TW: rape, sexual violence, abuse
I have never been one to sit down and remain silent. One of my formative memories is defying a teacher’s command for only boys to reorganise benches in a PE lesson. The bewilderment etching their face at how such a small girl could be so audacious continues to be a crucial motivation to let the words flow from my mouth. I have witnessed the same perplexing looks on the faces of drunk men when I’ve responded to their catcalls, in the form of emojis when a guy on Tinder was given a blank answer to his second question asking what my kinks were. Aside from how standing up for yourself has this magical ability to shake things up, I’ve always been a big believer in speaking up to break down the walls of stigma. Using my voice to incite change has led to some incredible experiences such as speaking with my local MP about women’s safety, performing in a play about mental health and mentoring young people with a charity. However, this year I faced a challenge where my voice was rendered silent by a crippling realization: I had been raped.
Only, I had known this. In fact, I had confronted them on it by saying I felt pressured in one of our last interactions. But I had never labelled it. Why? Because I had said yes. But before I had said yes, I had said no countless times.
One thing this person excelled in was knowing how to turn a no into a yes. It could be a punch to the wall or whatever object was close enough, alluding to a break up after a long sigh of frustration, pestering me or shouting until I felt so worthless that I would capitulate. I would say yes and pretend to enjoy it, but inside, I was screaming. I was screaming at myself for being so submissive, for going against every ounce of pride I had in myself. And for what? Because I was petrified. There may not have been a gun pressed to my head, but the threat of violence was clear as day. I knew what was in store if I were to refuse again. The moment the variations of no tried to liberate themselves, I anticipated the sound of his fist colliding with something, envisioned the hours of arguments where he would leave me convinced there was something innately wrong with me. It turned into a pattern - refuse, deal with the consequences and residual depression, repeat. I knew I didn’t want to have sex with him and I knew why. He didn’t make me feel safe, nor did he respect me. Unfortunately, I was facing the brunt of gaslighting at its finest and I truly started to believe it was all in my own head.
Once our relationship had irretrievably broken down, I was still in a deep state of denial. It took a friend recalling a similar experience and giving it a label to make the cogs in my foggy head start to turn. But nothing sank in for a long time after this conversation took place. I still remember exactly where I was when the lighting bolt of realisation finally struck. On that day, I had received a letter for my cervical screening. Throughout the following hours, I had been overwhelmed by a gradual, deep sense of anxiety. Beads of sweat had been prickling at my skin and the craving to run as far as I could invaded my nervous system. I was utterly beside myself, but why? Sure, it was normal to experience mild nerves surrounding this invasive medical procedure, but I knew coping with the onset of panic attacks with an ambiguous reason behind them was not. After failing to distract myself with the usual coping mechanisms, I turned to education. I looked up how the procedure would go, to no avail. My rapid heartbeat and intense need to run did not subside no matter how many episodes of Big Bang Theory I would watch or the insane amount of times I practised breathing exercises. Then finally, I heard something in my head that made me freeze.
His voice telling me to 'Just relax'.
Immediately, I started crying uncontrollably. Everything I had felt after the deed had been done flooded over me - the shame, the panic. Everything. The suffocating sensation of having to silence my tears in the bathroom because if (he?) heard me, they would question if I had been satisfied and respond with anger if I said no. The grime of shame filling my pores and leaving me feeling dirty no matter how many showers I would have. The fear of speaking up because it would result in facing their anger. I knew it was sexual coercion. But my friend with the similar experience had another word for it: rape.
Unfortunately, I had fallen victim to a myth often perpetuated in a misogynistic culture. Rape is non-consensual, I knew that for certain. Consent is perceived as being black and white - you either say yes or no. However, if we add coercion to this seemingly simple equation, why are we made to feel like we’re treading through murky waters? Some countries would deem what happened to me as lawful because I eventually ‘consented’, because there was a presence of the word, ‘yes’. This raises the question as to what actually constitutes consent.
In my humble opinion, if you have to obtain consent through means such as coercive behaviour, then consent hasn’t been given. If you don’t have an enthusiastic yes, then it’s not consent. According to Rape Crisis England and Wales (2022), ‘it is not consent if you or someone else was… pressured, manipulated, tricked, or scared into saying yes’. There it is, in print. So why was my mind riddled with so much doubt? The answer is simple - because we as a society brush it under the carpet.
After I had several sessions of therapy and felt like I could say the word without masking it with adverbs meant to undermine what happened for my own sanity, I would observe people outwardly flinch when ‘rape’ was mentioned. During several conversations, I would see people shuffle around in their seats and cast their view downwards as an air of discomfort would permeate the silence. It is no wonder such conversations are uncomfortable to have. At the end of the day, it was uncomfortable for survivors to have to go through it which is a major understatement.
The year is 2022. We are living through the era of #MeToo and thankfully, we are able to speak more openly than our predecessors. That doesn’t mean we still don’t have work to do. It was only the other day someone questioned if I was raped because it was with someone I was in a relationship with. It was only a few months ago I thought I hadn’t been raped because a ‘yes’ was present, despite coercion being used to elicit it. However, the more I speak out, the more I realise my experience is far from being an isolated incident. At least four friends of mine have experienced similar situations such as mine. Rape is still such a taboo subject, yet the survivors are left to be the ones carrying the burden of shame and guilt. It is understandable why survivors carry this in silence. After all, there are people who are frightened by the word and its implications. In my hometown, there was a white, middle-aged politician who told women to be 'streetwise' and 'learn about the legal process' when discussing the rape and subsequent murder of Sarah Everard. Earlier this year, it was reported by the Guardian (2022) that members of the Metropolitan Police joked about raping women. Rape culture surrounds us from a systemic level to a table in a pub.
With all these powers and misinformation working against us, is why our voices are more important than ever. Speaking out does not have to be a grand gesture, nor does it have to be vocal. You can quietly whisper to yourself, 'This was not my fault', actively listen to the testimonies of survivors, and bolster those around you to learn. Even the smallest of gestures can move mountains and our abusers like to put us outside our comfort zones. Let's regain power and do what suits us. This, I like to consider, is a vital part of my own recovery. Working against a system designed to keep me silent is exactly what I plan to do - word by word, story by story. People have tried to keep me silent throughout the years - my abusive father, my ex, those overtly telling me to sit down and shut up. I would like to say to them the word they never understood: no. If you overhear a friend, a colleague, or even a random person make a rape joke or be a rape apologist, don't be a bystander. If you see something, call it out for what it is. Collectively, we can all say no to those who yearn for us to sit down and be quiet, and begin to break down centuries worth of work.
I recently heard a poignant quote during an episode of the podcast Archetypes that seriously resonated with me. Originally from a Greek poet, the quote goes as such: 'What didn’t you do to bury me? But you forgot that I was a seed'. The key message here, my loves, is simply this - we are all seeds and in order to flourish, our voices are a necessary piece in this patriarchal game. In order to empower, support and shatter the fragility of misogynistic culture, finding our voices has never been so important. Those who rely upon our silence must be reminded that we have the potential to blossom and by blossoming, we are destroying everything they have set up to keep us buried. They have forgotten we are seeds. So let's get to work and blossom.