Posts Tagged speaking out

Why it’s hard to speak up about rape – and why we should do it anyway

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.

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The original article

I thought I might as well include it, so you can see where it all began.

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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.

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