(TW. Rape/sexual violence)
It was only after I was raped that I became fully aware of the disparity between the way society perceives sexual crimes, and the way they actually are. I was expected to feel one way about the crime committed against me, but I felt something completely different. Contrasting this to other experiences I’ve had only makes this all the more apparent. In sharing two of these with you, I hope to highlight this and teach you something. I’m not sure what yet.
Seventeen, a virgin, never had a boyfriend. Naive. I was on a trip with a group of school friends. One boy there I was particularly close to and probably considered him to be one of my best school friends. Things were slightly awkward between us though. We’d gotten off at a party in November – it was now August – and had had no sexual contact before or since then, however about a month prior to this trip he’d confessed that he had strong feelings for me. He went as far to say “madly in love”. I’d rejected him, and had even invented an imaginary boyfriend, just to try and help him move on.
It was the first night. We were all sat around laughing, drinking, talking, whilst the sky darkened over us. Someone brought Amaretto. I love Amaretto. I mixed it in with my cider, along with some of this boy’s whisky. He gave every person present a head massage apart from me. I wondered whether I’d upset him, so I brought this to his attention. He must have taken it as an invitation.
Quite a while and many drinks later, he approached me and my best male friend and massaged our heads. It felt okay. But then he moved onto just me. Beyond my head. He caressed my neck, each stroke injected with a little more passion than the last. I felt uneasy. I thought he was trying it on but didn’t want to look presumptuous, as no sexual contact had been made yet. My drunken brain thought that pretending to go to sleep would be a good idea – because no one would continue on somebody who was asleep, right? Mistake. I put my head to the side and shut my eyes, and a combination of alcohol, fear and sleepiness locked me into that position. I couldn’t move most of my body – only my forearms, my mouth and my neck slightly. Noises were blurred into one, my vision was barely present, the only stimulus I could sense were his affectionate strokes.
And these strokes got deeper, harder, faster, and spread not only across my neck, but now my chest and shoulders. I could hear him breathing heavily. It wasn’t normal breathing. The only other time I’ve heard a man breathe that way was during intense sexual contact with a boyfriend at a later date.
I knew this was going to turn into something regrettable. I just about managed to shuffle my right forearm onto my friend’s knee. He turned and asked what I was doing. I couldn’t speak but I looked him in the eye for a long while. I mouthed ‘help’. He got up and left me alone.
The boy’s strokes got even more intense, and his mouth moved to right above my neck. His breath tickled me and moved between the corner of my neck and my shoulder, moist and warm. He’d kiss me every now and then. Occasionally he’d lift my head up with one of his strokes, pause for a second, and let it flop back down. I started to whisper “no,”. He continued anyway. Breath, stroke, kiss, “no,”. Stroke, kiss, “no,”, breath, kiss. His hands moved to my breasts, and started massaging those too. I said no three times. Eventually he moved his hands from my breasts, but didn’t stop stroking me. The encounter lasted around twenty minutes.
He was interrupted by my sister. She saw him molesting my limp body and panicked. Tried to get another friend to look at what was going on, but that friend ran off. She tapped me. “Are you okay? Do you want this?”
“No, please don’t. Please… Stop,” I barely managed to whisper.
She started to cry. “I need to speak to my sister,” she told the boy.
“Okay speak to her,” he said, still massaging me, though I was now free of his mouth.
“No it needs to be in private. Please leave.”
He left. I stayed sat down, head to one side, unmoving, heart pounding. I could still feel his hands even though they weren’t there. A tear escaped from my eye and rolled down my face. My sister sat next to me and apologised desperately for letting it happen. She turned her back to me for perhaps a minute. He returned and started massaging me. Again. She got rid of him. Again.
Many other things happened that night. I phoned my dad asking for advice, started crying hysterically, as did my sister, all the while defending him to myself. “He didn’t mean it. He isn’t like that. It WASN’T a sexual assault. It wasn’t even sexual contact.” But I still felt violated. Teary. Sick. When I got home, not the next day but the day after, I spent two days in bed, switching between lying down and going on my iPad, and weeping.
For the next two months after that I physically felt his hands over my breast. I’d brush them, trying to escape from his touch, but it was never enough. I started having panic attacks. I’d had the odd one before but these were on a different level. Full on hyperventilating, sweating, crying. My sister remembers waking up on the first day back at school to what she thought was the sound of sawing wood, and looking across the room to see me curled into my blanket, having an anxiety attack. I hated myself. I felt sorry for him. Can you imagine how he’d feel if he found out he’d caused me all this pain? Not very bad, it turned out, but that’s for another article. My dad actually came in and comforted me, but in doing so he hugged me and breathed on my neck. It made me cry. When I got back to school, I skipped most of my lessons, instead choosing to go to the toilets, where I’d either snack on chocolate or watch myself in the mirror shake with anxiety. I shared three quarters of my lessons with him, and they were small classes. I learnt to deal with this eventually. Somehow.
A year later, still a virgin, had broken up with my first and only boyfriend about a month prior. Less naïve. That morning I wrote a song about the first assault, and that afternoon I watched The Hunting Ground – an amazing film, for the record, that I would definitely recommend – and felt so empowered and inspired. I wanted to do some activism. Ha.
My sister and I were going on a night out in London. Having supported her through her mental health problems, I wanted to make the night special for her. My first assault had affected her just as much as it had me, being witness to that and carrying the guilt, as well as watching me turn into someone else. We were both damaged.
After she left a club in London, two men approached my sister. They approached her again when I joined her. One clearly liked her. He was good looking. I felt happy for her. I was sort of stuck with the other one, and was willing to keep him occupied so that my sister could have some fun.
I ended up giving the man I was with oral sex. He was pushy, but it was consensual. We did other sexual things. Apparently some digital penetration happened though I have no recollection of it. I’m choosing to assume it was consensual.
At one point in the night I asked him to do something very mildly sexual, with no penetration involved. He told me to turn around. I asked him why but he just told me to turn around. So I did. I felt his penis enter my bum. It didn’t hurt. My entire body had been numbed from the alcohol. I giggled and said “no no no,” clearly and all at once. He continued to penetrate me anyway, gently thrusting in and out of me. I pushed him away. He ignored this, but very shortly after removed himself. In the morning, when I asked over text about what happened, he told me he stopped because it was too dry.
My initial reaction was non existent. I don’t think I even realised that what happened was wrong. I still kissed him afterwards, and felt relatively safe. It was when I woke up that I realised I’d been “technically raped”. I didn’t tell my sister the details, but laughed about this fact with her over the phone. But I soon felt a deep sense of shame. I’d lost my virginity. To anal. To a stranger who I didn’t even fancy. And I didn’t say yes. I curled up and groaned. I told my dad what had happened and burst into tears. He said that he believed my assailant had crossed the line, but didn’t push this feeling onto me.
A lot of things happened after this. Again, these should be saved for another article, but I did end up reporting it, which made coming to terms with what had happened much easier.
My feelings were slow. During the first week there was some crying, and a lot of worrying. I was scared for my family. How my autistic brother would deal with the news, how my sister would cope going through this again, and my parents were clearly very affected by this. It was almost annoying how affected they all were.
There was one unbearable moment. I realised that I’d never trust a man again. If my first assailant had taken away my trust for men, my second had completely obliterated any chances of regaining it. I didn’t believe all men were perverts, but I didn’t trust myself to distinguish between the good men and the perverts. I’d failed twice already; is there any reason to assume I never would again? I began to miss my ex a lot. I didn’t know whether I’d be able to have a relationship again, simply for the fear of being raped. It made me feel pathetic. It had been a very casual relationship, but I found myself craving it desperately.
I think the thing that saddened me the most was the irony. I’ve never bought much into the whole virginity thing, but I always knew that I didn’t want to lose my virginity to rape – that was the golden rule. I was extremely promiscuous in public but never took it back home. I remember telling my ex about the first assault after he asked me to sleep over his. All through our relationship, I would think about what would happen if he raped me, and what the consequences would be. And now I had lost my virginity to rape – and not just any old rape, anal rape. My friend was teased for doing anal with her boyfriend months into their relationship and it had happened to me after one night. I try not to think about it.
That said there’s no trauma attached to the incident. I wasn’t scared, nor did it hurt. I was just numb. Sometimes my emotions vanished and were replaced by fatigue and headaches. This was due partly to antiretroviral tablets and partly to the exhaustion of it all. I considered killing myself a few times, but decided against it. A dry life was undesirable, but I knew deep down it had the potential to improve, and I owed it to my family to try to make that happen.
Perception Vs Reality
After telling my friends from outside of school about the first assault, they were all relatively sympathetic, however I got the impression that some were relieved that it didn’t go further. Glad that it ended where it did, and that in terms of sexual offences, it would probably be considered a relatively minor one. The ones at school were reluctant to hear me talk about it at all. He’d gotten there first, so I somewhat was under scrutiny. After my second assault the response was very different. Even though I felt fine in and of myself, many of my friends were shocked. Devastated for me.
My parents, although incredibly supportive of me, seemed a little defensive of my first assailant, considering him to be a boy who had gotten overexcited and made a mistake. This changed with time, but is how it was initially. Towards the second, on the other hand, my Dad felt an immense anger, even though I wasn’t particularly damaged by the experience. Was I shocked? Maybe. Deflated? Definitely. But traumatised? Nowhere near. Yet this sad rage, which seemed to be lacking after the first assault (that led to flashbacks and anxiety attacks), consumed him.
Begged, therefore, is the question: what was the difference? In almost every measurable sense, my first assault was far worse. My assailant was known to me, it lasted much longer and I was affected to an ever greater extent by it. The only obvious way in which one could possibly arrive to the conclusion that the second assault is worse, is if you look at how ‘far’ it went. The second involved penetration – it was rape. The first was ‘merely’ sexual assault.
I too had been guilty of considering penetrative assault to be automatically worse in the past. I spent the year following my first assault almost apologising when I referred to it as an assault. Every time I brought it up, a disclaimer would be attached: “I know it could have been worse but,”; “It’s not like I was raped,”; “Thank God it stopped when it did.” I was rarely corrected.
The impact this had on me, as a victim, was enormous. I felt embarrassed talking to others about the assault, as though I was making a big deal out of nothing. I constantly felt as though I was going to be exposed to the world as a pretend victim, that friendships that had been made based on me opening up about the experience would end with me being revealed as a fraud, when they found out what exactly happened.
The second assault actually brought me some relief. The fact I’d been raped and felt less bad about it than the first assault proved to me that it genuinely was a sexual assault. That I wasn’t just a sensitive person who was making a big deal out of nothing.
So why is this? Why are penetrative assaults considered worse in at least my circles?
We could start by looking at the law. Assault by penetration and rape both carry maximum sentences of life, but sexual assault only carries one of ten years. Perhaps the distinction in legal severity of the crime carries through to society, and our emotional responses align with this. Personally I find this unlikely. Most people are not aware of the sentencing of each crime, and despite it being a very, very easy crime to get away with, most people see rape, or at least what they consider to be rape, as abhorrent.
Instead, what catches my attention is how different sexual violence is portrayed in the media to my experiences. That may seem redundant, but unless you have been a victim, or take an interest in sexual violence, it’s unlikely you’ll have much insight into it outside of films, television and the news, so lots of people form their opinions about it based on this. For instance, fictional victims seem to fall into two main categories – vulnerable and traumatised (e.g. Carla Connor from Coronation Street), or strong, ‘kick ass’, but emotionally cold survivors (Lisbeth Salander from the Millennium Trilogy) – and when talking to me, it was clear that even some adults expected me to react in one of these ways.
Furthermore, the rapes are, far more often than not, depicted as physically violent. I have a theory that this is because it makes it easier to empathise with the victim, because we can’t all relate to the feelings of violation that come with sexual violence, but we can all relate to feelings of fear and intimidation present when someone hits at you, or shouts at you. This is a two sided coin though. We become so accustomed to this image of rape, that we find it hard to understand cases that fall short of this.
I am yet to see a non penetrative sexual assault depicted in the popular media, and especially one that leads to the victim feeling the same levels of violation as a rape. Although more common than rape, it seems to be talked about less. We only look at the more ‘serious’ offences, the more ‘extreme’ examples. This shows a comprehensive lack of understanding of sexual violence. The root of pain for the victims is often that someone had control over their body, their sexuality, their actions. It’s the immense violation that comes with being treated like a possession, and the indescribable fear of not being able to stop it. Uncertain of what will happen, when it will end. How far the actions went sexually can add to it, but they don’t define the experience. There are so many factors that can be more important, such as the perceived arousal of the assailant, the extent to which you knew and trusted them and whether or not you were expecting it to happen at all.
The way I viewed my rape was very different to how my assailant did. For him, the entire encounter was purely sexual. His purpose was to get sexual gratification. My purpose was mainly to keep him occupied whilst my sister was with his friend. This varied from time to time – I remember enjoying it a lot at one point – but the rape felt very impersonal, and not at all sexual to me. People seemed to look at it more through his eyes. They may have felt sorry for me, but they projected their image of what happened being a sexual act onto mine. Okay, so it was a sexual act, and I acknowledged that, but it didn’t feel that way when it was happening. Because of this, I didn’t feel so helpless or scared or violated. It was only after it happened, when I started to process it all that any feelings came. But because, straight off the bat, they knew it was a sexual act, they imagined that I would, and they imagined all of these feelings coming all at once as soon as he put his penis inside of me.
The first assault they saw as less sexual, because he only touched my breasts and massaged my neck, but I saw it as a deeply sexual experience. As friends, we’d established boundaries that we didn’t really cross. I wasn’t in love with him. I’d told him that. I didn’t desire intimacy with him. He knew this too. But he completely tore apart these boundaries. Though touching a girl’s neck and shoulders wouldn’t excite most boys, it was clear to me that in that moment, he felt very, very aroused, and very, very lucky. He cherished my body – I could feel the excitement radiating from him – and he pushed this act of deeply passionate affection onto me. It didn’t just feel like an act of sexual desire, it felt like an act of love. Going from letting me ‘just’ be his friend, to forcing me to be a participant in an act of such consuming romantic desire felt sickeningly violating. And it really is hard to get that across by telling someone “he touched my tits and I said no”.
What can we do?
It’s close to impossible to guess how the victim feels about a sexual assault. Every assault, every assailant and every victim is different, so even if it has happened to you, it can be hard to empathise with other victims for this reason. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I would never expect anyone to know how I feel. That said, with those I told, it was certainly easier to talk to those who didn’t have the image of a ‘typical rape’ already implanted in their mind.
I would advise that if your friend has suffered any sexual violence, the best thing you can do for them is put aside any preconceptions you have about what has happened to them. As if you’ve never watched or read or even thought about rape, and you’re learning everything you know about it from them. Because really, this is the case. You may know about rape in general, sexual violence in general, sex in general, but you know not of their personal experience. By listening to and learning from them, it should provide a natural dialogue and communication, giving them a space where they feel comfortable sharing their feelings with you, whilst giving you invaluable insight into a world which is deeply misunderstood.