I thought I might as well include it, so you can see where it all began.
As I look back at my three years at Durham, there are some obvious things that have shaped my time here: DUCK, Palatinate, my course, my housemates. There’s one more too, that stayed hidden from view, but that defined my university experience perhaps more than any other.
It took an awfully long time for me to start talking about this. It wasn’t that I denied it – I knew it had happened. I remembered him raping me. But I didn’t realise for months that I had been raped. I thought of it as I thought of eating fish and chips, or getting off the bus. It was something that happened a while ago, nothing particularly out of the ordinary.
Similarly, my behaviour during the following two years was normal to me – I knew I’d acted unwisely, but I didn’t attribute it to what had happened in Malta, my euphemism for the violation, the only way I ever refer to it. On my gap year, and in first year, I spent my time thinking that I was in control. I was a sexually voracious girl, I decided who I slept with, I was in control of my body. I was refusing to be thought of as a ‘victim’. There was something deeply shameful – not about being raped – but about letting myself be affected by it. I was Strong. I was Resilient. I would not let him take more of myself from me than he already had.
Some of what I’ve just written will seem bizarre. This is not the reaction to rape that we all expect and understand. When we read true life stories in Cosmo, or come across rape information sites online, we hear of rape victims retreating into themselves, withdrawing from their friends and family, becoming terrified of men, in some cases going practically mute. This is the familiar discourse on rape. Mine was rather different.
An article on grief I came across recently pointed out that “the brave thing to do is to let your feelings affect you. Because, in effectively saying, ‘I’ve been stripped by this’, you’re telling the truth.” So I’m going to tell the truth. In November 2006, I was violently raped by the reception clerk of the hotel my mother and I were staying in. It devastated me. It made me feel powerless, and it made me afraid of men. I pretended it didn’t – I purposefully and idiotically strode down dark alleyways at night, and I slept my way around the world, even though it physically hurt every time. I was as outspoken as ever, and I drank like a fish. I cheated on my beloved boyfriend in spectacular fashion, and it took me two years to tell him why it had happened.
In all this, I felt utterly alone. I am a 21st century girl, and when I was dealing with this, my source of information was the Internet. It is appalling what is not online. The familiar discourse of withdrawing, of shying away from life – that was alien to me. The narrow way in which we expect women to deal with sexual abuse stifles further those who have had different experiences. Rape is not an act of sexual satisfaction; it is an act of violence and power. It is an attempt to subordinate women, to terrify them into silence. When we as a society then tell them how they must react – or worse, when we treat rape as a taboo topic that should be kept quiet – we silence them further.
I talked to my friends and my family about whether I should put my name at the top of this piece. I decided anonymity was not the way to go: I, and people who have been through similar experiences, have nothing to be ashamed of. Whilst I am far from proud of everything I have done, I am proud of how I have dealt with this: I sometimes still have physical pain when I have sex, but I am capable of having loving sex with someone I care about; I am capable of talking about my experiences, of acknowledging how they affected me. It is true that I am a victim of rape – but that does not define me. Now, I still don’t talk about it much – not because I am ashamed, but because it is not the sum total of who I am. It will always be with me, but then so will a lot of things. I am a rape victim, a dancer, an avid reader, an editor. I am many things, and that one dark cloud dominates me no more than any other.
Those people who suffer something as humiliating and painful as rape – and those who have gone through other traumas like physical abuse or even the death of a loved one – deserve the respect of being able to talk about their experiences without being shunned or subdued. Women who have been sexually abused are remarkable: yes, they are victims of rape. But far more importantly, they are survivors.