Archive for November, 2010

Strength

I went to a party recently where I got talking to a confident and straight-talking Scottish woman. Lord knows why, but somehow we got talking about weakness. She was convinced that the best form of defence was to never show weakness – that to be weak was to be pathetic.

I disagree. I don’t think strength is about the British stiff upper lip – it’s not about never breaking down. I think strength is about having the courage to break down – to have a moment of weakness – and being confident that afterwards you will be able to pick yourself up again.

I have had moments of weakness recently. Not long ago I had one of the panic attacks that strike every few months, and this weekend, having been so unsettled by my recent fit of anger, I essentially ran away to the familiar, my old uni. (And as an aside… my recent wobbly moments are perfect illustrations of what I was talking about in The Five Stages of Absurdity).

Whilst there, I met up with some of the women I know are grappling with horrible memories. It made me think about strength. I have said it before, but I will say it again. We are the strong ones. We are the ones who were attacked, invaded, rendered silent. And we picked ourselves up, and we faced the day. The reason we are strong is not because we are fine (because we’re not), but because we are facing it. Remember: “the brave thing to do is to let your feelings affect you.” Strength is allowing yourself to let your emotions take over, because they need an outlet. And strength is not letting that emotion completely take you over – being able to come back to yourself.

I ran away because I needed to, and now I’m getting back to me. So healing – healing is not about always being kept together. Sometimes it is about being in bits. Don’t be afraid to rage, and don’t be afraid to weep, and don’t be afraid to have moments of vulnerability. These times prove your strength. You are not damaged if you have these moments. Something ugly happened to you. It is normal to have ugly reactions. Don’t believe anybody who says anything different. You are towers of strength.

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Rage

I haven’t talked about anger much yet. I’m going to talk about it now. The following isn’t pretty, for which I apologise. I promised that this blog would be a truthful account of the aftermath of rape, in all its rationality, terror and bravery. This is me in all my ugliness – but it is the truth.

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It took me literally years to realise how angry I was at my rapist. Since starting to address it, I had become so focused on getting back to normal that I hadn’t dealt with a huge ball of feelings that was still inside me, these feelings which marked me out as completely un-normal. It suddenly all tumbled out of me on the last night of my final university exams. I shook with rage – I mean, I was the angriest I have ever been. I shook for hours, into the early hours of the morning. And, as ever, I cried – not pathetic weeping, but loud and angry and fierce tears that burned my face and felt good.

At the time I found it quite difficult to separate out all the reasons for the anger I directed at him. Gradually those reasons have become clearer. I don’t think about the anger much, but sometimes it comes to me again – like it has today – and it consumes me.

I have a fantasy that I have never shared with anyone else. In this fantasy, that man, that Mark, lies in the centre of a darkened room, curled up and naked. He is defenceless, and he is pathetic. And I am circling around him, taking measured steps, as I hold my head high and pull my shoulders back. I am strong. I walk around him, telling him why I am so very angry at him. And with each reason, I kick him hard in the stomach with grim pleasure, and he moans in pain. I enjoy that.

You took something monumental away from me. I will never be able to know what sex could be like without the hang-ups and memories that you gave me. My experience of sex has always, and will always, be affected by your selfishness. Kick. You have made it more complicated for me to have relationships, because I require an understanding and patience from partners that goes beyond the norm. Kick. You have hurt my family, and forever changed how they see me. When you attacked me, you attacked them. My mother wakes up in the middle of the night frightened for me, and you did that to her. Kick. I spend every day more afraid than I should be. Four years on, I take circuitous routes or stay on buses and trains longer than I have to just to avoid streets and alleyways I distrust. Kick. No matter how enjoyable sex is, it is nevertheless always accompanied by a feeling of fear, that feeling of being invaded. You did that to me. Kick.

And you made me this person. This person who could delight in the pain of someone else, even if it is only you. You made me someone who hurt a boyfriend I loved. You made me a person who, for a while, forgot how to respect herself. You made me weak. I kick you, and I spit on you, and I stamp my foot on your face until I break your nose and I see your blood run down. I hate you.

I never used to hate anyone. Kick.

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Beautiful serendipity

So with beautiful timing, not long after I posted The Blame Game, one of my lovely readers sent me something brilliant. The following is an excerpt from Diva magazine, and illustrates my point beautifully. Enjoy!

What effect does the drip-drip of rape-avoidance advice have on those unlucky enough to have been sexually attacked? Internalised and misplaced guilt, maybe? Indeed. Anybody would think the silly girls were getting themselves raped.

As the dark nights draw in, Diva fields unwanted advances from pushy PRs trying to insert their products into our glossy folds. Take True Utility, a company which makes a device for storing bank notes inconspicuously. They note their product’s “importance as a safety item, enabling women on nights out to always have some spare money for a taxi home.” Really? “We received such a huge response we decided to bring it out in a hot pink.” Oh, ok. True Utility offer another contribution to “women’s safety”, in the form of an LED torch keyring. I see a future in which sexual attacks are but a memory, as anti-rape sets containing pink pepper sprays, girly-defence guides and candy-coloured keyrings are shoved with special Christmas force into young girls’ stockings.

Well, I for one am sick of the pressure to buy something simply to feel [safe]. So I’ve taken some rape-prevention advice and done my own list, this time for the fellas. Please show my suggestions to potential sex-attackers by cutting it out, invading a male safe-space (like the gents) and sticking it on the wall. After all, it’s your responsibility they see it. You’re a woman.

Men: Avoid Sex Attacks!
1. Don’t drink too much – alcohol can lead men to make poor decisions (like raping someone).
2. Plan your night – leave out ‘attack’.
3. Carry a deterrent – maybe a picture of a non-mascara’d, non-shaven woman in flat shoes will dampen your ardour, should a night-minx coax you into attacking her.
4. If it seems like you’re following a woman – cross the road. Resist shouting: “Don’t panic – I’m not going to rape you!” This may have the opposite effect. Remember, girls are constantly encouraged to feel intimidated and paranoid, so she may well bolt, inadvertently stimulating your natural predator’s “chase” instinct.
5. Walk with un-confidence – she’s been advised to puff herself out, so why not mince a little to even things up? Adopting a womanly walk – or indeed anything feminine – will make you instantly less threatening.
6. Always use an unlicensed cab – leave the licensed ones free for the many weak, tiny, younger women out there.
7. Just keep your faulty urges under wraps – so we can dance drunkenly home, in safety.

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The Blame Game

Ooh, fledgling relationships are fun, aren’t they? All sorts of things for you to get neurotic about. I recently went on a couple of dates with a nice young man, and top of my list of concerns was when to drop the R-bomb. This is a genuine dilemma for someone like me. As we all know, I’m a passionate advocate of rape being spoken about more openly, and of the fact that rape victims have nothing to be ashamed of. I’m also clear in my mind that my experiences in Malta radically changed me as a person, and have influenced much of my life since – meaning that if anyone wants to get to know me, the fact that I was raped is going to crop up. All of which suggested that I should lay my cards on the table early on.

But there are arguments that suggest the opposite. Whilst I might think rape should be talked about more openly, hearing about rape from someone with first-hand experience of it will be very unusual for most people. My date would wonder why on earth I was opening up about something so personal on the first date. Two possibilities present themselves: it’s either because I’ve decided within half an hour of meeting him that he is my soulmate (and he should back away now before he finds his pet rabbit merrily boiling away), or I’m an emotional headcase incapable of thinking about anything else. Either way, I’m not coming across as an attractive dating prospect.

But why is it that we think that rape shouldn’t be talked about more? I’ve stated many times that there is a certain stigma attached to a rape victim, but I haven’t discussed why. Many academic types believe this is because, as a society, we have failed to fully detach the idea of rape from the idea of sex. In passing, we understand that rape is about power and violence, rather than sexual satisfaction, but in fact plenty of phrases and myths perpetuate the notion that rape is a form of sex, albeit a horrific one. Of course, there are the perfectly obvious and reasonable associations: sexual organs are involved. But beyond that, we also talk about sex crimes, and countless porn websites re-enact forced sex – where the young woman inevitably discovers midway through her ordeal that hey, she’s turned on, and proceeds to enjoy the most mind-blowing sex of her life. Actually, I would argue that whilst my rape certainly screwed up my sexual relations for a while, I see it far more as a physical assault than I do any kind of sexual experience. Which is one reason why I would never think of myself as having lost my virginity during that ordeal. Nancy Raine (I promise I’ll stop going on about her soon) agrees:

I resented the fact that talking about rape produces a cringe in the people around me. This cringe feels silencing, although that is not always its intent. It confuses me when I feel it. I’m attempting to define my experience in terms of a violent assault and the residual trauma. But other people seem to be defining me in terms of a shameful sexual encounter.

And this is the real crux of the matter. Rape is shameful for the victim because we have all sorts of ideas about why they are to blame. They were drunk, they flirted, they wore a short dress. Or, perhaps, since she didn’t physically resist, she must have secretly enjoyed it. And, worst of all, maybe the woman is lying. She wanted to get back at a man who didn’t call her back, or she just feels like some attention. Wow. I mean, really – wow. Let me put my feminist hat on for a moment. A woman is raped – and she is the one that gets investigated? Rape is the only crime where the victims are given polygraph tests more frequently than the accused. When actually, studies have shown that false allegations of rape are precisely as frequent as false allegations of other crimes, around 6-8%. No wonder rape is so under-reported.

I recently found a passage which sums up all this rather nicely. Psychologists Nicholaus Groth and Jean Birnbaum wrote the following in their study, Men Who Rape:

Careful clinical study reveals that rape is in fact serving primarily nonsexual needs. It is the expression of power and anger – rape is an act addressing issues of hostility and control more than passion. To regard rape as an expression of sexual desire is not only an inaccurate notion but also an insidious assumption, for it results in the shifting of the responsibility for the offense in large part from the offender to the victim.

I am fortunate in that I am seen as one of the ‘blameless’ victims. I was young, and indoors – not roaming the streets alone. I was sober, and I was conservatively dressed. But still, I was naive enough to go into that back office at his invitation, and whilst I normally leave this bit out, I admit that I flirted with him. I was 18, and this mid-to-late twenties man was showing interest in me. I was flattered by his attention. So why do I normally leave that part out? Because I worry that admitting that I flirted might make people think that I am in some way to blame.

Let’s get real – I think we give me all too much credit here. Are we really saying that by my light flirting, I rendered this older man so breathtaken and overcome with passionate lust that he lost all control, and indeed his sense of right and wrong? I wish my powers of seduction were so powerful! I feel I should alert the home office at once, lest the men of East London impulsively riot upon my sauntering down the street.

Similarly, stories which claim that women who wear short skirts are ‘asking for it’ are absurd – not only does it leave us wondering just how spectacular those bare limbs must have been to elicit such a response, but we do seem to do a disservice to men in general. Have they really evolved so little? No, rape is a decision. Someone makes the active choice to violate another person. It is that decision that means that a rapist deserves to receive all the blame and shame we can throw at him, not the victim.

Dr. Judith Herman has another interesting perspective on why we tend to blame the victim. I will leave you to ponder her thoughts. In her 1992 work Trauma and Recovery, she wrote that:

To study psychological trauma means bearing witness to horrible events. When the events are natural disasters or ‘acts of god’, those who bear witness sympathize readily with the victim. But when the traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of the pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.

I think she has a point.

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