** Trigger warning **
One of my friends sent me a link this morning to this article: Why Don’t Cops Believe Rape Victims?
It talks about a phenomenon that’s really well known if you’ve received training in rape counselling, but perhaps is much less understood in the wider world: women who have been raped can very rarely recall their attacks in neat, linear narratives, and frequently they have intense sensory memories that interfere with any ‘story arc’ that we might expect to hear. The above article, and many others beside, can tell you far more about the biological basis for those things than I can. But even if you understand the research, I think it’s still tough to grasp what that non-linear narrative means.
So I thought I’d tell you about mine. I remember pretty well how the situation developed – I remember chatting at the front desk, being invited to the back office. After that, I mostly have short flashes of memory, like those sepia flashbacks that action movies are so fond of using. I remember him coming towards me for the first time, grabbing my neck. I can picture his chest above my head and the precise colour of the mahogony desk in that room. I can describe what the booking system on the computer looked like. Those are the sorts of visual memories I have.
Then there are the sensory ones. I can feel being pushed to my knees, the pain when he reached the back of my throat and, later, his hot breath dampening my scalp. I can hear being called a “sick bitch”, the sound of his trousers against the cheap carpet, the hum of the air-conditioning unit, quiet sobs. I can’t really recall any smells – I suppose there weren’t many, in that office.
But those are the sorts of memories I have. They’re disparate, not in any natural order. And it’s why, when a person has ever asked me to tell them “exactly what happened”, I have refused. Because what could I tell them that would satisfy them?
I don’t know if that’s helped understand what it’s like. But it’s the best representation of what my memories are – a jumbled and incomplete mess. And frankly, I don’t really want to sort through them. I suppose that might seem confusing – why wouldn’t you want to really know what happened to you? But one of the reasons I have steered clear of any counselling that might seek to ‘restore’ my memories is that I’m scared. Those things that I remember are unpleasant enough – I don’t feel the need to add to them. And whilst I can hardly claim to speak for every survivor of rape, I think that’s a fairly common thought.
Anyway, I thought this might be helpful 🙂
Today I stand in front of the mirror of the ladies’ toilet at work, and I stare at the face I see. This week, this month, I don’t recognise it as my own. The hair is the same blonde mess it always is; my face is still carefully painted on. But that hair and face and smile is who I am for eleven months of each year. Now it is the first day of October, and I am the girl I was 6 years ago.
I’m sitting on the toilet having a wee. As I feel the liquid trickle out, I am picturing the fading scars inside me, those pock marks and lines and swells that must linger on my flesh. They will be less obvious than they were last October. But they’re still there.
I’m sitting at my desk thinking about the supermarket. Last week I pushed a trolley down the table sauces aisle, gripping the handle tightly, pleading with myself not to lose it. I closed my eyes, took deep breaths, counted to ten. Rushing past the broccoli and the toothpaste and the liquid detergent, I smiled blandly at the checkout girl and made it to my car, breath ragged. My hands were shaking so much I knew I couldn’t drive home. So I sat outside and tried to calm down by appealing to nicotine. I sat and smoked a rare cigarette, and miraculously it worked. The anxiety attack I had expected to arrive full tilt was held back, and I was pleased about that.
And yet, the panic is still there, threatening me. Six years have gone by and, these days, the trauma of the past is lying just slightly out of reach. I know I should be proud that it does not dominate me any more. But instead I feel it hovering out of sight, threatening this life I have painstakingly built, and I know I have only a slender white and gold cylinder, leaving a foul taste in my mouth, to help keep it at bay.
This is the confirmation I dread every year. It is the first of October, and I’m still not fine.
Apologies that it’s been a while since my last post, and that this interrupts my promised series on gay marriage – which I promise I do want to continue!
I just wanted to write about something that I’ve been thinking about off and on for ages and have never actually written down. I don’t think anyone will be surprised to hear that I don’t think there are different degrees of rape – I think a trusted friend raping you ‘non-violently’ (sure… because that’s how it feels) is any better than a stranger attacking you with a knife. It also shouldn’t be a surprise that I don’t think there’s any excuse for someone who has raped. These people have done something horrific.
But one of the rape scenarios that people so delicately want to term ‘grey areas’ is where a man and woman have been getting together, enjoying some sexy time, and then she changes her mind. In this situation, we are told, it’s really difficult for a man to control his natural sexual urges. Now, whilst I personally think all that is nonsense, and that both men and women have big sexual urges, and that both sexes are highly-evolved enough to be able to control them, let us pretend for a moment that I buy it.
Let’s imagine the situation that is most generous to our would-be rapist: heavy petting has reached a high point, clothes have been stripped off, both have been writhing away with pleasure up until now, and the basilisk is about to enter the Chamber of Secrets, as it were. Then, right at the last second, the woman changes her mind and squeals “No!”. I can just about, conceivably, forgive a man for one quick poke where something hasn’t registered, followed by effusive apology and immediate backing off. If you sell that to me as a man being unable to control his sexual urges, I will listen. But here’s why I don’t buy the rest of it…
If the guy has been really turned on, the girl then changes her mind, and he then proceeds to rape her in a way that lasts any longer than what I described above, the problem is that he has carried on. These ‘grey areas’ of rape are occurring over a period of minutes – as few as two, as many as thirty or more. And what is the woman doing whilst all this is going on?
It might be that she’s screaming and clawing at him. It might be that she’s just sobbing and turning her head, refusing to look at him. It might just be that she’s lying there mute, unresponsive and incredibly uncomfortable. But what she is definitely not doing is encouraging him or responding to him in a normal, healthy, fun or romantic sexual way. Any guy that continues sex under those circumstances has not been temporarily blinded by a sexual urge – he is wilfully ignoring another human being’s distress for seconds, minutes or hours at a time, whilst she is lying 10 centimetres away from his face.
Grey area? Don’t be stupid. This is obvious.
When I turned eighteen, my lovely aunt gave me a necklace from which a gold cross hung. It was about a year after I had been baptised, and two years after I had first become a Christian. I loved it, and what it represented.
But I stopped wearing it at the end of my first week of university.
In fact, I put it away in a safe, and I didn’t think about it, or God, for years. But when, six months ago, circumstances combined to return me to my home county of Surrey to both live and work, it turned out to be surprisingly difficult to walk past the church that I had once attended and loved. And after finally securing a job and returning to a state of relative normalcy, it turned out that there were no more excuses to hide behind either. It was time to think about why I left my church and my faith, and perhaps explore whether they were things I wanted to return to.
My decision to leave the Church was very tied up with Malta. Not because I hated God, or because I thought he had failed to protect me – free will having played a blinder where my attacker was concerned – but because my failure to admit that I had been raped meant that my radical behavioural shift to alcoholic nymphomaniac was utterly inexplicable to me. All I knew was that I was, almost nightly, doing things that I knew were both totally against my beliefs, and opposed to the beliefs and lifestyles of some of my closest friends – and that I woke up every morning hating myself, and being continually wracked with guilt at how bad a Christian I was being.
An extract from my journal during that unhappy time:
It’s lunchtime and I’m sitting with the most gorgeous view – a stunning lake with mountains in glorious sunshine. I still feel disgusting. I feel on the verge of tears, I have a churning in my stomach, and I feel so guilty.
The simple truth is that I stopped praying and going to church because the guilt became too much for me; I hadn’t ‘behaved like a Christian’ for months, and the daily struggle between my actions and my faith was destroying me. Since it was easier to walk away from the Church than it was to face up to what had happened, I chose to give up my faith.
But what had I really given up? Until recently, I thought I knew. But as I have re-examined the core principles of Christianity in the last few months, I’ve come to realise that five years ago, I walked away from a religion that didn’t actually exist.
I was convinced that I could no longer be a Christian because I was failing to be the kind of person I thought God wanted me to be. But Christianity actually teaches that Jesus helps those who are struggling (and failing), not those who are tootling along just fine. Mark 2:17 quotes Jesus: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do.” I had become so obsessed by the ‘rules’ and my guilt that I’d totally lost sight of what my faith was really about – admitting that I was a person making all kinds of mistakes, and that I needed God to help put me right. Had I really understood the faith I declared by the cross around my neck, I would have clung to it as tightly as possible.
Rape isn’t the only thing I’ve come to terms with in the last five years. I finally came out as bisexual to my friends and family, went on dates with women, and slept with women. Being gay is something that forms a real part of my identity, and that I will fiercely defend. I resolutely ignored this truth when I first joined the Church, but it’s not something I can sweep under the carpet now: I love boobs.
Along with the Church’s attitude to women, it was the biggest obstacle to my return to Christianity. I had to confront Christian homophobia, and decide if the Church that caused it was something I could bear to be a part of. I needed to understand the parts of the bible that apparently condemned homosexuality. I needed to confront my Christian friends and ask them if they found me unnatural, or wrong.
Because Christianity does so much damage in this area. In America, one school district’s “Christian” homophobic policy contributed to the suicides of seven students in one year, and in the UK, “Christians” held a seminar on gays titled ‘The Lepers Amongst Us’. This stuff is huge, and it fundamentally damages people.
Well, it took a while, but I did confront it. If you would like to ask me about it then contact me and I will happily have a chat – and if there’s enough interest then I will post something about it – but the upshot is that I have spent months reading, thinking and talking about homosexuality and the Church, and I’m in a place where I’ve figured out my position and I’m happy. Yes, stories like the ones mentioned above make me batshit crazy, but in terms of my personal response to gays and the Church, I’m content.
Getting over theological obstacles is one thing, but actually regaining faith in God is something very different. And it started to return to me a few months ago when a very wise friend asked me the following question:
“Do you want to get your faith back?”
I thought for a beat, and then responded: “Yes”.
He leaned back in his chair, shrugged, and said, with a relaxed smile on his face, “Okay then. God’s in your heart, if he’s what you want. You can get there.”
One of my favourite poems is ‘Little Gidding’ by T.S. Eliot. And the part of that poem that I – literally – carry around with me, in my great-grandmother’s locket, is this:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I have been forever changed by my rape. It fundamentally changed me. But I’ve spent five years coming to terms with what happened to me, and I feel like for the first time, maybe I have finally arrived back where I started: with self respect and confidence, and with faith. Eliot was right when he wrote that we might truly know the place for the first time.
Last Sunday, I put the gold cross back around my neck.
Mumsnet (a huge social website for parents, especially women, based in the UK) did an informal survey about rape and sexual assault following Ken Clarke’s disgraceful comments a couple of months ago. Click here to read the results – and make sure you read the testimonies.
There are no words. Just read it, and feel your heart ache.
When you start a blog, you realise you can become incredibly narcissistic – you get given a page full of statistics where you can see how many people have been reading your thoughts, which posts they choose to read, and all other sorts of interesting data. It’s fascinating, but be reassured – there is no way to find out who these readers actually are. Most fascinating – and heartbreaking – for me is that WordPress also tells me which search engine terms brought readers to the site. The terms that I see most often are about women trying to understand their own behaviour following a rape:
“Why promiscuous after rape?”
“Freak promiscuity after rape”
“Abnormal rape promiscuity”
are just some of the terms I had yesterday. As we all know by now, these women are not abnormal freaks – they’re reacting in a really common way. Indulging in promiscuity is absolutely one of the most common ways to respond to sexual abuse, and the reasons why women do so can vary: trying to turn sex into a meaningless act, attempting to regain control over men or their own sexuality or – as I think was the case for me – as a method of self harm. A book I read once noted that a rape victim sleeping around is like a victim of knife crime repeatedly stabbing themselves in the thigh. When you factor in how many survivors have physical pain in their pelvic region after an attack, you really start to understand the point.
The problem is that we’re still not very good at talking about it, and that is phenomenally isolating. One of the panic attacks I had was brought on when I was trying to find out – just like the women above – if I was a freak for having lots of sex after being raped. Other aspects of my sexual experience changed too; my turn-ons were different and my body responded differently. I searched and searched and searched and couldn’t find the answers that I was looking for. I got so frustrated and felt so alone that I ended up hyperventilating and calling a friend to help calm me down.
We need to be better at providing information about this sort of thing – and not just clinical facts (although that is desperately needed) but also anecdotes and personal testimonies. That panic attack was one of the driving forces behind me starting this blog – so that women who google in despair can feel less alone. And that’s why it’s fantastic when I come across blogs by amazing women writing about their own experiences of rape and recovery. So this post is, if you like, the WordPress equivalent of a Twitter #ff (That’s Follow Friday, for those not in the know).
Healing Wounds is a great new blog being written by someone I’ve come to know as a friend in the online world. Her strides in recovery have grown hugely in the last year – and her writing’s pretty ace too.
Life in a Pickle is written by another phenomenal woman. She writes about her own experiences and how rape is treated in the media, as well as taking a look at police and legal processes. Funny and moving, you should check it out.
Finally, I suggest you take a look at the message boards at After Silence. This charity was started to give women a forum to speak to other survivors, and it’s a great way to connect with people or start talking about your experiences that might be less scary than telling close friends or relatives.
On the topic of not being alone… I’m just about to complete my training on a scheme where sexual abuse victims support other survivors, and the women I train alongside are fabulous. Yesterday, I had a crappy day with crappy news. But last night I stood on the corner of a south London street with some of these amazing survivors, and we laughed until we cried – and then I danced the whole way home. Gosh, life can be good.
Let me say at the outset that I’m glad I’m alive. For me, being alive is a Very Good Thing. Nevertheless, there is a question that swirls around my mind sometimes. And it’s the sort of question that is quite difficult to ask out loud, because it makes me sound terribly morbid. But I think it might be an important one, so here goes.
Why didn’t he kill me?
I mean this totally seriously. Think about it: he raped me in his place of employment. I was staying at his place of employment. It would not have been the Maltese police’s hardest case to crack, had I reported it. So in the interest of self-preservation, why didn’t he just slit my throat and be done with it? Or at the very least, why didn’t he threaten to kill me if I said anything? Because he didn’t – he threw me out of the back office and that was that. He didn’t even bother to take the next few days off work until I’d left the country.
The only conclusion that I am able to draw is that he knew I wouldn’t report him, that I wouldn’t say a word to anyone. And how worrying is that? Rapists know that the stigma and suspicion that surround a rape victim are so great – and that the psychological trauma they personally inflict is so huge – that they feel confident enough to let someone who could clearly identify them walk away.
I’ve been sitting looking at this screen now for ten minutes, trying to find a conclusion to this post. I don’t think I have one. It’s just something I wanted to point out.
I’m very glad I’m alive – but the fact that he felt he could allow that paints a troubling picture of society.
I’ve been thinking recently about survivors’ attitudes to their own rapes. There seems to be a real range of ways in which people look back on their experiences – unsurprisingly – from those like Alyssa Royce who don’t see it as anything of real consequence to those women from the Telegraph who have found it has profoundly shaped their lives for decades. So whilst my own attitude is no more valid than theirs (and mine may well change in the years to come), I thought I would lay out my thoughts.
You’re blue in the face from reading about how important I think it is to talk about rape. But the other thing that I do think is really important is to own your rape experience – even if you do it privately, with no one else involved. By that, I mean that rather than attempt to hide the fact that you were raped, or push the memory far into the recesses of your mind, you admit to yourself that yup, I was raped. Is that morbid? Possibly. But mostly I see it as affirming. For a few reasons:
1. You survived
Here you are. You had a horrific experience, someone attempted to break your spirit, and yet here you stand. And for a while, your existence may have been undignified. But you’re still here.
2. YOU survived
Yes, you will have changed. Of course rape has changed you. But are you really telling me that you bear no resemblance to the person you were before? Have your tastes in music and books changed, have you drifted from every single one of your friends? Someone tried to break your spirit, but that crucial bit of you, that essence, remains. You’re alive, and you’re still you.
3. You survived, and you got something extra
Trust me, you did. Even if you can’t see it yourself yet. But when someone goes through something as intensely traumatic as sexual abuse, and comes out the other side, they’ve grown. Somewhere is a steely strength that no one will ever be able to rip from you again.
4. You got some shit from it, too
Enough from the mind/spirit section of the bookshop. Obviously rape is not some life-affirming experience, or everyone would want one. It’s painful, it’s tough, it’s humiliating (it shouldn’t be, but we all feel it), and it makes us feel scared. A lot. So yes, we rape survivors can go about feeling proud for having survived, and having some extra confidence. But the problem is that sometimes that confidence is hidden deep. We don’t realise it’s there. Far more often, we’re hurrying down empty streets, or feeling our hearts quicken when there are footsteps behind us, or – as happened to me recently – we completely freak out when friends pin us down in a just joshin’ sort of way.
But here’s the thing: own it. I experienced rape: part of me is a Survivor with a capital S, and part of me is a victim with a timid lower-case v. And whilst it’s hard to think of plus-points of the victim part, we can at least say this. When someone tried to imply that I didn’t deserve to be loved, he fucked up. I happen to know that I’m loved by a number of people, but I also love me. I’m trying to keep this from descending into affirming chants, but I do think that’s important. I love the whole of me, and even the new shitty bits – because they remind me of the strong bits. Yes, I scuttle down too-quiet streets. But I also dare to walk down streets in the first place. So props to me, and props to you. Own it.
So what those little shitty bits tell us is that rape gives us new limits, new things to worry us that never crossed our minds before, at least to any great extent – but those limits are also pretty weak. We can push past our limits. And because of that, I always try to think of myself as a rape survivor – and I say it proudly.
Tonight I’ve been reading Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I watched the film – starring Kristen Stewart, any Twilight fans – a couple of years ago but in a moment of serendipity spotted it on Hodder’s bookshelves earlier today. It’s the fictional tale of Melinda, a fourteen year old girl raped at a house party, and it describes how she descends into a mute shadow of her former self, before very slowly starting to heal, and speak out.
I have a publishing nerd habit, where if a phrase sticks with me in a book, it gets a post-it note on the page so I can find it again if ever it’s on the tip of my tongue. Sometimes you find a character in a book or film that says something, and – to borrow from the fat old teacher in The History Boys – it is like a hand has reached out and taken yours, because the character is finally putting words to something you’ve been trying to describe for years. I have joyous lines from The Time Traveller’s Wife that talk about the immediacy of love, a whole passage from Wuthering Heights that talks about despair. And from Speak, now I have this:
“I just want to sleep. A coma would be nice. Or amnesia. Anything, just to get rid of this, these thoughts, whispers in my mind. Did he rape my head, too?”
The answer, of course, is yes. And I suspect it’s one of the many reasons we don’t often talk about rape – because those thoughts are swirling around in our heads so much of the time, and who wants to think about it more than they have to? After all, that’s the very reason I took a sabbatical from this blog – I was talking about it, and that made me think about it more, and then I talked about it more, and round and round those thoughts swirled.
And let’s not pretend that it’s only your head that gets raped. Your close friends and family are raped in some way, too – thoughts force themselves into loved ones’ heads unwanted, and won’t get out. When I first told my mother, she would wake up panicking that I wasn’t safe. My father later rushed headlong out of the cinema when he realised they were about to depict a rape scene, because he didn’t need anything making his imagination more vivid.
It seeps into the wider world, too. Even if you don’t know someone who’s been raped – and believe me, even if you don’t realize it, you probably do – distant women’s experiences have made you fearful too. Rape is consistently polled as the event or circumstance that women are most afraid of. And of course we know why. Every woman has at some point realised that – providing she’s not an Olympic weight-lifter – if a man wanted to physically or sexually abuse her, there’s nothing she could do about it. This is discovered in lighthearted circumstances, perhaps having a drunken arm wrestle or a tickling match. And discovering that you are, in a very real sense, powerless, somehow fractures that optimistic lie we were told growing up: that women and men are equal. I’m as big a feminist as they come, but one has to confront the reality that there are physical differences that will not be leveled out.
So how do we, our friends, our family, and even those ‘untouched’ by rape ever summon up the courage to leave the house? Simply because those damaged men are not the majority of men. The world is full of men who would protect you rather than harm you. And those that have harmed you? If you stay indoors, they win. And they don’t deserve to. And – hard as it is sometimes to force the words out from a throat that seems to get ever more constricted – if you stay silent, they win, too. So speak up.