TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual abuse and statutory rape
It was a warm summer evening; I was catching the bus with a friend back to her mums. A couple of guys start chatting to us and happen to be getting off at the same stop. We were 14, they said they were 16, but in hindsight I’m sure they were older. As we get off the bus one of the guys turns to my friend and asked if he can take me around the corner, I thought it was an odd way to ask for a snog but went with it.
That’s all I thought was going to happen, I was 14, a virgin, I never could have dreamt it meant anything else. As he led me into a council flat garden it became apparent this was not going to be what I had assumed, he was much bigger and stronger than me, I wasn’t sure if my friend would be able to hear me from where we were.
In my terrified state the only words I could find were ‘do you have a condom?’ and that was that. I was so ashamed I had let it happen I went straight into defence mode. As my friend and I walked back to her house she asked what had taken so long. ‘We had sex’. I couldn’t possibly let her know it hadn’t been my choice. She didn’t suspect a thing. ‘Did you get his number? What’s his name?’ I didn’t know either of these.
When at an all girl’s boarding school there’s no such thing as secrets. Within a week my whole year and more knew. I was the slag that lost her virginity to a stranger. The more the lie went on the more I started to believe it myself. It got back to my mum, I‘ll ever forget sitting in a car with her being told ‘that’s not how a lady acts’. How did she believe it? Did she really think that was something I’d do? Why didn’t she question it?
I tried to bury it, it seemed like my only option. 3 years later I told a guy from school I was seeing that I hadn’t wanted it to happen and he told me I’d been raped. I hated the word, it gave me anxiety thinking about it. I asked him to put on a condom so was that consent? I’m a strong person, that couldn’t possibly have been what happened, I wouldn’t have let it. I went back to burying it and decided I would never tell anyone again, in case they used that word.
Fast forward a few years and the #metoo movement started, sending me straight back to that anxious state I had been in after being told it was rape. I started reading other people’s stories, some of them harrowing, some of them just made me angry. It seemed to be a mixture of people who had been through some terrible experiences and people who, as I saw it at the time, just wanted to jump on the band wagon and give their story about a time they’d been looked up and down in a bar. I didn’t fit into either of these; I was angry that people were talking about what seemed to be such ‘normal’ situations (though I’ve since come to realise that normalising these situations in society can lead to far worse incidents); And people who had been through violent attacks. It made me question again how I could call what happened to me rape, it wasn’t the same.
During this time I told couple of friends my story. One of them gave me a real turning point, she pointed out that under the age of 16 it is rape, no matter what. Statutory rape. There is good reason why a child is not able to give consent and that’s what I was, a child. It was only after that conversation I began to refer to what happened as rape, not that I told many more people, but I had finally admitted to myself that’s what it was. Though when I was down, if it came to mind, I still blamed myself, there was more I could have done to stop it.
Eventually, after a long period of depression, I went to see a therapist. It had been a tricky year for many reasons but the self hate for letting myself be raped all those years ago was one of the main emotions I was struggling with. The therapist I saw did not specialise in sexual assault, her main experience was with using CBT and counselling to treat depression and anxiety. When she saw the difficulties I was having with processing what had happened to me she read up on the subject and spoke with other professionals on how she might help me.
I was still sometimes struggling to accept it was rape and often blaming myself for letting it happen. One of the things that stuck in my head was that I had asked him to put on a condom, how could that possibly mean it was rape? One session she presented me with material she had found from looking through court cases of other victims. The one that stuck in my mind was of a woman who had also asked her attacker to put on a condom. She won the case, it was agreed that she had been raped. In her statement she had said, ‘Sorry I’m not your perfect victim’. This one line helped me see what had happened to me in a different light. Just because there was no violence, no visible scars after, does not mean it wasn’t rape and doesn’t mean I wasn’t a victim.
In another session she spoke to me about ‘fight, flight or freeze’, a concept we all know well, but also about ‘befriend’. I had never thought about this before but I soon realised how true it was to my case. To ‘befriend’ an attacker is a form of self preservation, a way to have the least harm possible come of you. In that split second where I realised what he wanted, I had to choose, do I run or fight and risk a violent attack? To freeze could have ended in the same occurrence but with the potential of an STI or pregnancy. Without even being conscious of it, the little girl, the rabbit caught in head lights, came to the instant decision to try and protect herself. That is something to be proud of, not ashamed.
So here I sit, over 15 years since the incident and this is probably the most open I have ever been about it. Writing this down hasn’t been easy but I think it shows how far I have come. Of course it still bothers me sometimes, but the self blame is gone and so is the shame. I am a stronger, happier person for having acknowledged my past, rather than trying to hide from it. I guess if there can be one thing I want people to take away from reading my story it’s this:
Don’t run from your past, no matter how painful it is, or how embarrassed you might be to tell someone. There is always help out there, don’t suffer in silence.