*Trigger/content warning: Rape and Sexual Violence
Very recently I made the decision to actively speak openly and honestly about experiences in my life that I have previously only discussed with a few people.
I am a survivor of rape and of sexual violence.
Whilst my experiences are unique they are also not. They are surprisingly common.
I hope to explain below why I am choosing now to share these experiences.
Firstly, I hope that in doing this other people may feel more able to speak out about their own experiences.
I want to be part of breaking the silence and shame around surviving rape and sexual violence but society currently condemns people who do, so I know that this will have an impact on me and how people perceive me which is why I have not done this before.
We live in a culture that silences and blames survivors and many who want to speak out (myself included) feel unable to because of the responses that we receive.
My hope is that the more we do speak out about these issues the more people begin to understand their complexities and instead of judgement there is compassion.
I also want to make an important note here that I am not suggesting in any way that survivors should speak out – For some people it is really helpful and for others it is detrimental to their recovery. It is different for everyone. I just want to live in a society where people who do want and need to speak out feel that they can without fear of being attacked, ridiculed, blamed or shut down. Those who do speak openly about their experiences are no less strong than those who don’t. Both speaking out and keeping it in are equally as hard.
What is most difficult for me about speaking about this subject is that people really don’t want to hear most of the time because it is uncomfortable. Yes, it will be uncomfortable but it should be uncomfortable, it is an uncomfortable issue. For someone who has experienced it is very uncomfortable for me when my own experience has to be minimised or hidden to protect others. One of the main problems we have is that so many people don’t like to talk in depth about these issues so don’t know enough about them.
We live in a country where we don’t really talk about sex honestly and openly let alone rape, we mostly don’t talk about how we are really feeling let alone mental health issues and a lot of the time everything is communicated through strange riddles and games, so the subject itself when it is discussed is often minimised, undermined or joked about to make more comfortable.
The thing is, it becomes a very scary world if we start opening up these truthful conversations about sexual violence and rape and start listening to and believing survivors because we will not only realise the true scale of the problem but will be met with the distressing truth that it could happen to anyone.
It can. It can happen to women who drink and take drugs and women who never have, women who wear very little and women who well full burqas, physically strong women and women with less physical strength, poor women and rich and famous women, and women from all cultures and communities. It can happen to men, it can happen to transgender people and it can happen to non-binary people. It can happen in the day at or at night, by a stranger, by a best friend, by a partner or even by a family member. It can involve saying no and physically fighting, it can involve freezing and doing nothing, and it can be when someone is conscious or when they are unconscious.
I have experienced sexual violence and rape where I have frozen and didn’t fight or try to escape and for a long time I believed that this was my fault. Then a few years later I was raped when I screamed and shouted and physically tried to fight someone off me. Neither reaction prevented or stopped the attack.
Because of the way most people expect rape to look for many of you only my last experience will appear to you as rape. But I can now tell you that both were. A lot of the time rape doesn’t look like how you expect it to. There usually is no way of preventing it and no real way of protecting yourself from it happening. This is the distressing reality.
We don’t want to believe that this is true because then we feel unsafe. We want to find reasons to make it the victim’s fault because then we can imagine that we would never get in that situation ourselves therefore it could never happen to us. It is not just men that victim blame it is very often women too. Did you know that research has shown that when there are more women on a jury at a rape trial the victim is less likely to be believed and the perpetrator is less likely to be convicted? Disbelieving and victim blaming is often a way to protect ourselves as we try to believe that we live in a world where we can prevent rape and where it is uncommon.
Sadly this is not the reality. Approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales alone every year; that’s roughly 11 rapes (of adults alone) every hour*’ (*Rape Crisis England and Wales).
These are only the ones that are recorded, there are countless assaults that go unheard or just don’t ‘look like rape’ so are not reported. We need to hear different portraits of what rape and sexual assault really look like so we know what it is in all it’s forms. Most women I know (and some men I know) have all experienced some form of rape or sexual assault at some point in their life but most have felt unable to report it.
The pressures to report rape are huge. The majority of us think we live in a pretty fair and just society but the criminal justice system is actually very ineffective in terms of rape and sexual violence, not to mention sexist and racist.
Conviction rates for rape are far lower than other crimes, with only 5.7% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction for the perpetrator* (*Rape Crisis England and Wales).
Reporting rape is very long winded (It can takes years sometimes to get it to court), is traumatic and rarely ends in conviction. I would never advise someone to report it to the police (I wish I could say otherwise) as it rarely has any kind of positive outcome for the victim. I have had friends who have and friends who haven’t I fully support each of their decisions.
One thing everyone needs to know is that when something as traumatic as rape happens there is no right or wrong way to act, feel, or be (when it happens or after the assault). There is only whatever you can do to keep yourself alive and to survive the aftermath and people have different ways of responding. Whichever way your way is it is the right way. There is no wrong way. We each react differently to being assaulted or raped and differently to dealing with trauma because we are all individual.
Trauma from rape and sexual violence is horrific. I felt guilt and shame and a whole host of confusing feelings and pain. I have suffered sleep depravation, I stopped eating, drank, I had panic attacks, anxiety attacks, flashback, nightmares and major depression. Sometimes I felt like I was loosing my mind and losing my identity.
Recovery is slow and sometimes confusing. You might feel fine for a few weeks then suddenly out of nowhere someone says a certain word or looks at you a certain way or you see something in an advert that makes you break down again. When I went out to bars or parties I had to always stand where I could see the whole room and all the exits. It is exhausting. I had to sleep with the light on and sometimes I still have the light on now if I’m tired or anxious. Sometimes you feel totally normal but then suddenly you feel afraid for no reason when you are just buying a coffee or walking into a shop. Sometimes you feel that maybe nothing is real. Sometimes you can’t feel anything at all and your entire mind is just numb. Sometimes you hate yourself and everyone around you.
But after all of that, somehow, my experiences brought me a strength that is more powerful than I have ever had before. After being so low and full-on crashing, somehow it led me to create great happiness, stability and endless energy for life – that I previously didn’t have. I’m not saying that it was good that I experienced these assaults but I definitely never have felt stronger and more understanding of myself than I do now* (*Side note: I am not in any way in a perfect state of happiness, patience and understanding of self – I still sometimes get low or angry and still get anxiety every now and again, I am human, but generally I feel content and happy).
I think this is something else that is not talked about; whilst you can never forget what happened, life does go on after rape. It does not control you. It is possible to have fun, have a great time, and be able to do things, have great relationships, have great sex and have a real life, after rape.
Of course it is different for everyone but so many people assume that rape ruins your life and that is not always the case.
This is why I want to be open about my experiences not just of rape and sexual violence itself but about what it meant to me, how it affected me and who I am now. I speak out not because I want sympathy but because I want more understanding. I want people to know the bigger picture.
Unfortunately because of the culture we live in once I tell someone about what happened to me automatically they act slightly differently towards me and most likely think differently of me. I have been called a victim, I have been called a liar and I have been called brave – all these labels make me angry, as I am none of these things.
I hate the connotations with the words of ‘rape victim’; the imagery of being ‘weak, ruined, unstable, broken, submissive, damaged, dirty or fragile’ – this is what I most fear will be attached to my identity when I speak out. I fear people will think less of me or less capable and able of doing things. Many people I have spoken to also fear this perception and stigma attached the identity of being a victim/survivor.
Being a victim of rape does not mean I am a rape victim. I am my own person, a whole human, not weak, not broken – just me: someone who survived attacks.
What if instead of seeing weakness when we think of a person who has experienced rape we instead saw strength, saw resilience and saw a whole person? All the survivors I know are the strongest, most powerful and most inspiring people I have ever met in my life. We are most definitely not weak.
Rape culture and rape myths harmed me as much as rape itself did. This is why we need to challenge the ideas we have around rape and sexual violence not just for ourselves but also for our daughters, sons, nieces and nephews, for the future of young people on this planet.
Normalisation of rape or ignoring facts are not only dangerous for those who survived these experiences but highly damaging to ourselves too because we are all avoiding the truth. When don’t actually all accept there is a problem how can we expect to find a solution?
We need to start having these conversations, we need to start listening to these stories rather than judging and we need to realise how important it is to understand that there are not only millions of incidents of rape but also millions of survivors. We need to see the people and the stories behind these facts and figures.
What I ask of you today is five simple things: please share these words, please start to judge less and listen more, please be kind, please believe survivors and please really hear what they have to say when they speak.
Article by Bryony Ball