My main reason for writing this post is because I want to offer some suggestions for those who are supporting someone who has been raped. A lot of mistakes had been made in the way people responded to my experience, but I had a lot of positive responses too and I’d like to share these ideas to help others avoid the pitfalls and to aid their support. This post will not cover everything, and it will not be appropriate to all situations, as I have already outlined, people respond to rape in a variety of ways, but it should at least be able to serve as a foundation on which common sense and logical reactions can spring.
As soon as I woke up the morning after I was raped I phoned a good friend. I burst into tears as I told her what happened, meanwhile my friend didn’t panic but stayed incredibly calm and logical. Her strength and rationality meant that I could rely on her to help me to keep going. She told me that above all else I had to take care of my body. Taking care of your mind is a long process, the primacy of the body is therefore of more immediate importance. I didn’t feel up to going to the GUM on that first day, but I did go to the chemist and request the morning after pill. I am not saying that this is the right plan for everybody but it was for me. A pregnancy following rape brings with it a whole new level of trauma, yet in the emotional state I was in it hadn’t even occurred to me to consider it. I am incredibly grateful that my friend considered this and made sure I thought about my options. When you ask for the morning after pill at a chemist you are expected to have a consultation with a pharmacist and to pay for the medication. My experience of this could not have been more positive. The pharmacist was extremely sympathetic and supportive. I cried as I briefly outlined what had happened, I was brought a cup of tea, offered tissues and the fee was waivered.
Following on from this is a person’s decision to seek medical advice. Please do not push someone into this until they are ready. It is important to outline the facts but it is a very personal choice when and if to access this support. I would recommend it but do not force it. Once someone has had their power stolen from them through sexual assault, removing their power yet again simply compounds this. It is extremely harrowing for someone who has experienced rape to have an internal examination. Offer them the support to attend their appointment with them. I had to go through mine alone and it was extremely distressing, although I could not for a second fault the GUM staff who were entirely sympathetic throughout the process.
Although I have stated that you should not push a person into seeking medical advice it may be helpful to provide them with the following data:
Drugs like Rohypnol can only be detected for up to 48 hours (with a urine test), other drugs may have a shorter period in which they can be detected. This can be important evidence if a person should wish to pursue the matter with the police. More information can be found here: http://www.sascwr.org/files/www/resources_pdfs/date_rape/Date_Rape_Drugs-categories.pdf
If someone is raped and wants to pursue the matter with the police it is helpful if they do not wash, brush their hair or change their clothes before accessing support. The police use a rape kit for gathering evidence and therefore this aids in a successful conviction for rape. As stated before though, please do not force a victim into doing anything they do not want to do.
Semen can only be collected for a short time after rape. I believe evidence can be gathered up to a week (or 5 days as I have been informed by some resources) after the rape has taken place. But the earlier evidence is gathered the better the sample.
Furthermore, rape can result in internal trauma, a variety of STIs (including HIV which can be prevented if anti-retroviral drugs can actually prevent the transmission of the disease), and Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). Give the person you are supporting this data, it may encourage them to make the decision to access medical support.
Following on from being raped I developed PID. I was asymptomatic for a number of weeks before the infection became obvious and damage was done to my body due to this delay and this has led to infertility. I’m not sure what can be done to avert this other than making sure you’re vigilant, and making sure you regularly attend medical appointments, but these are important steps to take. NHS Choices lists these symptoms of PID:
- pain around the pelvis or lower abdomen
- discomfort or pain during sexual intercourse that is felt deep inside the pelvis
- pain during urination
- bleeding between periods and after sex
- unusual vaginal discharge, especially if it is yellow or green
- fever and vomiting
- pain in the rectum (back passage)
“You may have PID without being aware of it. Sometimes there are no symptoms at all or symptoms may not be obvious. For example, you may only experience mild discomfort”
Accessing support from clinics is helpful for a number of reasons:
Gathering DNA evidence
Assessing internal injuries
Treatment and prevention of STDs, including HIV
The treatment of any other injuries
A gateway for accessing further support
As outlined above, there are certain steps that can be taken, if possible, which can aid in a successful conviction. However, many people may not wish to pursue this line. This can be as a result of, amongst others, not wanting to have DNA recovered, personal affiliations with the attacker, a fear of disbelief, a fear of intimidation, or not feeling strong enough to go through the process.
In a perfect world all victims of rape would pursue criminal proceedings, the justice system would reflect the needs of victims and all rapists would be put behind bars, but this is not a perfect world. The decision of whether or not to access this avenue is deeply personal and should not be forced.
When I was raped I was a single parent and my attacker knew where I lived. I was petrified of recriminations, and to this day I do not regret my decision not to seek criminal proceedings. However one professional and one friend had suggested that I was selfish for not seeking this avenue. My friend went so far as to say that other women would be raped because of me. This sort of attitude is completely unhelpful and engages in victim blaming. A rape survivor should never be blamed for the actions of their attacker. Whilst it is absolutely fine to encourage a survivor to access criminal proceedings, emotional blackmail should never be used.
A fear of unsuccessful conviction may prevent many people from initiating criminal proceedings. There are a lot of myths about rape convictions, and I certainly believed them until I was alerted to this article by a friend. It might be helpful to share this article, or the facts contained within it, to the person you are supporting http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/mar/19/myths-about-rape-conviction-rates .
One of the worst things you can do to a victim of rape is to engage in victim blaming, yet it happens so often. Victim blaming is when the emphasis is placed upon the victim rather than the perpetrator. Various reasons people have given for others becoming the victims of rape include: their outfit, their alcohol consumption, their shoes, their trust, and their sexuality. There is only one reason why somebody becomes the victim of rape and that is because someone has made the decision to rape them. Rape is about control and domination; it is not about sexual desire or the availability of the victim.
I was raped by my friend when I went to have dinner with him and several others. Following this I was asked by my children’s Health Visitor if I often “engaged in risky behaviour”. Eating dinner with a friend could never be classed as risky behaviour unless the friend was Hannibal Lecter, but this is the reality that many victims of rape have to face. More importantly I would like to see a world where someone walking down the street naked is not seen as “risky behaviour” because rape is never the fault of the victim. Other ways in which I have experienced victim blaming are the assertion that I “shouldn’t have been alone with a black man” and “you forgot your rape alarm”. This is just a selection of numerous instances, each more ridiculous than the last.
I believe victim-blaming happens because people do not want to accept helplessness, nor do they want to believe that the world is a horrible place. It is so much easier to blame the victim than it is to blame the rapist and the culture which created them.
It is at this point I am going to put the term “victim” to the side and introduce the term “survivor”. I’ve used the term victim up to this point because
initially when you experience rape you feel as if you are in an incredibly weak position, but once this period is passed I think it is important to use the discourse of surviving. We will have our vulnerable moments, but for every day that passes that is another day survived. Rape removes a person’s power, we need to do the best we can to support people in getting that back.
Nobody responds the same way to rape. There is no wrong way or right way to behave once you have been the victim of rape. Now many will tell you differently, but most of these people are engaging in what is known as rape apologism. They’re the sort of people who say ridiculous things like “I don’t believe her/him because she/he didn’t react properly”. I think most of us have seen the films and television programmes where a woman is raped (and it is almost ALWAYS a woman in film) and she takes a boiling shower and rubs her skin raw and then recoils at everyone’s touch. Yes, some people do respond this way, but it is not the only response. We’ve seen this attitude perpetuated by those engaging in Assange debates who say that he couldn’t possibly have raped those women because they didn’t respond properly, indeed one of them even went so far as to “remain in contact”!
After I was raped I didn’t respond in the above mentioned way. In fact I read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and acted in the opposite way to the above. I decided that I would no longer be a victim; that others would no longer control my sexuality for me. I’d only slept with four people before I was raped and afterwards I slept with that number again in a very short space of time. I was in a state of mania. It was a sort of sub-conscious refusal to accept what had happened to me. I began to play a character in my head, The Femme Fatale. Who wouldn’t rather be that character than the “victim” who had her control and dignity brutally snatched away? It didn’t last though. I couldn’t keep it up. We can’t run from our problems forever and I fell apart. This falling apart was aided by my belief that I was a “freak”, after all, “who responds to rape like that?!” I had never seen such a reaction before, women had hot showers and became figurative eunuchs, didn’t they?
It was at this point that I began to read about the various responses people have to being raped. I was surprised about the many different ways people responded to this trauma. A book that I would particularly recommend to those who would like to know more is an anthology of people’s experiences and reactions to date/ acquaintance rape, (or as I prefer to call it, plain and simply, Rape), entitled, “I Never Called It Rape” by Robin Warshaw. You can find out more about it here: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/242407.I_Never_Called_It_Rape .
I am including this from the comments section as I believe it is incredibly important that people see this:
” One particular thing that may lead people to be doubted is orgasm during rape. It is neither rare, nor proof that you were not raped. People orgasm differently, and for some of us the physical stimulation is enough. It does not mean you wanted the rape, or enjoyed it, or that it was not rape.
According to this piece 21% of rape victims orgasm during rape, or experience some form of sexual arousal. This can be devastating and leave them feeling as if they have no control whatsover, as a nurse says “even their bodies have let them down”
Many people who experience rape go on to develop PTSD. This is a horrible condition which can lead to a variety of symptoms including: flashbacks, panic attacks, insomnia; irritability or outbursts of anger; difficulty concentrating; hyper vigilance; and feelings of fear and helplessness. Triggers are things that remind the survivor of the event and provoke these symptoms. There are a wealth of triggers out there and each case will depend upon numerous factors including the nature of the attack, but triggers can include: witnessing violence, discussions of rape (even this article), films which show rape scenes, victim blaming, and intimate touch. Because triggers are incredibly personal though even a certain song, item of clothing, or smell can trigger symptoms of PTSD. One of the worst triggers for my PTSD symptoms is a certain strip of road I had to travel down after I was raped, and is unfortunately also unavoidable. PTSD can begin at any time. It could start just after the attack or it can begin decades later. Please do not denigrate the experience of a survivor by assuming time should make them “get over it”.
A practical way of supporting someone with PTSD is to help them avoid triggers. Ask someone if you can hug them before you do, or (as my husband does) check that films do not contain rape scenes. Even checking for triggers in newspaper articles can be of practical help. Be open to supporting the survivor in any way you can. Asking somebody what they would like you to do if their PTSD is triggered can be helpful for both you and the survivor. Some survivors find being held helpful, whereas I find that my need for personal space increases immeasurably.
When you are supporting someone with PTSD patience is essential. If someone experiencing PTSD becomes verbally aggressive to you please do not take it personally, it isn’t aimed at you. Please understand that many people who have experienced rape have difficulty with intimacy. Ever since my PTSD symptoms began (about 2 months after I was raped) play fighting or my partner simply trying to hug me in a certain way can trigger symptoms of PTSD. It can be difficult not to feel offended when someone you care about cannot cope with you holding them or being physically intimate with them, but it is honestly not aimed at you. Understanding and patience can go an incredibly long way.
When supporting a rape survivor it is important to listen to them. If they want to be left alone, and you do not think they are at risk of harm, then give them space. If they want to talk about it then listen to them, but remember you cannot solve this for them. Reassure them that you will continue to support them but be aware that that is all you can do. A survivor may need years of support. Time helps scars to fade but they do not ever truly disappear. Understanding this will help you to avoid placing unrealistic expectations upon a survivor.
Rape Crisis UK http://www.rapecrisis.org.uk/ 0808 802 9999
Samaritans http://www.samaritans.org/ 08457 90 90 90* (UK) 1850 60 90 90* (ROI)