To anyone reading this who has survived sexual violence, let’s start with this:
Your feelings are valid. It’s not something you did. Let yourself cry and take up space. You deserve to be believed. Your body is yours. I’m sorry we can’t do more for each other.
I wrote last year about consent education. Reading and writing about stigmatised issues allows for sharing without interruptions. I owe it to all the writers who have let me see my thoughts reflected in theirs, so maybe someone will feel consoled by this column about my own experience of coping with sexual violence.
I was sexually assaulted for the first time two weeks into university. I had no understanding of consensual sex and no one I could comfortably talk to about it. The morning after it happened, I sat in the shower of my halls hugging my knees knowing that this deep shame and regret I was feeling was not like other hangovers. But then I had no words or means of understanding it. It took me over three years to call it what it was.
Silencing myself was a coping mechanism. No one wants to be a victim. When we see them in the media, we either sympathise but feel helpless, or we don’t believe them because of internalised bias which tells us that people are more likely to lie about being raped than be raped. Survivors know they won’t be believed so often don’t believe themselves. Knowledge, statistics, and ideas about rape culture cannot change the fact that after assault your body feels alien, damaged, not your own.
In hindsight, incidents of assault seem to contextualise the directions my life has gone in since. Sexual violence is probably one of the reasons why I’m an angry queer feminist, whether or not that matters. One of the hardest things is knowing nothing can undo what happened. No matter how much you theorise about its relation to your gender and sexuality, or campaign for others in similar situations, you can’t prevent past harm. Explaining it to friends feels selfish, because why should they have to deal with your emotional baggage? Why should you be allowed to raise your voice when this happens to every third woman, according to some statistics? After swallowing these fears I’ve found that talking about it helps more than anything. The arduous process of naming violence turned it from doubtful thoughts into something tangible that I have every right to draw attention to.
For those who have assaulted me, those nights were blips, dents in their ego to be knocked back and forgotten. They can go on with their lives, never forced to sleep on the sofa because their bed is now a site of violence. They never have to avoid certain pubs because they might bump into someone who will trigger a panic attack. They never have to grit their teeth in tutorials when classmates start discussing rape themes in a novel with all the sensitivity of a brick wall.
Reporting violence to the authorities is expected to be the first thing someone does in the aftermath. Our culture thinks it more important to punish people guilty of bad acts than to care for those who suffer at their hands. And yet the real harm of rape culture is the impact on survivors, their bodies and mental health and productivity. With horror stories of reports being met with hostility by the police, courts, and other professionals, no wonder assault is under-reported. This will go on until a justice system is built for us and not the protection of assailants.
For the last few months I have helped run Let’s Talk, a campaign against sexual violence on campus. You can read about its aims here. We facilitate discussions about sexual violence in meetings and events. We brush off StudentVoice trolls and have gained widespread recognition. My involvement has empowered me to write this. Without Let’s Talk, I wouldn’t have revisited my own experiences.
However, people recovering from trauma need help. There cannot be an onus on survivors alone to fight for support when lack of support makes it harder for them to do so. As with any social issue, we campaign because of X bad thing and if X has affected you personally, you might feel strongly about fighting for change but it will be emotionally hard to keep revisiting X. Amazing people work on the campaign from various backgrounds and all are welcome to join, so know that even if these issues seem abstract to you, others need your allyship. This applies to everything from supporting services like Rape Crisis, to listening to friends if they tell you they’ve been assaulted, to calling out rape jokes made in the pub.
Thank you for reading.
If you need support, visit these websites:
Please sign and share the Let’s Talk petition to the university.
[Ellen MacAskill – @ejdmacaskill]