A friend just pointed me in the direction of this article from the Telegraph, and I think it’s brilliant (never thought I’d say that about the Torygraph…). It discusses a lot of the things I talk about on this blog, and best of all, it does a great job of highlighting the many different ways women respond to rape.
I know I’ve been doing a lot of these ‘link-y’ posts recently, but I promise I have some of my own stuff on the way. Someone asked me to write about friends and family post-rape and that’s what’s coming up next. Stay posted!
Three years ago, on 28 December 2007, 47-year-old Susan George was woken by a banging sound. She went downstairs and, as she let the dog out, her ex-boyfriend Michael Thomas forced his way in and viciously raped her twice.
‘If you’d told me before it happened that he was a rapist,’ she says, ‘I would have said you were wrong. However, if you’d said he’d beat me up if I left him, I probably would have agreed. We’d been together for almost three years, and he’d grown increasingly controlling.’
She did eventually leave him but after three months he found her and started stalking her. ‘I remember running and locking the door behind me because he was coming down the road. I’d sit in the dark and daren’t put on the television.’
Now 50, Susan from Gwent says, ‘The night he raped me, it was all premeditated. He came with a knife, hammer and duct tape. He said he was going to kill me then himself.’ She later discovered that he’d been hiding in her shed, watching her for 10 days.
After the rape Susan convinced him to let her drive them to a petrol station to buy cigarettes. She told the petrol station attendant what had happened and before they got home the police intercepted them and Thomas was arrested.
‘Being raped wasn’t just a violation of my body,’ she says, ‘it affected me physically and psychologically, too. Immediately after, I felt as if I was looking in on it, trying to make sense of what had happened. The shock was as if someone had been killed in an accident. I was in a daze, numb.’
Fay Maxted, the chief executive of the Survivors Trust, says these responses are entirely normal. ‘The immediate effects can be shock, disbelief and then possibly anger. There are often parallels with bereavement, because the woman who’s been raped may experience a loss of the life she had before, the trust she had before. The world no longer seems like a place where she can walk to the shops without looking behind her.’
Maxted, who’s counselled for Rape Crisis since 1996, says the aftermath is often wide-reaching. ‘Effects can include persistent fear, which may lead to depression, nightmares, physical ailments and loss of appetite. Rape can disrupt work and destroy current and future relationships. Undoubtedly, it can affect every area of a woman’s life.’
Since the attack Susan has had therapy and seen a clinical psychologist. Today she won’t go out at night and is very vigilant about her safety. ‘I check my locks more than most people, I never go to the cinema because I don’t know who’s behind me and if I’m in a queue and a man stands behind me I have to leave. I’m very frightened of men.’
A relationship with a man right now is out of the question. ‘I’m not at the stage where I’m healed at all.’ She has suffered flashbacks and severe anxiety, and says that, three years on, the psychological and practical impact continues to resonate.
‘I was raped in my own home, where I thought I was safe. Afterwards I was too frightened to sleep during the day or night. I had to find somewhere else to live. I didn’t have the funds, but I did have a lifeline: my counsellor from the support group, New Pathways, and DC Claire Hopkins of Gwent Police.’
They provided 24-hour care and saw her through some of the darkest times, when she was suicidal. Susan says that this support system was invaluable in giving her the strength to go to court.
‘I kept thinking, “This is my day to tell everyone what that bastard did and put him where he belongs.” I used my anger. Why should I feel ashamed because he’d broken into my house and raped me? Rape victims should be empowered to go into court and testify with screens, like I did, so they don’t have to look at the perpetrator. The jury will see how they’re shaking, how their voices break. You don’t get that impact on a video link. It’s like watching telly.’
Susan waived anonymity to encourage other women who’ve been raped to come forward. She’s now a counsellor, volunteers with Victim Support and works with Gwent Police, advising on interviewing techniques with victims of rape. Her own experience of Gwent Police during the investigation was, she says, exemplary.
Michael Thomas was given an ‘indeterminate’ sentence (the maximum for rape is 16 years). More ex-partners came forward and he was eventually found guilty of seven charges of rape against three women, with offences going back 21 years. ‘He should have got life. Judges have to start giving much harsher sentences for rape, to send a signal. The psychological impact has left me with so many scars. I don’t know when it’s going to end.’
There are as many coping strategies as there are women. And despite the trauma, there are some for whom the effects have faded over the years. Sarah, a 41-year-old mother of three from the Midlands, was raped by four men when she was 15. ‘For me the effects have become a part of what makes me me,’ she says. ‘I live with the mental and physical scars but that’s all they are – a faded line where there was once a gash.’
On a night out with friends in 1985 Sarah got talking to a man in a club. Flattered by the attention, she went outside with him and they started kissing. She suddenly realised he wanted sex. She saw that his three friends had followed them, and the situation quickly got out of control. The four of them raped her.
She never confided in anyone (she told her parents she’d fallen down the stairs of a bus, hence a lost tooth). She was completely distraught, and says that a month later decided she just wanted to ‘disappear’, so she stopped eating and became anorexic. In the years that followed she drank heavily to block out the trauma.
‘I wouldn’t eat all day, would come home and hide whisky in a cup of coffee. Then I’d go to my room. It would knock me out – I didn’t want to be there.’ At 17 she hit her lowest weight of 6st and was admitted to hospital. Sarah says she was an ‘alcoholic anorexic’ for five years, and at university started to use sex as a way to detach. ‘I was promiscuous and held sex-and-drink parties in my room. I was very detached from my body and manipulated others with sex. I loved controlling men. I was more a persona than a person.’
Later she started a relationship with a woman who was to change her life. ‘We became mentally and physically intimate.
It was very difficult at the start, but this was like my head and body finally meeting. She was the first person I told everything to. Looking back on it I realise that that’s when my recovery started – five years after the rape. The warmth, love and companionship from her made me feel as if I was part of the human race again.’
A few months on she met Mark, her future husband and, over a period of a couple of years, she gradually told him about the rape. ‘He’s the only man I’ve told everything to. It took me about 10 years to relax, initiate and enjoy sex with him.’
Today Sarah runs her own PR company and seems an energetic, upbeat person. ‘Immediately after the rape I was scared to tell anyone – I was scared of my mum, getting into trouble, losing my friends – and really embarrassed. I was naive, I’d been drinking, I’d wanted to go “a bit further” with someone, I was dressed provocatively. I thought if I told anyone I’d been gang-raped they’d take one look at me and say, “Really?”‘
It’s these attitudes to sexual violence that Irina Anderson, a principal lecturer in social psychology at the University of East London, has studied for 20 years. ‘Men and woman tend to hold negative, blaming attitudes towards sexual violence that focus on the victim,’ she says. ‘Unfortunately, these attitudes haven’t changed much since the 1970s.’
The Wake Up To Rape survey, commissioned by the Havens charity in 2010, showed that more than 50 per cent of both sexes said there were some circumstances when a victim should accept responsibility for an attack. An earlier study in 2005, by Amnesty International UK, showed that if a woman is raped, 30 per cent of people believe being drunk makes her partially responsible; 28 per cent think if she’s been flirting, she should shoulder some blame; and 20 per cent if she’s wearing sexy or revealing clothes.
Dr Anderson’s own surveys back up these findings. She says, ‘I think these attitudes stem from beliefs about women and sexuality. If a girl is promiscuous she’s considered a “slag”; if it’s a boy it’s a mark of kudos. These beliefs start young; studies on teens show they’ve already taken root. Also, women are meant to be the “gatekeepers” of male sexuality, the ones who are responsible for what happens sexually because men have “urges” and can’t be held responsible for them.’
These attitudes matter, she says, because they relate to the low levels of women willing to report rape (Rape Crisis says 90 per cent of the women who contact them never go to the police). Studies have also found a direct link between a supportive, non-blaming attitude to reporting rape and the woman’s ability to recover.
‘The police have worked very hard in the past few years,’ says Dr Anderson, ‘but because of these attitudes in society, women are still reluctant to report.’ Fay Maxted agrees. She says, ‘If your own understanding is that rape only happens to women who in some way bring it on themselves, if it happens to you you’re likely to blame yourself.’
This mirrors the experience of Rebecca, who was 24 when she was raped. A friend at work had a boyfriend who was often drunk and also took drugs. Rebecca offered her friend an occasional place to stay, but the boyfriend started following them home and making harassing calls. One night he brought his cousin to the house. Rebecca was left alone with him and the man raped her.
Now 50, living in Lewes and mother to two adult sons, Rebecca says, ‘I was a virgin, naive and terrified. He put a knife on the bedside table. I remember it like it was yesterday.’ At the time she told no one, not even her friend. ‘The rape has shaped my life because it’s never out of my head. I still resent it, feel angry about it and, more than anything, feel angry with myself for letting it happen – and for keeping it a secret for so long.
‘After I met my husband I struggled with the physical side of the relationship,’ she says. ‘Sex brought it all back to me. So I told him some of what had happened, but he didn’t want the graphic details. He’s very supportive, but even now it comes between us. I’m not able to initiate sex and I carry a lot of guilt for that. I feel I should be able to show my husband I love him.’
Over the years, Rebecca has suffered a litany of side effects, including migraines, panic attacks, depression and very low self-esteem.
‘I don’t go out, I can’t be alone overnight, I don’t trust men. But one good thing is that I recently got a dog from the Dogs Trust, and having something else to focus on has really been very positive. I still don’t go out at night, but I take him for walks during the day and I’m not looking over my shoulder. Getting Rocco is the best thing I ever did; it’s made me feel a bit stronger in myself and given me confidence for the first time. I think I’m finally at the point where I’m going to turn a corner.’
Rebecca says she regrets keeping silent for so many years. ‘Not telling is a big mistake. It doesn’t matter whom you tell, but just tell one person to get it out. Keeping quiet has led to a lot of my problems. I think if I’d dealt with it sooner my life might have been different. Secrets don’t get easier. They get worse.’
Sarah agrees and says her older self regrets not telling anybody. ‘For many years I thought I made the right decision. Now I know that to keep all that a secret was wrong. But I got through it. I never felt I needed therapy. My spirituality has helped me understand what happened and my behaviour afterwards. I believe that even the bad things happen for a reason – to make us grow, evolve and get stronger.
‘I’m a survivor, not a victim. I don’t want sympathy. Victim is a mindset. I played that role in my head for five years. I hated myself, had no self-respect and really didn’t care if I lived or died. But being a victim means you hand over your power. During the rape everything was completely out of control. I never want to be out of control again. Today I’m a bit of a control freak; for example, I could never even work for someone else.
‘I’m not saying it’s quick or easy to get to a positive frame of mind, but it’s a fact – I was raped. I’ve had to get over it. There’s too much good in the world to live life as a half person.’
See the original article here.