Life After Rape: the Telegraph gets it right at last

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!

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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.

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The joys of TED

I know I haven’t written a post in a while. To be honest it’s been quite a nice reprieve, because writing about rape makes you think about rape, and people talk to you about what you’ve written, and suddenly my life featured rape really heavily, which I hadn’t intended at all.

But now I’m sitting in the library preparing for an exam tomorrow and it strikes me that now might be the perfect time to write a quick post…!

It will be quick. I just wanted to give you links to some TED talks. If you haven’t discovered TED yet, they put online twenty minute long talks by people talking about all manner of things – be it the latest genetic discovery, or how to live a life. These talks fall more into the second category. The first I want to recommend links in very nicely with my last, ashram-based post, Strength. Brene Brown talks about the power of vulnerability, about letting ourselves be open. The second looks at whether violence towards women is rooted in how we teach boys to be ‘Men’ when they’re young. I’d genuinely be really interested in seeing some debate on this, particularly from male readers – is he right? Do you think he applies brush strokes that are a bit too broad, or do you have similar experiences?

Either way, enjoy discovering TED 🙂

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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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Words, Wide Night

Somewhere on the other side of this wide night
and the distance between us, I am thinking of you.
The room is turning slowly away from the moon.

This is pleasurable. Or shall I cross that out and say
it is sad? In one of the tenses I singing
an impossible song of desire that you cannot hear.

La lala la. See? I close my eyes and imagine
the dark hills I would have to cross
to reach you. For I am in love with you and this

is what it is like or what it is like in words.

– Carol Ann Duffy

This morning I woke up after hearing something slam onto the hallway floor. Investigation showed it to be from Amazon, and I knew exactly what the brown package contained: After Silence, the account of journalist Nancy Raine’s rape and her recovery. I naively hopped into bed and cracked open the spine. 46 pages later, after reading some of her exquisite prose which I related to so deeply, I was a wreck.

After 46 pages I knew I couldn’t read any more for the time being. I put it to one side and got out of bed. Except I didn’t. The tears which had come and gone as I read her words suddenly started to flow continuously, and I wrapped my duvet around me to create a cocoon. I let my head run through all sorts of things that I don’t normally let myself think about. I had expected reading that book to be a challenge, but that since it would resonate, it would be worthwhile. I didn’t expect it to be accompanied by such an overwhelming sense of vulnerability. I thought it would make me feel stronger, in the company of this Amazon of  a woman. Instead, I felt intensely alone.

At 22, I looked over the side of my bed at the floor of my room, willing myself to get up and step onto it. There’s nothing special about that piece of floor, no terrifying memories or even associations. I looked at this unthreatening expanse and curled up even more tightly, as my grief trickled down my face. I couldn’t imagine being able to get up. Except then I moved one leg against the other, and became painfully aware that I was naked. I always sleep naked. But then, suddenly, I was horrified by my nudity. I could feel the absence of underwear acutely, felt the air against my vagina and was panicked by how vulnerable I was. How could I have left myself that open? I rushed out of bed and pulled on the bulkiest clothes I could find—thick tracksuit bottoms and a hoody.

I went next door to my flatmate’s room, crawled into her bed and lay there as she comforted me.

This is what it is like to have been raped, or what it is like in words.

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The emotional realities of rape

Right at the start of this blog I dealt with the physical aspects of rape. Talking about the emotional responses take up far more time, because they are many and wide-ranging. But now I would like to focus on just one area: the emotional impact on sensuality.

I’ve spoken before about the emotional distancing that I experienced following the rape: the memory hovered somewhere in the distance, but not in a cognitively useful way. It was there, but I didn’t acknowledge it, didn’t have a clear grasp of what had really gone on, and I certainly felt none of the raw emotion. This is something that I’ve always been good at. My subconscious has always been very good at protecting me, and I’m usually the last to realise when something is bothering me – I don’t feel stress or anxiety on the surface, but it manifests as insomnia. It’s a sure fire way of figuring out if anything’s wrong with me.

In a similar way, the general psychologist view of what happened to me after the rape is that the memory stayed with me – if hazily – whilst the terror and the anger associated with it was suppressed. However, it’s impossible to completely eradicate emotions as strong as those, so they showed themselves in other ways, as though upset that not enough notice was being paid to them.

One way was, of course, my charming habit of drinking myself into a stupor before engaging in a competitive round of bed-hopping. There was one more, which was noticeable only to a few: what happened to me during sex, and even more so, in the immediate aftermath. Unsurprisingly, the Australian boy was the first to notice this, since he was the first person I slept with after the rape. Every time we had sex, I would turn away, be very quiet, and not want to look at him. And every time, although he wouldn’t always catch it, I would have to wipe away silent tears.

As a psychology geek, he realised fairly early on that there was probably a reason for this, and he gently asked me about it quite a few times. I rarely gave a gentle response. No, nothing had happened to me. No, I had never experienced sexual violence. Nothing from my childhood. Nothing recently. I was fine.

We had a spectacular blow up about it one afternoon in Thailand – or rather, I blew up. What’s astonishing about this is that I truly believed my own words. I did think I was fine. The emotion was so far removed from the memory of the rape that it had become blurry, like a photo negative left out in the rain. It was a memory of nothing particularly important, and certainly of nothing damaging.

And so I carried on not dealing with the ramifications of my experience. A pattern emerged during my sexual encounters. I would relish the chase, the achievement of getting men into my bed, of being able to have a degree of control over them. And then I would realise that they were in my bed, and throughout the sex I would want them to hurry up and get the hell out, out of me, my body, and out of the room. To begin with I would always withdraw and silently weep. Gradually, the withdrawal lessened. I would be able to cope with the sex just fine, to mostly ignore the man inside me, but always the tears would come. They would come, but they would be without emotion. I didn’t feel sad, or scared, I just felt numb, and slightly bewildered at why these tears always appeared.

As my keel slowly righted and I began to have healthier sex with people I actually cared about, the tears remained. Even if it was just one or two shiny pearls, they would always slip out. I became excellent at hiding them, until more recently, as ‘people I was sleeping with’ became ‘person I was considering dating’, I decided to open up. The emotional and physical consequences proved difficult to hide in the longer-term. The two almost-partners of those months were well-chosen, because they both responded with absolute sensitivity at a time when I was terrified I would be told that I was too much work. And they remained gracious as weird little me apologetically wiped tears away after thoroughly pleasant sex.

Then came the boyfriend, the first commitment following the rape and the breakdown of my relationship with the Australian boy. My memory is awful, so I can’t be clear about the exact order of events, but I can tell you that this happened around the same time that I was writing the article for the student newspaper – when I was finally owning my experiences. One day, after sex – the sex which he had learnt to understand would always be followed by a little teariness – he wanted to chat and I told him to shut up. I told him to be quiet, because I was concentrating. And then, after an awkward twenty seconds, I burst into a big grin and gave him a hug. “No tears,” I said triumphantly. “I can control them now.” And now, I find I don’t even need to control them. They no longer come.

 

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Walking home

My heart thump-thumps along with the heels I try to make sound heavy, threatening.

‘Poised’.

I clutch my keys with jagged teeth poking out, and twist my neck every half minute, peering into

black.

I breathe too quickly to be from Trendy Shoreditch. A dark road is my challenge. I am not brave

anymore. The bravery was stupid, arrogant.

I miss it.

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I confess (it was me)

About twenty minutes ago I was having coffee (read: hot chocolate) with one of my oldest friends. We went to primary school together, we were tap dancing partners when older (oh yes!), and as such he knows me pretty well. No stranger, then, to the Malta story – in fact one of my earliest confidantes – but having just returning from a year abroad, my blog was news to him. As we discussed it, a disparity emerged between us. “Don’t do that”, he said abruptly, taking me by surprise. “Don’t use that word.”

The offending word, it turned out, was slut. “Your behaviour…it wasn’t really chosen. You weren’t in control. Don’t be derogatory about yourself.” Now, apart from the fact that I was reminded just why I adore this man so much, I had to disagree. For the moment, let’s leave to one side the reality of the word ‘slut’ being fairly sexist, and that as endless wannabe feminist popstars have pronounced, it’s unfair that women get slapped with that label whilst men are just LADS. What I want to focus on is this idea of choice, of control.

This blog began with an article in a student newspaper, in the last edition of my time at uni. I wanted to write it because I cared about taboos of rape being torn down, and because after what in retrospect seems like a degree spent getting my head straight, the article felt like a suitable full stop at the end of a very long sentence. For these reasons, getting that article out there was terrifically important to me. However, I would  be lying if I said that there wasn’t another reason. Durham is a small place. Stories spread, reputations get made, and they stick. In first year I pretty fairly earned the label College Slut, and it stayed with me throughout uni – which was unbelievably frustrating to me by third year after all my work at becoming a reasonably controlled person. There is no denying that part of my reason for writing that article – which I knew would be distributed around every college and library – was because I wanted to shift some of the blame. See? It wasn’t my fault! Something terrible happened to me. You can’t judge me! Can’t you see that at heart I am a picture of innocence, an angelic victim? In my mind, a fantasy unfolded where people who previously held certain opinions about me suddenly felt struck down with guilt, and embraced me as they realised the errors of their judgemental ways.

Let’s get real. Whilst, yes, my head was a bit all over the place during those dark two years, I was the one doing all those things (read: men). I made those unwise choices, and yes, they were choices. I could have been stronger in turning away from the booze and the men, and I wasn’t. I don’t mean this in a way that suggests I’m beating myself up – I think I dealt with it as well as I was personally able to. But I did make those choices, and I bear responsibility for them.

As a result of friendships, and of this blog, I know the stories of a number of women who have been affected by sexual abuse. They have all reacted in different ways. I was strong to the extent that I managed to function in a day-in, day-out capacity, but failed utterly in the areas of self-respect and self-control. Others fell to pieces and lost their confidence with the outside world, but kept their inner sanity. Still more amazed me by their strength in dealing with rapes in methodical ways, only slightly adjusting their routines yet failing to properly address the effect it had had on them emotionally. All of these women are different people, with different emotional backgrounds and levels of  psychological preparedness. No one is better or worse at addressing rape; someone who displays calm on the surface is often repressing huge amounts underneath, whilst one crazy for a while might adjust sooner.

When I think about my behaviour a few years ago, it is comforting to be able to blame it on Malta. But I also have to acknowledge that it was me, and my body, that participated in those acts. That period demonstrates to vivid effect the weakest, the worst, aspects of me. I have very little self-control, and in times of insecurity, as much as I like to think of myself as an independent woman, I prefer to relinquish it. Every single one of my sexual misadventures happened when I was utterly incapacitated by alcohol. The fact that I knew what drinking was likely to lead to, and that I still drank, shows that I was willing to allow someone else to take the reins for a while.

It still shows itself today. For a whole host of reasons, whilst I have always been confident about the, erm, ‘warm up’ acts of sex, sex itself still leaves me nervous. Obviously, I had a horrific introduction to it. Then, for years, I only knew sex as something that was always accompanied by pain. In addition, the confidence and comfort that comes from sexual exploration with a regular partner is something that I have never really had time to build. As a result, and in contrast to my university persona as some wild sexual animal, I’m actually pretty timid in the sack. In the build up, I’m a happy bunny, let the good times roll. But put me flat on my back and I’m suddenly very passive, very insecure. More than one partner has been taken utterly by surprise by this fact.

So yes, I am strong to the extent that I am now in a place where I am talking publicly about my experiences. But I’m weak in that I don’t have much self-control. Again, whilst I now like to think that I’ve made huge progress in addressing my rape (‘dealing with it’ somehow suggests that at some point it will have been ‘dealt with’) and my sexual misadventures happen far, far less often, they do still happen. The last time I felt utterly out of my depth, about a year ago, I relinquished control yet again and my old behaviour resurfaced, courtesy of some willing freshers. Whilst it is tempting to heark back to Malta to explain it, I think that takes the easy way out. To misquote J.K. Rowling from that fabulous commencement speech (if you haven’t yet watched it, please do), there is an expiration date on blaming past experiences for your current situations. I have to accept that the biggest weakness of my personality is a lack of self-control. Yet again, I’m left with the conclusion that the rape – or rather, the aftermath of it – taught me something really valuable about myself.

This does, however, put me in a sticky situation. I did, as we know, cheat spectacularly on my beloved Australian boy. I ruined a relationship that I cherished, and much worse, hurt a man that I adored an indescribable amount. I never want to do that to somebody else. And part of me worries that perhaps that person – that horrible person who hurt someone so greatly – was not a monster borne from a horrific experience, but a part of me all along. That’s why I was so delighted that the next relationship I had – a whopping three years after I had first done my cheating –   was slow and steady. It was a gentle relationship that we eased into, as if we were children gradually inching our way into the cold waters of the sea. I was dipping my feet into the world of commitment, testing myself. Thankfully, I behaved myself, and indeed never came close to doing anything untoward. And whilst that lovely relationship did not last (and indeed led to the most charming, friendly break-up I’ve ever had), it gave me the confidence to think that I might be able to start trusting myself again.

Just so long as the next relationship also gives me time to break the shoreline.

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