From The Editor: Society, Sexual Assault And Accountability
TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL ASSAULT
I’ve tossed and turned over how, or if, I was going to talk about my experience with sexual assault in a public domain. Privately, I’ve written near 10,000 words about it, because writing to me offers a healing power that very few other things can provide. Reading Amber Tamblyn’s op-ed in The New York Times the other day got me thinking. It made me reflect on how I felt before, during and after the attack, and how our messed-up society played a large part in the reasons behind why I was feeling the way I did.
The assault took place just a few days after my 24th birthday, and I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never really found myself in a situation like it before. The details are irrelevant, but my feelings from thirty minutes before to sitting here now, four months later, aren’t.
I’m a firm believer in that our bodies know when trouble is coming. I had that ‘sixth sense’ that something was wrong just before a speeding car slammed into the side of my little Peugeot 206 aged 18, leaving me with a written off car, a broken collarbone, and a severe bruising on the brain. I had that very same uneasy ‘sixth sense’ just before a motorbike mounted the pavement I was walking on, in an attempt to mug me on a busy street in broad daylight. Yet when I had that ‘sixth sense’ about a man that I’d caught staring at me several times whilst I was sat in the park, I wasn’t really sure how to process it. I called my mum and mentioned, fairly casually, that there was an old guy that kept looking over at me, so in hindsight, I knew that my brain was trying to send me warning signs.
Again, no details, but it didn’t take long for me to work out that I was in a potentially dangerous situation. Being a black belt in ju-jitsu from a young age, I was trained to deal with these kinds of situations, and it was that exact training that stopped the muggers on the motorbike from getting hold of my bag and driving off with my belongings. Naturally from my training, I was looking at the man, working out which of his pressure points I could quickly get to, what lock I could get him into to gain control and restrain him, or whether I had enough room to get some power behind a right hook that was headed straight for his face. But then, something stopped me. He’s an old man, I thought. You knock him out, you break his jaw, you break his hip, you’re the one getting arrested and charged with assault. He’s easily in his sixties, they won’t even believe that this was self-defence. And with that, I chose not to physically retaliate. At no point did I realise that I was actually prioritising his safety, over mine. He was sexually assaulting me, not offering me a piece of gum, so why was I so worried about his wellbeing?
Throughout this entire time, I didn’t shout out or call for help. I directly spoke to my attacker, quietly but harshly, repeating ‘no’ and ‘fuck off’ intermittently. I quickly learnt that he didn’t understand English, so saying much more than that seemed like a waste of breath. Predominantly, my main fear about shouting out was in case he had a weapon or something on him that he’d use to shut me up, but also there was this weird feeling of embarrassment and shame that this was happening to me, and I didn’t want to draw attention. I’ve seen stories of women being branded attention-seekers for asking for help or speaking out about sexual assault, and as much as I strongly disagree with this way of thinking, it was ticking away in my mind that whatever happened to me in the minutes that followed, I didn’t want to be painted with the attention-seeker brush. You might say that now, me talking about it, makes me an attention-seeker, but I see it as merely talking about a topic that affects women daily on a global scale, in the hope that maybe one person out there may find some of this relatable.
When it was all over and I’d got myself back home, I called 101. For those of you not in the UK, 101 is basically the non-emergency number that you dial to get in contact with the police. I didn’t see what had just happened as an emergency; I knew worse things were happening to other people elsewhere, I wasn’t physically hurt and I didn’t want to get told off for wasting police time. It wasn’t until I was talking to the person on the other end of the phone that it was made clear to me that it was a serious offence that should be treated as an emergency. By the time I’d hung up, a squad car was on the way to come and take my statement as check me over. In hindsight, what does it say when your own body, your own personal space, has been compromised in some way or another, and by a complete stranger, yet you still don’t deem it of high enough importance to simply call 999. They have four year-olds ringing crying because they’ve been told off, for fuck’s sake. I wouldn’t have been the lowest priority call that day.
An officer called me en route to tell me that the original squad car sent out to me had actually followed a man who matched my description on CCTV from the exit of the park and had found him a few roads away. He had been arrested on suspicion of sexual assault and was being taken to the police station, and a second car of officers would be at my house shortly. At first I of course felt relief, and I was pleased that I’d called the police, but then this hideous guilt set in where I convinced myself that I’d ruined his life. Maybe he didn’t mean it? Maybe he’s mentally ill? What if he was just trying to be friendly? I knew that they were all just excuses, and that they were all bullshit, but it didn’t stop me from feeling like everything was my fault. Why I felt sorry for the shitbag baffled me for a long time, but then I realised that it’s because we live in a society where victims who report their attackers or speak out in any capacity are the villains, and the sex offenders of the world are painted as tragic heroes. No, they’re not heroes. They’re fucking rapists.
That night, around 9pm, I got a phone call from the police station that made my blood boil after an already emotionally exhausting day. ‘He says he hasn’t done anything and you’re making it up. It’s your word against his. I’m sorry, unless we can bring a witness forward, we’ll have to drop the case.’ My word against his. I don’t suppose you get too many people that, especially to the Metropolitan police, casually admit to sexually assaulting a random woman on their morning walk. I felt two-feet tall, like no matter how much I shouted or screamed or kicked up a fuss about what had happened to me, some creep playing innocent was enough to complete invalidate both my experience and the way I felt. Having said that, I knew that this was often how victims were made to feel after being assaulted, and victim-blaming (and shaming) is a real and very shitty thing. Up until that phone call, I’d felt (somewhat) at ease, and like I was being taken seriously. Much like Amber Tamblyn wrote, I wasn’t being believed, and that feeling makes you feel fucking awful.
Even just yesterday, the gas man knocked on my door to come and take a meter reading. The resemblance between him and my attacker was so uncanny, I faked a work call, and asked if he could come back in five minutes. That gave me enough time to calm down a bit and call my mum, just so I didn’t end up having a panic attack when the doppelgänger stepped foot into my house and into my personal space.
Worrying more about my attacker’s jaw than my body. Feeling like an attention-seeker. Reducing my ordeal down to something small and insignificant. Convincing myself that I was the one in the wrong. Allowing myself to blame, shame and guilt my way through processing what happened to me. Why should I be made to feel that way? Why should I be made to feel like I did something wrong? I was sat in a park, minding my own business, playing with my dog and enjoying the sunshine.
I’m not the only person who’s ever felt that way, and I’m not going to be the last person to deal with this rollercoaster of emotion that such an experience causes. Our society is notorious for normalising sexual assault and those who are guilty of it, and bullying and belittling victims into their silence. The media circus that surrounds high-profile cases place rapists and sex offenders on pedestals; journalists waste more time trying to dig up dirt on the victim, listing their sexual history and their tendency to wear low-cut tops, rather than focusing on the fact that the attacker is the vile human being. Brock Turner - the piece of shit that raped a girl whilst she was unconscious - had his Crest-white smile plastered across every paper in America as the all-American golden boy. He escaped jail time whilst his victim is permanently traumatised. It’s also where intersections of race and gender come into play here too, because the likelihood of Brock Turner getting what was coming to him would’ve been significantly higher had he been a person of colour, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish.
Rape culture and consent culture are big fucking deals and it seems like the world, as a whole, is taking a while to realise that. Those who come forward to name or condemn their attackers are the ones dragged through the mud, branded attention-seekers, sluts, or worse, liars. This is not as a result of the calling out of sexual assault, but what society has created. A society where someone can sexually assault someone, get caught by police, and merely deny everything and have the charges dropped. The key problem is that people thing it’s right that victims have to spend more time proving their credibility than suspects have to spend proving their innocence. Luckily for me, a witness did come forward, and my attacker was charged with sexual assault. Was he put away? I don’t know, probably not. I still have to deal with the anxieties and other emotions that came with being sexually assaulted, whilst he's likely sat somewhere, unfazed by his doing.
As much as this likely won’t be my last From The Editor where I touch on this subject, for now I’ll end with this: society taking accountability for its actions is just as important as an attacker taking accountability for their’s. Until then, very little will change.