Life after rape
Being a person who was raped is weird. It's not something you can really talk about casually, yet you feel it's effects everyday. It's a lonely, frustrating and isolating existence, and it’s punctuated by fear and shame.
I lived alone with these memories and feelings for so many years and did my best to avoid them and bury them. Avoidance didn't always work though, in the long run it actually made me even more afraid. My mental health suffered on and off throughout my adult life until I decided to face my feelings of fear and shame head on.
I went to see a therapist, and they told me that a good way to challenge shame and fear is to simply talk about it. I did this as much as I could, talking to my friends, family and partner about the things that made me feel vulnerable and scared. I started to write about it too. The more open I was, the less shame I felt. I did more and more little exercises which challenged and lessened my fear. On the 21st January 2018, after reading about other’s experiences in the wake of the #metoo movement, I was inspired to attend the Women's March and tell my own story. I walked through the streets of Oslo holding a sign that said 'Raped when I was 6 years old. Please don't look away. Look me in the eyes and tell me you believe me.'
It was the most terrifying thing I have ever done, but it ended up being a breakthrough for me. So many people walked up to me and told me that they believe me, they told me that I was strong, and that it had happened to them too. I was interviewed, and my story was on the evening news. Friends and colleagues sent me messages of support. It really shifted the way I thought about myself, the shame I felt about what happened to me, and the deepest fear I had: that nobody believed me when I talked about my experience.
I think it might be useful to read about the ways people have reacted to my openness about being raped since I walked through Oslo with that sign. As well as a whole bunch of positive and inspiring reactions, there have been some negative reactions, and I think it's important to talk honestly about all of them.
Blame, Shame, & Disbelief
People are generally not very good at dealing with someone telling them that they have been raped and there are many reasons why. First of all, there is no script for this sort of thing. This is not something we expect to deal with, or are taught what the proper reaction should be.
According to statistics gathered by UK charity Rape Crisis England and Wales, 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. It’s more common than we would like to think, and treating it like a niche issue that is too unpleasant to deal with means that we are leaving a lot of people to suffer alone and really failing them.
Peoples discomfort in hearing that someone they know was raped could be rooted in their fears for their own safety, because if it could happen to someone who is like them, then it may happen to them too. It could make them think about a traumatic experience of their own that they haven't dealt with, or some trauma that they have inflicted upon someone else that they feel too guilty to acknowledge. Maybe they know the rapist, they trusted them, and now they suddenly feel insecure in their judgement of other people and are overcome with worry. These are just a few examples of how being told that someone was raped can catapult people into a sea of uncertainty and horror.
For some people this is far too much to deal with, and they subconsciously decide not to believe you, to belittle what happened, or think of ways to blame you for being raped. This is such a hard thing to experience, but sadly it is very common. The saddest part is that it can often come from people you love. It's too painful for them, so they avoid it.
Asking for it
Some people have an idea in their head of how someone who has been raped might look or act. It gives people comfort to think that there is some sort of order or causality to being raped, as if it's preventable by following a certain set of rules, and this leads some to believe that it's justified if the victims act in a way which is outside of those 'rules'. In their mind, those people are asking for it. It falsely makes people feel protected against rape if they follow the ‘rules’ which are usually things like not wearing sexy clothes, not staying out too late, or going anywhere alone. These ‘rules’ end up oppressing us rather than protecting us. In 90% of rape cases the perpetrator was someone the victim knew and trusted. It doesn't matter how you look, act, or who you hang out with, rape can happen to anyone.
The Perfect Victim
Other people decide to believe you based on your behaviour following the rape. They have an idea in their head of what a perfect victim looks and behaves like. One person told me that they just didn't believe that I was raped. They went on to discuss my tattoos, hairstyle, the number of boyfriends I had, the way I talked about sex, how I posed in photos, the things I posted about online, my hobbies, the places that I went out to: all things that did not fit with the image of a rape victim they had in their head, and as such they felt justified in discounting the experiences I talked about. My whole personality was brought into question to dismiss my accusation.
Ofcourse, they had no idea of the unique and varied ways that people are affected by being raped, all of their comments were just assumptions. Victims are individuals with different personalities and should not be obliged to change who they are or how they act in order to be believed, respected or supported by society.
How we deal with it
One of the things people worry about when they speak openly about being raped is if they are dealing with it in the correct way, or if others think they are. This is definitely something I struggled with. I wanted everyone to know that I was doing ok, and doing all the things that a rape victim was supposed to do. I felt ashamed of myself for the times when I enjoyed sex, and for the times I didn't. I felt pressure to help other rape survivors somehow but I felt overwhelmed at the idea of volunteering for a charity or listening to another person tell me about their rape. I felt ashamed that it happened so long ago and that I still hadn’t “got over it”. I just felt shame, shame, shame.
These feelings of shame were compounded by others expectations from me. People asked me things like 'why can't you just leave the past in the past', and 'my friend was raped and she is dealing with it very differently from you.'
One of the hardest expectations to deal with was that some people saw believing me when I told them I’d been raped as transactional: that if they could be seen to be believing me, then I owed them, and that favours or uncritical support could be called in at any time in return for their continued “belief”.
For example, a friend was going through a difficult time with a previous employer but wouldn’t say what had happened. When I told him that he should try to take some copies of emails and messages to prove his case, and actually explain the details of what had happened, he turned on me angrily and demanded 'what if someone had asked you for proof you’d been raped?' It left me feeling shocked and heartbroken that the most difficult thing I had ever experienced in my life might be compared to a workplace disagreement and used against me in such a flippant way.
It's very difficult to come to terms with your own way of dealing with your trauma, moving past shame, and realising that you don't owe anyone anything, but the most important thing you can do is disregard others expectations of how we deal with rape, and make sure your recovery is for yourself. There is no such thing as a perfect victim.
There have been so many people who have been supportive, and told me that they believe me, but there has also been a great deal of silence from others. After dealing with incidents of blame, shame, and disbelief, it's hard not to feel that those who don't say anything at all actively disbelieve you. I now know that most of the silent people are overwhelmed and just don't know what to say, but for a long time I worried their silence meant disbelief or judgement.
My advice to anyone who has found out that someone they know has been raped is just to simply tell them that you believe them. Of course you can tell them that you are proud of them for talking about it, that you are so angry for them, or that you are willing to offer any support they would like; all these are good, but the most important thing for many people is to know that they are believed.
Hello & Goodbye
A lot of people reached out to me after I spoke publicly about being raped. I had long chats with some of my closest friends. Friends of friends that I didn't really know reached out and opened up to me too. It made a lot of my relationships stronger and led to forming new friendships with people I never realised I had so much in common with.
There has also been some difficult goodbyes, in regards to those who have reacted with silence, disbelief, and blame. It's not been many, but there have been people that I have had let go from my life, and I think that whilst at the time it was not easy, in the long run it is a good thing. You can try your best, but some people won't be able or willing to accept what has happened, and maintaining a relationship with them will make it difficult for you to recover.
Of the many people who have reached out to me and told me about their own experience since I went public about my rape, some of them had never told anyone else before.
We shared our stories, and talked about the commonalities and differences in our experience, we talked about the ways our families and loved ones had reacted, we said 'I believe you' and thanked each other for having the courage to talk about it. We discussed books we had read, our experience with the police, therapists, and employers. Talking about it eased so much pain, fear, and feelings of isolation, and through our shared experience we found strength in one another. Knowing that I have helped other women with their recovery in the process of my own recovery, has made all the negative reactions feel so insignificant.
After rape many people feel like they are broken, and that there is no hope. This is not true. We are not broken, we just need the right support so that we can recover. You need to be strong, push ahead, and arm yourself with a tool belt of resources which include (but is not limited to) supportive friends, a good therapist, healthy routines around sleep and food, reading books, and reaching out to others. There is life after rape, a new life where you don't feel ashamed of who you are, or to blame for what happened to you. A life where those around you support you, a life where fear doesn't creep up on you and explode. We cannot let the fear of negative experiences stifle our recovery.