Before Twitter I would never have publicly spoken about my experiences of being a rape survivor. I had been made to feel as if I wouldn’t be believed. The stereotype of the victim forced into silence by the trauma of the experience is often self-perpetuating in this way. I’ve spoken in hushed tones with other rape survivors who feel the same way. Slowly I felt as if I was becoming a member of some sort of clandestine club, so much was our secrecy. But, the more women I spoke to, in secret, about our experiences, the more I came to realise just how common rape and sexual assault are.
I’ve been a feminist for over a decade now, but never found the personal voice to speak about my experiences in this area until I found such a large group of women with the same experiences on Twitter. Once I direct messaged a woman I had made friends with on Twitter about what I had experienced, but that I didn’t feel like I could publicly speak about it for fear of disbelief. She replied that the same had happened to her and that she also daren’t speak about it for fear of the public reaction. But why should this be?
For answers we need look no further than the recent calls, led by MP Nigel Evans, for the accused in rape and sexual assault trials to receive the same anonymity as the accusers. This places being on the receiving end of an accusation on a parr with being raped, but, more importantly, also suggests that any accusation should be met with instant disbelief.
A woman, and I say a woman only because it is seen more frequently in the media and not because I wish to state that there are no male victims, who has accused rape must face questions regarding her sexual history, alcohol consumption and manner of dress, which is seemingly presented to suggest one of two things: a. that a woman who has previously had more than a couple of partners, who is wearing a short skirt and has imbibed a few drinks can’t possibly, physically be raped or b. that we must reserve sympathy only for “good girls” who have had such an experience. It is little wonder that many women choose not to come forward to the police, let alone to the general public.
Then we have the matter of the representation of rape victims in films and television. They almost never speak of their experiences. Head bowed, knees together, flinching at a touch, their experience is uncovered, but never revealed by the survivor themselves. The opposite of this- someone who comes forward and speaks about what happened to them, must surely therefore not be a real victim but an “attention seeker” or “crying rape”. After I was raped I went to Boots chemist first thing, I didn’t yet feel strong enough to have a full medical, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to become pregnant. I’d never had emergency contraception before and didn’t anticipate that I would have to answer a questionnaire. A female chemist took me into a side room and asked me when I had had unprotected sex. The phrasing of the question threw me, it wasn’t something I had had, it had been done to me, it surely wasn’t anything like sex. I blurted it out and then the tears began to flow. She put her arm around me and gave me a tissue. I revealed what had happened. I won’t explain the full history, but a person urged my husband to believe that I lied about being raped. “Real rape victims don’t behave that way.” The simple act of caring for my own gynaecological health was so in opposition to all representations of rape they had witnessed that it was enough to convince them, without having even met me, that I must be lying.
The patriarchy has a vested interest in keep people silent about rape and assault. There is a need to keep survivors silent and subdued. It allows people to go about their everyday lives without having to think about just how often rape or sexual assault occurs. It means that people can sit comfortably in the knowledge that the level of barbarity committed, particularly against women, is something that doesn’t happen in a “civilized” country. It prevents us from having to face the possibility that rape is so common that someone that we know and love could be a perpetrator. By dismissing the possibility that those who accuse rape must be liars we allow ourselves to become enchanted by the false knowledge that someone we know, or know of in the case of accused celebrities, can ONLY be the benign figure we believe them to be. Most frighteningly, it allows perpetrators to convince themselves that what they did was not rape or sexual assault.
I talk about what happened to me because other women gave me the confidence and power to do so. I talk about rape because I hope it will empower other women. I talk about it because I want to dispel the silent victim myth which I believe is harming so many people, male and female, who have experienced rape or sexual assault. I have yet to have anyone say anything cruel, but if they do I know it will say far more about them than it does about me. I will question what reason a person has to keep rape survivors silent, but I will not stop talking about it.