself, stemming from an incident in an arts-adjacent space. That has very much motivated me to want things to be better for others.

Thank you for sharing this, Emma. What do you hope will be the greatest impact of this course — from building awareness of the issue, through to empowering artists to seek support, and empowering leaders to know how to give appropriate care?

T: I hope that artists are empowered to say no when put in bad scenarios. But just as importantly, that it becomes the norm. I also hope that arts leaders become aware of what needs to change in their organisation, be it different hiring practices or proper conflict resolution. Culture can’t change otherwise.

E: I want people and companies as a whole to take seriously how important this topic is. It’s not a hassle, it’s not a phase, it’s a real phenomenon in this industry, and something we all have the capacity to change for the better. I want people to feel empowered in their understanding and how much they can truly effect change.

Mostly, I want things to change. Even one extra person that can learn something from this workshop, that’s change.

Do you have anything else you’d like to share with Australian arts practitioners?

T: As artists, particularly performing artists, you are expected to just deal with it — be it over-touchy co-stars, creepy producers, or directors not implementing proper rehearsal practices for intimate scenes. I want artists to know that no, you do not have to ‘just deal with it’. And there are people that will have your back when you don’t.

E: And survivors – we believe you.

Sexual Trauma First Aid: SSAS Workshop for the Arts Industry will take place in North Hobart from 9.30am September 27.

Disclaimer: This interview is of a general nature and not intended to replace formal health advice.

Featured image by Christian Holzinger on Unsplash.