R.K. shares her experience of being sexually assaulted, and discusses why we need to start talking about it more…
*Warning: there is some content in this article regarding experiences of rape, and sexual assault, that some readers may find upsetting*
I have re-written this article several times.
First, I kept deleting it and writing it out again because I didn’t want the memory on my computer. I didn’t want someone to find it. I didn’t want to speak out and be the voice the 1 in 3 other girls who have been sexually assaulted on university campuses in the UK.
I decided to tell my story because of a recent scandal at my university; a student published a short story called ‘Nights at the Disco’ about a boy who spends his nights taking drugs and finding drunk women to take advantage of in clubs. A girl found it and reported it to the university on the grounds that the story was so similar to real events, it could be at best harrowing and at worst true. The university demanded the story be taken down because it brought the institution into disrepute- not because it was insensitive. But it was only after reading the victim’s statement from the Brock Turner sexual assault case that I had the confidence to actually get this published.
After I was sexually assaulted in my own bed, I googled “what to do if you’ve been raped”. The websites that came up suggested help lines and not washing but going straight to the doctor so that the perpetrator could be caught and swabs could be used as evidence in court.
My case has not gone to court. I chose not to. As the victim of the Brock Turner case so eloquently explained, taking a rape or sexual assault case to court is extremely harrowing. You have to repeat what happened to you every day so that you remember it clearly and your character is completely questioned. I don’t need my character questioned. I have spent enough time blaming myself, thinking it was my fault; that it wasn’t rape; I wasn’t forceful enough; I am over-reacting.
I was not and I am not overreacting. I now know, although there are still moments when I am unsure, that my reaction is valid. This was my reaction:
In August, I was sexually assaulted by my ex-boyfriend. We had both been drinking. I don’t quite know why that’s relevant but apparently it is (c.f. Brock Turner’s statements). I had not drunk as much as him. I was pretty sober. This does not make his actions excusable. If he had mugged someone when he was drunk, it would still be considered a crime. This was still a crime.
He convinced me that I wasn’t safe going home alone and that he needed to accompany me. On the way back he was verbally abusive, telling me he wasn’t a rapist and that I wasn’t so desirable that he couldn’t resist me. This was all mixed in with compliments about me being special but not that special. So that’s nice isn’t it? Except it’s not because I didn’t feel worthwhile at all. I just felt guilty for not giving him what he wanted when he complimented me, as though his words indebted me to him in some way. He ended up in my house. What happened happened and the next day he apologised. By text. He wouldn’t speak to me on the phone but he sent me a text to say he was sorry. I didn’t really understand why he needed to be sorry; I hadn’t computed what had happened. So I convinced him to speak to me on the phone and I said I was fine: what he did was bad but I was fine and maybe now we could be friends.
I was not fine. I am still not fine. And we are definitely not friends.
That day, at work, I had my first ever panic attack. I couldn’t breathe suddenly- I had to force myself to breathe, to do something my body has been doing on its own for nineteen years. The next day, I had another one. Then I started crying on the tube home out of the blue. I told my friends that I had nearly had sex with my ex-boyfriend again. Actually, I tried to tell them the full story without labelling it as sexual assault to see their reactions. They didn’t really know what to say, they just asked me if I was ok with it and I said I thought this was good; maybe it was better to have things out in the open.
It took me a week to understand what had happened and why I was having panic attacks and crying. By then, this boy had gone on holiday. I felt out of control. I felt like I had no control over what happened to my body. So I messaged him to say I wasn’t ok. I thought maybe he would apologise properly and I would be fine and we could move on but I was wrong.
At first he said he was profusely sorry and he asked how he could help. I suggested he tell his mother. This is where people tend to question me: why get parents involved? That’s such a hard thing to have to tell your mother. The truth is, I didn’t know what to suggest. I just wanted someone with more experience involved. Now I realize that people find his mother’s involvement unfair because it makes him feel guilty. It is the same mindset that pities Brock Turner. Why should this young boy have his “life ruined” for “twenty minutes of action”? To some extent, I understand that. I don’t think people’s lives should be ruined because of mistakes but the fact is that my life has been heavily impacted by what happened. The perpetrator of the crime has continued a normal life and insulted me since, calling my behavior “vile” when I brought his mother into it.
A big part of the guilt I felt and still feel (although less so now) was the guilt and pain I could cause this boy and his family by labelling him a rapist. The severity of the punishment for rape if the defendant is found guilty deterred me from reporting my own experience. I think that’s a deterrent for a lot of women and men. They don’t want to be bitter or cause more pain- I, at least, didn’t and don’t.
It is a very difficult circumstance when you know the distress you feel can deeply hurt others. Especially people you care about. I cared about this boy, I didn’t want to ‘ruin his life’- I still don’t want to. I don’t think it would be productive or helpful to anyone. That’s something that I haven’t really found talked about much- the responsibility you can feel after you’ve been assaulted. Hearing a relative or a good friend has been sexually assaulted is confusing and distressing. I’ve experienced it on both sides and each time I have felt uncomfortable, I haven’t known the right way to have the conversation. How do you comfort someone who’s been assaulted? How do you comfort someone who’s friend’s been assaulted? It’s scary on either side.
I am still not over what happened to me. I try not to let it but it has taken over my life. I think about it all the time. To say daily is an understatement. It defines the way I see the world now. For the first few months I suffered panic attacks and depression, yes, but I still have more complex issues and lower self-esteem than ever before. My relationship with food has changed for the worse. I used to love it; eat when I was hungry and enjoy it. Now I binge. I try not to drink too much anymore but in the months following the event I did. I drank far too much. I was desperate not to be a downer and to appear fun. It wasn’t fun. I was not having fun; I was trying to hide how sad I was and not bring sadness into the room. My interaction with men also changed. Rationally, I know it shouldn’t have but it has. I don’t trust romance now. I don’t get excited at the idea of it for me. For others I do but not for me.
The night I found out this boy had a new girlfriend was particularly bad one. I went upstairs and sobbed in a room at a party. And I don’t mean quiet sobbing, I mean uncontrollable sobs of fear, anxiety and impotence. My friend- who’s birthday it was- had to console me while I repeated “it’s going to happen again”. I ended up throwing up on myself. I don’t even think that was alcohol. I think that was fear. I know this is bad behavior. I know you shouldn’t cry at a birthday party. You should know that I don’t do that much and that I am mortified. Just as I am embarrassed at all the other inappropriate times I have cried this year. You should also know that I can’t really control it. I have tried very hard to and if I could, I would.
So how is this relevant to the recent controversy over ‘Nights at the Disco’ and the issue of free speech? To be honest, reading that particular story did not make me feel more distressed than other things have but I know it has made others feel uncomfortable. The way the university dealt with it was wrong, yes. The way universities deal with sexual assault is, frankly, wrong. There is very little counselling and aid available and the aid that is available has a waiting list. When you are in that vulnerable a position, you do not want to wait four to eight weeks. It should be made as easy as possible to get help. The help should come to you.
Ideally, rape would also be something we can talk about openly without embarrassment. That does not mean no trigger warnings. I don’t think they’re tools for militant political correctness, they’re informative of the content. The fact is that there is a rape-culture at universities in this country that we are, for some reason, choosing to ignore even though this article is by no means the first of its kind. The issue isn’t just rape. The issue is the way women are still blamed for sexual encounters whilst men are congratulated.. I know it’s been said before but it’s still going on so I’m saying it again.
The “oppressed party” in ‘The Night’s at the Disco’ scandal is not the censored writer, it is the victims of sexual assault whose very real cases and reports are being ignored for the sake of the university’s reputation. The university is openly trying to cover up the issue instead of dealing with the fact that sexual assault and rape has become almost normalised by its commonness on campuses and yet is barely being combatted or talked about.
This is a societal problem. I’m not innocent- I have seen unsettling situations and not intervened because I didn’t want to be rude. Ridiculous. We need to change the way we look at sex, the way we educate children about it. I’m not in a position to know exactly how sex should be addressed but I do know that the way we are addressing at the moment is damaging.
So this is my attempt to slightly change that. The Brock Turner statement is what motivated me to share my story. Hearing someone else say that they had felt similarly to how I felt reassured me that I wasn’t being mad and dramatic so I’m hoping this might do the same for someone else. You are not being crazy or dramatic or selfish or whatever else might be thrown at you. If you have been made to feel uncomfortable or damaged by a sexual encounter; be it with a stranger, and acquaintance or someone close to you, you are not alone and you are definitely not to blame. There are millions of women and men who have felt like you feel and who want to help you. So let’s actually get together, start talking about it and start helping.
Illustration: Mitucami Mituca