Trigger warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.
I attempted to have my article published in The Saint, only for them to delay publishing to the point where I felt it necessary to seek an alternative avenue. This article is in no way linked to the leafletting action this past Wednesday.
Three out of five students are sexually harassed or assaulted during their time at university in the UK. I was one of them. It is not without some trepidation that I write this. To reach you, I will have to resurrect memories and emotions which I work, on a nearly daily basis, to keep buried deep in my consciousness. Sometimes – an unexpected trigger – and they bubble up to the surface once more, leaving hands shaking, jaw clenched.
So, it was with “Revolt. She said. Revolt again,” an excellently performed play, staged as part of On the Rocks, which left me shaken and angry (as it no doubt intended to). It was a powerful reminder of how deeply the conditions that facilitate sexual violence are embedded in our language, our behaviour, even in our perceptions of ourselves.
Cases of sexual violence on the news often seem distant and extreme. I want to bring the experience a lot closer to home; to the Bubble, a place seemingly safe from external penetration. I want to show you how problematically blurred the lines can be – questions for me still linger: Was it sexual assault or rape… or technically neither? I want to share with you how long-lasting the damage is: The first time it happened was just over two years ago, and still the knowledge of it and what it has resulted in, permanently skulks at the edges of my conscious mind, waiting for the next trigger, waiting to disrupt my life over and over again.
Don’t Walk After Party 2016: It doesn’t really matter that I knew him. It doesn’t matter that we had exchanged those prolonged flirtatious glances over the tills in Tesco. Doesn’t matter that I was sort of drunk. What matters is that when I went back with him to his, on the understanding (or was it obviously a pretext?) that we would collect his weed and return to the house party, the next time I would step outside would be without my earrings, my underwear, or any understanding of myself.
Things escalated quickly. I remember certain scenes particularly vividly: Lying on a couch alone in the room, exhausted, thinking I should maybe go home, trying to get wet. In his room, things are going too fast now, we were just kissing but now I’m on his bed, he’s taking off my clothes… Not like in the movies. He’s inside me. (Did I consent to this? Certainly, I was never asked… But I went along with it, is that the same?) His thrusts are forceful and painful. I try to tell myself that I am enjoying it – but I know it’s a lie. The condom he has angrily refused to wear is somewhere, lost in the sheets.
A break. I try to get up, to climb back into my jumpsuit. I do not know what words were spoken. This part I watch in my mind as if it were a silent movie. For a moment, I see myself externally. I am slow-moving, dazed, and so tired. He somehow takes my jumpsuit off again. Back in the bed, back in my body. He wants anal this time. I say no. He pushes me for it, I say no again. (Did I actually say it again? Or did I just make clear that I didn’t want to? Is that enough?) The third time he tries I offer no resistance. I am too tired. Just get it over with. Still thrusting, he says he wants to cum on my stomach. I say no, and he gets annoyed, he pushes me. Enough. I don’t remember how but I get him off me. Can’t find my underwear so I just put my skin-tight jumpsuit back on. His voice says to the back of my head, something along the lines of, “You won’t even let me finish?!” The route home, down Greyfriars, will trigger me almost every subsequent time I walk down it, for the next two years.
It is actually the days and weeks that follow the event that I find harder to revisit than the hours spent in that room. Glimpses is all I can offer you: Getting into the shower the next day, but no amount of water could wash away the feeling of contamination. I was utterly alienated from my body. It had been taken out of my control, it was no longer my own. After feeling dazed I became angry. I thought if I didn’t let it upset me, he wouldn’t win. After a week, I became depressed that it was still upsetting me. I felt like I could never be ok, let alone happy, again.
More glimpses: Lying on my bedroom floor and my living room floor, alone, with a fluffy red blanket over my head, unable to stop crying. Bumping into him in the library, on the street, and being unable to breath. I stopped caring what I looked like. My thought was, if they only wanted to fuck me because of the way I looked, then by making myself unattractive at least they would have to get to know me first. I didn’t brush my hair for about six months. I remember I couldn’t lie on my side to fall asleep – the way I had always slept – because it made my back feel too exposed. A few months later I came close to having sex again, but before I even knew what had happened, my body had curled up into a foetal position, tightly locked.
It has been two years now. My friends – the ones that introduced me to him – have since taken over his flat. They don’t know; we have dinners there. I am trying to fill the space with new memories, but it is hard. More often than not I cross the street before having to walk past the doorway, so I don’t have to imagine what I looked like walking out the door, remember how I felt. Penetration has absolutely no appeal to me these days. Every time I start dating I lie awake for hours worrying when to tell them, what to tell them, and how they will take it. The hours spent worrying merely replace those spent either remembering or actively forcing my thoughts elsewhere, stuffing the unwanted ones into crevices of my mind. These days I have reduced the daily and nightly ordeal to more of a knowledge than a relived experience. I cannot unknow it. But it does not define who I am.
I have been the vessel of other people’s sexual gratification both before and since this encounter. In many ways it is unsurprising that that was how I perceived my role: women are socialised into prioritising others’ needs over their own from an early age; they are socialised into being the giver, not the taker. The way we talk about and behave during sex continues to project women as passive and as objects to be had. Whilst such structural violence creates fertile ground for sexual violence against women, they are by no means the sole targets of it. What happened to me can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, sexuality, or age. My friends, who have been an incomparable pillar of strength and support, have too often experienced similar or worse situations themselves.
And at the end of it all that small, doubting voice inside your own head remains. It questions the gravity of your experience and blames yourself for your own suffering. It is the insidious voice of symbolic violence, which derives its power from its “ability to make the oppressed complicit in their own destruction.” It is the reason my case, along with so many others, has so far gone unreported.
REVOLT. She said. Revolt Again. Breaking my silence – a both empowering and emotional experience – is my first contribution to the revolution. What is yours?