Photo: HS Lee
Photo: HS Lee

OPINION

A rape victim can be the worst victim-blamer. I should know. I have been both

After a sexual assault, it can take years for a victim to come to terms with what happened. One woman tells her story

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When I saw the newspapers and realised he had been accused of sexual misconduct, I felt almost sorry for him. Only almost, because he had raped me, a few years earlier. Back then, I had said to my best friend: “One day, that man will be charged with rape and he will not understand why.” At that time, and for many years afterwards, I actually had sympathy for him.

I met him at a party when I was 22 and found him vaguely sexy in a smarmy way. He asked me out, I said yes, we went for dinner then back to his house, where I willingly kissed him, stripped to my pants (I always kept my pants on as a message and barrier, until I was ready to not need messages and barriers) and got into his bed. Then he started tugging at my underwear, I was wriggling away, saying, “No, no, really, no,” but trying to keep it light and nice and not make a big drama or anything, and he wasn’t listening. Then he was lying on top of me, so wriggling away wasn’t an option any more, but I kept on pushing at his chest and saying, “No, come on, no,” more urgently now, but definitely not screaming or shouting or clawing at him, the way a woman would if she were about to be raped, right? Then he was in me and I froze while I worked out what to do, which, it turns out, was nothing. The voice in my head said, “Oh, shit, oh, shit." Then it said, “OK, well you probably would have had sex with him on date three or four, so this is no big deal, stop being a dick.” So, I did stop being a dick and we had sex. No screaming and clawing, like a woman would do if she was being raped, right? So, it wasn’t rape.

What I believed then and for years to come was as follows: I was a grown woman responsible for her choices. If you go home with a strange man, get into bed with him (nearly) naked and aren’t prepared to get extreme in your efforts to stop him having sex with you, then you can’t claim it’s rape. I actually said: “If you are not prepared to call a man a rapist to his face, in the moment, then you can’t call him one in hindsight.” I even came up with an alternative name for what he did: Pressure Sex. Consensual sex comes in shades of grey, I told myself, but only rape is jet black. I said he was a creep, but it wasn’t fair to call him a rapist.

In my defence, I wasn’t just a moron. I adamantly believed that the encounter with him was my experience, so I got to decide how to label it. I was no kind of victim. I was a grown woman. I was responsible. This narrative felt like I was protecting myself. Being strong. Taking control. I was dealing with it in the best way for me, so everyone else could fuck off.

I stuck with that story for years. But here are some things I began to notice: I hate being touched unexpectedly – hugs, kisses, even arm squeezes can make my flesh crawl. I have always told my husband this was a hangover from every creep in every nightclub who ever groped me as I walked past, but honestly I don’t know if that ever even happened. Really, truthfully, it only started after that man forced himself on me. I also want my husband to stroke my back (it feels nice, it feels safe) for 15 minutes before foreplay goes any further, just to let my body get used to the idea that something more intimate is coming. Spontaneous sex is out.

Consensual sex comes in shades of grey, I told myself, but only rape is jet black. I said he was a creep, but it wasn’t fair to call him a rapist

So, not really coping after all. And certainly not protecting other women, as I turned into a victim-blamer. Whenever I spoke about my experience with that man, I included extra details, as if they were relevant: I had only had three previous lovers so, you know, I wasn’t slutty (in actual fact, the number was higher, but did that make me look culpable?); I never fucked on a first date (true, but again not relevant); I had only had one glass of wine that night. I chose to believe women should be responsible for their own safety and, if we are drunk, naked or giving mixed messages, we need to be realistic about the consequences. Not that we deserved them, but we needed to accept them.

Then, a few years ago I heard the phrase: “Let’s stop teaching women how not to get raped, and start teaching men not to rape.” It made my stomach hurt. Even with all my advantages (my education, my career, a platform), it was an idea that had never occurred to me – that the responsibility for men’s sexual behaviour lies with men. For the first time, a little voice said that maybe this man was a rapist. I silenced it.

But more voices followed. The brave, extraordinary victims who spoke out about every entitled bastard who thinks that consensual sex is sex they can get away with. And the millions of women – and men – who stood in solidarity with those survivors. I heard the words: “There is no such thing as non-consensual sex; there is sex and there is rape.” I remembered my clever Pressure Sex phrase and I felt weak, ashamed and, for the first time, like a rape victim.

But being a victim also makes me a survivor of rape. I have cried a lot these past months, but owning it means dealing with it. Finally, 15 years into our relationship, I told my husband what had happened. I explained that until now I hadn’t considered it rape, just a shameful sex story. Part of me always will. It’s only when I picture another woman in my place in that man’s bed, feeling and reacting exactly as I did, that I feel justified in calling him a rapist.

My shame stays with me, but it has taken a different shape – this time around my victim-blaming. I’m going to lay that on him, too – he didn’t just screw my body, he screwed my mind, so fuck him. When I hear allegations about high-profile men I don’t feel sympathy for them, of course. I don’t feel relief. I just feel horrified that, despite all the conversations and headlines of the past years, defining over and over again what is harassment, what is assault, what is rape, so many men have learnt absolutely nothing. That, more than anything, breaks my heart.

The writer remains anonymous for legal reasons

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Photo: HS Lee
Tagged in:
reporting rape
Sexual assault
Sexual abuse

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