what does a relationship without consent look like?

This article is a guest post from an anonymous contributor, who asked to share their story about a relationship where consent was never understood. 

I could talk for a living, but I cannot talk about this. This wasn’t meant to be an open letter to you, but it turned out that way. This is not about you though, it is about me, and about how I am letting go of the anger and the bitterness and the feelings of inferiority.

We were in a relationship for two years, from the age of seventeen until nineteen. Through school graduations, dances, the start of university and all the ups and downs of two years. We is not a word that is comfortable to use, I no longer want to think that I acted as a unit with you. I am writing this to make myself understand, to make you understand, and to make other people understand.

My hands shake as I type, I once loved you but I hate you now. This is not a story about rape, at least not to my mind. It is a story about consent, something I did not know existed when I was seventeen.

It is not something I ever thought could happen to me; it is also something I did not realise had happened until recently, until an encounter with you made it clear. I lost my virginity to you when I was seventeen. It was at my house, in my bed, my parents were away for the afternoon. It was the first time we had been left fully alone. You had broached the subject earlier in the day, and I said no, I didn’t think so.

You pointed out I had said before that I thought maybe we could have sex in the Summer. You said it was now Summer. I said I still wasn’t sure, and you said that was fine. Later, one thing led to another and it seemed like this was happening. I felt like I could not disappoint you, that I could not let you down, even though in my head I never wanted to do anything less. But I still wasn’t sure.

I was shaking and I still remember the marks of my fingernails on your thighs; how much is hurt, how it felt like I was being ripped apart. All that was running through my head was that I did not want to do this, and how we stopped because it was so painful. You didn’t stop until my hymen was broken, you seemed to feel like you had to do that, and I was shocked at the blood. I remember thinking this did not seem right.

I will always remember you saying afterwards that if this were a different culture, and I were your bride, you would not have stopped. I remember the bitterness in your voice when you said that. I remember the colour of my face, which was white as a sheet. I remember you made me hot chocolate. I remember the sense of relief that this mystery had been solved. I remember feeling terrible, and sad and scared and taken advantage of it. I remember the reaction of my friends to the fact that one of us had finally had sex, I couldn’t tell them the truth. The closest I got was ‘lie back and think of England’.

We had sex maybe five times in two years, every time the refrain ‘please make it stop’ ran through my head. I remember the conversations about it, the coaxing the beguiling, the thinly disguised manipulation, the disappointment in your voice. I began to feel insignificant, small, I lost my sense of self. I felt trapped, I could not talk to anyone and I did not know what to do. Why did it hurt so much?

I went to doctors, I really tried. But the thing is, sex was always on your terms, it was your domain, you initiated everything. You tried to teach me things, the implication being that I was the one at fault; belittling me, patronising me, I didn’t know what to do. To you, it was all my fault. But actually, it was all your fault, you didn’t understand that this all started too early, you were too persistent.

I dreaded each sexual encounter. I began to make excuses not to visit, not to stay over. I felt like I was failing at being a woman, I felt there was something wrong with me, I believed what you said, I was chipped away.

There was something very gendered about how we dealt with it as well. When we broke up I immediately felt relief, then sadness. Despite all the flaws of our relationship (and the good parts), I took a long time to mend and heal, to regain myself. I feel now, that this is because I was unable to fully comprehend or deal with the sexual side of our relationship. I realised it was not normal; I did not realise that this was not my fault.

I did not know what consent was. I know now, but it was a recent realisation, something that only began to dawn this year. When I was having sex with someone,  I asked to stop because it was painful and he immediately obliged. When I thanked him and said not many people would do that he seemed shocked, and said ‘What kind of people have you been getting with?’. And I mumbled, ‘not very nice people’.

You made me feel that I was in someway physically or psychologically damaged and that was why I would not sleep with you, or perform sexual acts with you. I know now you believe that I damaged you. You and your new girlfriend decided to ambush me one day to testify to that. That was painful, as she told me that I had damaged you, damaged their sex life, and all I could think was this is my problem, it is not yours.

I was so embarrassed and so angry, and I stayed so calm. Well, calm for me, I have a raging temper. So many people tell me that I am tough and strong, with you I am not strong, but that day I tried to be. I will never, ever forgive you for that day, for bringing her with you, I won’t forgive her for ganging up on another woman like that. I will never forgive you for saying I damaged your sexuality, your physicality, your self esteem, that I emasculated you. You damaged me! FUCK YOU!

Why don’t you understand that it was you who damaged yourself, by damaging me. It was a horrible experience, and I kept thinking a) don’t panic, and b) You don’t get to do this anymore, you don’t get to make me feel small.That encounter was weird, and it forever confirmed to me that you are an arsehole. It is a shame, I like your friends and family, but I do not like you.

The story of the confrontation with you and your new girlfriend was discussed with my close friends, and with my lovely mum. Everyone was aghast, they were so angry on my behalf. That is when I began to rally, and understand. When I came to terms with, and applied the correct terms, to what had happened.

When a dear, dear friend said that they couldn’t understand how you did not feel bad about your actions, why your conscience hadn’t kicked in. They pointed out what had happened was not consent. If you understood, I could forgive you, but until you do I can’t. I do not crave your love, your apology, your respect, your friendship. I have wonderful friends who have helped me so much. I would never discredit or undermine the sufferings of people who have been raped by saying I have been raped. I have not. I would not even say I was sexually assaulted, there is something of a grey area. All I know is I have been badly affected by this, something was wrong and the repercussions of it have continued to damage my relationships with people and with sex.

Some people may think I am making a fuss over nothing, that I need to check my privilege. I understand why they may think that. My unbridled anger may not be appealing to people either, but hey ho. As Charlie says in the Perks of Being a Wallflower

‘I think that if I ever have kids, and they are upset, I won’t tell them that people are starving in China or anything like that because it wouldn’t change the fact that they were upset. And even if somebody else has it much worse, that doesn’t really change the fact that you have what you have.”

One of my best friends seemed hesitant to understand, despite my repetition of ‘It’s not rape, but it’s not consent either’, that hurt, but I hope she understands now. I don’t really know what else to say. If I see you again I want to punch you in the face, but I probably wouldn’t, as it will fuel your narrative that I am emotionally unhinged.

I am doing much better, I feel good. I am strong, and I am brave. I am light years ahead of you, I am doing fine. So go fuck yourself, and at least you know you have permission to do that. But you will never read this, for those of you who have, thanks for sticking it out, it’s longer than I thought it would be. And if you understand, thank you.

why we can’t report rape

I have written several times in this blog about the importance of going to the police. I believe that the more people who report rape, the higher the conviction rate will be and the less it will be viewed as a social norm. Hopefully this will lead to fewer people committing rape and more people being convicted when they do.

HOWEVER, it is very important to acknowledge that reporting rape to the police is not always possible or practical. In many areas of the world, survivors are given no voice to speak out with. They are silenced, publicly shamed or even killed because of what they have been through. This must change.

Creating a binary discourse of ‘civilised  West’ and ‘barbaric East’ will do nothing to help change that and I believe that demonising other countries is futile. We have too much to be ashamed of in this country and should look to why laws are different elsewhere to understand the context in which they were written.

I believe that survivors should have justice when raped. However, as a white, wealthy, Western feminist it is not for me to comment on how laws should be changed or how other survivors can best be helped. We must listen to other feminists from around the world.

We are not here to patronisingly assert our assistance but I do believe there is power in standing by fellow feminists and offering our support. Just look to the actions of the Gulabi Gang, who are an inspiration to women the world over. Sampat Pal Davi founded the group in India and said ‘we are a gang for justice’, fighting for the rights of the poor, powerless and women: http://www.gulabigangofficial.in/

It is very important to remember that the situation is far from perfect in the UK before we cast condemnation elsewhere. Here are some truly terrifying facts from Rape Crisis England and Wales:

  • Approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales alone every year; that’s roughly 11 rapes (of adults alone) every hour
  • Nearly half a million adults are sexually assaulted in England and Wales each year
  • 1 in 5 women aged 16 – 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16
  • Only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report to the police
  • Approximately 90% of those who are raped know the perpetrator prior to the offence

It is difficult for survivors to report rape for a huge number of reasons. Victim blaming is still prevalent in much of our society and there is the fear that you will not be taken seriously or even be judged for it. Women are often slut shamed and many hold the bizarre view that men cannot be raped, sadly legal definitions do little to undermine this assumption. It may not be safe for a survivor to report rape. Most rapes are committed by someone the survivor knew and they may be prevented or feel guilty for reporting the rape. People who are raped within abusive relationships may find it equally difficult to leave for a huge range of reasons, be they practical, financial or emotional.

My point is that we should not judge anyone for not reporting rape. I would encourage anyone able to, to go to the police but it is very often not possible. We should make the process of reporting rape much easier for people and have support systems in place throughout society to make it possible.

medical examination

The medical examination was easily the worst part of reporting being raped for me. In my experience it was as traumatic as being raped.

The time the doctor was going to arrive kept changing so I didn’t know what was going on. I was beginning to give my statement while I was waiting but didn’t know when I would have to stop for the doctor. Once he arrived it took a long time to get everything set up. Neither the police officer nor the doctor was familiar with the station we were in which meant they weren’t on comfortable territory either so I didn’t feel at ease. The station was in the process of shutting down which further complicated things. I felt car sick and the room was very claustrophobic; I don’t know if they have to shut it off for legal reasons but natural light and fresh air would have helped a lot.

The doctor’s examination involved having to be penetrated which is something I struggle with, which was part of the trauma of this experience. I was not able to consent to this but they found another way round this for me. I had to remove all my clothes in front of two people which I found frightening. I had consented to the medical examination but was not told beforehand that this was part of it. When I undressed I thought just the doctor would be behind the curtain with me but then the police officer came around too.

I think exactly what was going to happen should have been explained more clearly to me because I was already very uncomfortable being naked and having to be penetrated. I had asked for a female doctor and didn’t find out until I was already at the station that it would be a man. Again, I consented but had a constrained choice because if I’d said no I would have driven out to Glenrothes for no reason and would have had to drive back and put myself through it again. Similarly, with choosing to give my statement late and in an unknown environment: it was a choice between an uncomfortable situation and dragging out the process/ mental anxiety.

During the examination the doctor complained about the equipment. It took time for the doctor and police officer to find gloves that fit them which meant I had to lie there naked for longer and unsure what was happening- this could easily have been sorted beforehand. The doctor described the recording equipment as ‘not designed for this’ and very sarcastically commented that it was ‘state of the art’ which didn’t fill me with confidence about the process.

The doctor forgot to check the top half of my body so I had to go back in and lift my top up again. I felt like I was going back and forth a lot between the room I was giving my statement in and the room I was being examined in. It would have helped me to have clear times set for things or, if people didn’t know, then to be given a window of time and told honestly what was happening.

It would have helped to have things explained to me in much greater detail, particularly as regards the medical examination, so I could have known what was happening to me. I wish I had been told earlier I would have to have a male doctor, although they checked with me if this was ok it was clear they assumed it would be.

It would have helped if we could have gone there at a time when the station wasn’t closing and the police officer and doctor knew the station and where things were to make the process quicker and smoother. In retrospect, if I had had all the information available to me I would have chosen to go the next day, when a female doctor was available and to a station the officer knew.

The medical examination was a very frightening process and is definitely a barrier to people reporting rape.

union & university

I was raped on a Saturday morning and went to my student services the following Tuesday. They stressed to me that going to the police was a very difficult decision and, although it was repeated that the decision was mine, I thought they made their opinion very clear. For example, I was told that if I went abroad I would be expected to fly back immediately if the police told me to.

I said that I was going to Paris in a few days and was told that if necessary I would have to fly back which made the decision even more stressful for me. Having spoken to Rape Crisis Scotland they reminded me of my rights, that they couldn’t deport me and that the only reason I would have to return would be for a trail, which would take at least a year anyway. The police were surprised when I told them this was how I was advised and said it would never have been that extreme. One of the Sexual Offence Liaison Officer’s said, ‘that’s really terrible advice.’ I think in the future student services should not scare students about going to the police. Of course we have to be prepared, but I think if I was less determined it would have been very easy to simply give up at that early stage.

I was surprised to learn that my university could do nothing to help me so I went to the union. They told me that they could do nothing unless the perpetrator was under investigation from the police. My choice became to do nothing or go to the police.

I think my universities zero tolerance policy needs to be extended so that students accused of rape are, at least temporarily, banned from the union; so that students in similar cases don’t have to be scared they will run into their rapist in the building. I think that if a formal complaint is made the student accused should be notified and told that any anti- social behaviour in the building will lead to an immediate ban.

I think the accused student should have to speak to relevant members of staff about the allegation so that they can be made aware of the severity of the crime that they are accused of. If they are innocent they should have the chance to have their side of the story heard but I think it is essential that the union is seen to take allegations seriously and communicate with both the survivor and person accused.

When I was giving my statement to the police I told them what was said about the zero tolerance policy and asked if my rapist could now be banned from the union. The police officer had no idea about the policy but said she would communicate this to her line manager, but I have no idea if this happened. If I had not mentioned it to the police I don’t know if this would ever have been raised or if the university would have been notified.

I feel like I have had to be demanding to try and work out the best way forward, rather than the various bureaucratic bodies lining up with one another. If possible I think there should be greater communication between student unions and police to find out what steps they can mutually put in place to ensure the safety of survivors in such cases.

When I went to student services I was told that I could have someone with me from there while talking to the police- this did not prove to be the case. Part of my decision to go to the police was on the understanding that I could have someone there to support me and I was not told until just beforehand that this would not be the case.

I was also told by student services that my friend would not be allowed to be present but fortunately we are both persistent and the police said this was perfectly possible. If I were not more determined to assert my rights I would have had to go through the process alone.

The member from student services said goodbye and left before I could ask her to stay. It was later explained to me that this was because I had come to her initially with the allegation of rape and, therefore, she was a witness the police needed to speak to. I think this should have been explained to me at the time and that I should have had someone else from student services with me because I had previously been told this was possible. I understand student services are very busy but I would rather have delayed talking to the police until I could have someone with me.

My union and university offered me emotional but very little practical support.

mental health: my story

This article has been sent to me by an extraordinary survivor who would like to share their story with you. I would like to offer a trigger warning that this post covers mental health, depression and suicide and how this survivor lives with and overcomes these:

I told them I thought I was going to kill myself. They told me they were angry at me. The summer of 2014 saw the onset of my depression and anxiety. During this period I did all I could with the help of doctors, counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists to be well enough to attend the university. When I finally convinced my medical team to let me go to university, I was far from fighting health. But, I made it, I was where I wanted to be with the support I needed. The place of my dreams. By November I was suicidal.

Any person suffering from health issues in entitled to support on arrival to college and university in Scotland. Universities are equipped with disability support services. These services offer the option of speaking to advisors both before and during your studies to make it as constructive and supportive as possible. Some students have access to DSA a fund for disabled students to make university life more accessible. This is present in many institutions and helps those struggling to get through their studies. Furthermore, the SEE ME campaign has worked tirelessly to increase awareness of mental health in all walks of life. In particular it has focused strongly on youth and further education.

The campaign suggests that mental ill health is not a barrier to further education and there is no reason that, with the right support, an individual suffering mental health problems cannot further their learning experience. Stigma and discrimination, however, still exists throughout our universities and colleges. According to a recent anonymous study conducted by the NUS (National Union of Students) the following examples show how some students still may be stigmatised and discriminated against: fellow students stating; “You are just choosing to be unwell.” A lecturer telling you that it is, “natural nerves” or “an over-reaction”.

Unfortunately this form of prejudice and discrimination was the catalyst for my Leave of Absence. Unlike at school, where I had been private, even secretive, about my health and personal problems, I attempted to be more open. This was not a decision of ignorance, but of hope. Hope that students would be more mature and open minded than when at school. This was destroyed when, for the first time, I let people know my ‘dirty little secret;’ that I suffered from anxiety, PTSD and depression. I confided in two of my closest friends at university (and likely future flatmates) the depths of my illness and its symptoms; the lack of sleep, the self-loathing and the constant battles with panic attacks and anxiety.

At this point I shared something even more personal and hidden within my layers of compartmentalisation I was suicidal. From this point forward our friendship changed entirely. Suddenly, daily plans began to fall through. When I was going to meet them for dinner, they had already gone. Travelling was cancelled due to ‘work commitment’. Group chats fell silent. I was excluded from events and study groups because they forgot.

My deepest fears had been proven right, people will hate me if they know my illness. The sickening truth is that I am not alone. The SEE ME campaign found 9 out of 10 people who experience mental health problems have experienced stigma and discrimination in work and education. Shockingly, this statistic has come from health professionals or family members. The question therefore is, how have the government allowed this crisis to escalate to this point?

It is thought that 70% of children and adolescents who have clinical problems did not receive counselling or treatment when they needed it most.  A group of experts within the NHS and at the Department of Health wrote a report stating that; ‘radical reforms are needed’. This must come not only by government funding, but through the education of our nation seen; personally in my experience at university.

After struggling with this illness and being isolated somewhat I tried to talk to my two friends. That one raining Monday night, was going to become one of the worst of my life; they shut the door in my face and told me they were busy. I walked out of my halls, broke down and blacked out. I walked the length of St Andrews, the next point of memory being sitting in an area called ‘the Scores’ watching the rain on the blue, black water.

My parents drove up and asked an old school friend to try to find me. The only thoughts running through my head were ‘I have nothing to live for.’ ‘I could keep walking towards the water and either way the world keeps on turning.’ My parents and friend found me soaked to the skin, frozen and exhausted at midnight. I still couldn’t cry or speak, I was frozen mentally too.

For some reason all I wanted was to resolve the issues with those who had shunned me. My logic being that if I fixed this with them, I would be able to move on with addressing my more important health issues. When I arrived at their flat, they told me they were angry for not answering my phone to them or responding when they knew that I had answered calls from my parents. I explained the trauma of what I had just experienced. I told them the truth, the horrible disgusting truth, that to this day knots my stomach to say.

For the first time I was actually doing to ‘do it’ I was going to kill myself; its all I wanted. They told me, they were mad with me. They couldn’t live with someone with this illness because they didn’t want to be anyone’s carer. It was not fair on them, it made them uncomfortable they had other important things to worry about on a Monday night like preparing for tutorials that week. I can understand being scared, worried or concerned for someone. Furthermore, it must have been an extremely difficult position to be in for them.

However, their response of dismissal and anger is something I would not wish on my worst enemy. Prior to that Monday they had confided in me, and relied on me just as much, if not more, than I had them. I began to try and explain rationalise and justify my ‘behaviour’ to two people who did not want to hear it. On a night that was one of the most horrific and terrifying of my life I was being interrogated and judged for my decisions. I had hit rock bottom, my life had become utterly worthless and I couldn’t pretend anymore.

In that moment when I tried to articulate a feeling I have yet to hear in words as it is so painful and complex. That they told me that they didn’t think I was ill or depressed; I was making it up for attention. I didn’t exhibit the ‘real signs’ of depression. I was exaggerating and they didn’t want anything to do with it. I was lying to them and it was pathetic.

After pointless attempts to explain and let them see the pain, the hurt and the confusion of this illness I couldn’t do it anymore. I left, apologising to them for it all. As ever the top universities in the country are leading the way to breaking barriers for those treated unjustly and leaping forward liberally and intellectually. Yet for those suffering mental illness, the prejudice is clearly present. There needs to be a more fundamental change.

From both external and personal experience it is evident that when it comes to mental health we are nowhere close to the ideals of the journalists and activists. The romanticised notion that society can be changed if we start from the ground up is not being implemented let alone achieved. I am happy to say I have returned to university to study the course I have always wanted and have met some amazing friends and receive brilliant support on my return.

No longer is trying to get out of bed get dressed get through the day without hurting myself or drink myself to sleep is my only goal each day. That in itself is one of my greatest achievements. I hope too that sharing this will be an achievement for me. Nobody should have to hide illness or anything that is hurting them. It’s okay to have depression and need help. It’s okay to struggle with anorexia and access support. It’s okay to have PTSD and have flashbacks. It’s okay have panic attacks or crave self harm. It’s okay to think suicidal thoughts or hallucinate. It can and will get better if we begin to support people in the right ways.

What is not okay is to treat it as less than physical health or not take people seriously when they talk about it. I am lucky to be alive and I feel proud every time I see the morning sun because I’ve made it another day. I relapse and it is scary but I have people who love me and who I love back. I have things to live for. Everyone has something and someone to live for, you just need to find out what or who it is.

Discrimination destroys too many lives and it needs to end. I hope at least one person will read this and realise how serious mental health is or maybe feel a little less alone in their illness and less scared to open up or seek help in any form. This is my story, but it will continue everyday

mental health

Mental health is a complex subject that I have no right to write about with any sense of authority. Aside from a weekend’s course on mental health I have no formal training in the area whatsoever. However, we all have mental health, in the same way we all have physical health, so I can at least tell you about mine.

After being raped, people were very concerned about my mental health and I am grateful. Had someone else been raped I would probably have told them (and still tell them) that their own mental health needed to be the priority. However, after having been raped my mental health seemed like a secondary consideration to gaining justice. It seemed less important to be ‘happy’ and more important to be ‘brave’.

The police process was gruelling and not good for my mental health, but I’m glad I did it. I have a right to justice and a responsibility to the safety of other women. However, I also think that we need to remove any sense of shame for survivors who choose not to go to the police. I’ve written before about what a privileged situation I was in and I still found it hard, we shouldn’t shame people who don’t report rape. We SHOULD make it easier for people to report rape though.

Many people were very kind to me but did nothing to practically help me. I quickly got tired of people saying ‘I mean we can’t do anything unless you go to the police but if you want to talk about it then I’m here.’ That is generous of them but I have friends and family to talk to; I needed people in authority to actually help me.

My student services were wonderfully kind to me but it was clear that they were there to improve my mental health and nothing else. I have been sexually harassed once before and when I mentioned this to the woman I reported my rape too she said, ‘I think you should book some counselling sessions to talk about this. Why do you think it’s happened to you twice?’

Her meaning is hard to convey in a blog post but the context made it clear she was asking ‘why has this happened to YOU twice’ and translated as ‘what do you think is wrong with you?’ Nothing. Most women, especially when young and at university are assaulted. The problem is not with me or any individual survivor, the problem is with society.

Mental health should probably be the priority in most cases but I have a lot of sympathy with survivors who don’t see it that way. If everyone protected their mental health and aimed to promote their peace of mind and happiness, then I think even fewer people would report rape. Sometimes further stress may be necessary to deal with the situation.

The police process has not finished for me; it may still go to court. I have complete certainty this will be detrimental to my mental health. I have complete certainty I will survive.

shame

Never shame anyone for feeling shame at being raped or sexually assaulted. I will reluctantly confess that in retrospect I think I harboured some judgement for women who felt ashamed after being assaulted. Obviously the perpetrator is to blame, obviously the survivor is innocent. I thought that by feeling shame they were accepting some responsibility for what had happened and buying in to a patriarchal system which expects ‘virginity’ and ‘purity’ from women. I now know that it is not that obvious or simple.

I feel shame at what has happened. The word I had in my head and repeated to friends was ‘gross’; I felt unclean. I took multiple baths; which later turned out to be a disadvantage during the medical examination (top tip: if you’re raped, don’t wash…anything, including the sheets!) My instinct was to clean everything, myself, the room, my mind of what had happened. This was my first time having full sexual intercourse and I had waited for a reason.

Shame may not be rational but in my opinion it is natural and at the very least understandable. It is a terrible thing to have happened and simply the fact it happened to you means you share some part in the act. Many survivors don’t want anyone to know, or only trust an immediate circle of friends.

Slowly, when it is appropriate to do so, I am telling people who I think can deal with the fact because I do not think it is something I have to hide. Rape is a secret crime but by making it public we can help to combat it. Personally, I think it is good to try and overcome the feeling of being ashamed. I’m not sure it helps to question your blame.

I know I questioned my actions, right down to what I was wearing which is something I never expected of myself. I questioned the fact I had flirted in the past, the fact I had drunk, the fact I let him come back to my flat… I questioned every mixed signal I could possibly have given. Does that put me in the wrong? No. I did not give consent.

However, whilst I personally want to overcome my initial feeling of shame, I also think it is very important to validate it as a response. I come from a liberal minded family and am surrounded by feminist friends who all supported me and yet my natural response was still shame. I imagine it would be infinitely harder within particular cultures or religious groups or educations.

Empathising with ‘shame’ is human and essential to an intersectional feminist approach. Do not shame people for feeling shame, funnily enough: it doesn’t help.