By Ilisha Purcell
CN: rape, sexual assault, sexual violence, suicidal thoughts, police, PTSD, stigma
By the time I was sexually assaulted for the third time, my friends and I could talk about sexual violence like the British do about the weather. The topic would naturally enter our conversations and often we would spend hours discussing it. At other times it would pass over like a spring shower. It was not that we had become desensitised to the horror of rape – but we had spent so much time speaking about it that questions about weekend plans or exams could easily be interchanged with police visits and suicidal thoughts. So normalised was I to the world of ISVAs (independent sexual violence advisors), police complaints and PTSD, that coming to university was a shock to the system. I returned to an environment where the people around me were not aware of my experiences and did not speak about sexual assault openly: rape was once again a taboo subject.
“Although there should never be any pressure placed on survivors to tell people about their abuse, neither should the onus be placed on survivors to hide their experiences for the sake of other people’s comfort”
Sexual assault is treated in a similar way to mental illness: despite the prevalence of both issues within society, neither are discussed with the frankness and openness that they should be. Talking about rape can make people uncomfortable, especially when tackled directly. However, not having these conversations perpetuates the shame and isolation linked to sexual violence. This sense of isolation is heightened by the silence that surrounds survivors: in the UK, 1 in 5 women aged 16 – 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16, yet often survivors, as in my case, believe they are alone. People rarely share experiences, or even bring up sexual assault generally in conversation.
When discussing sexual violence, or mental illness for that matter, it is important that the conversation is tailored to that particular individual: it is vital for every survivor to have a non-judgmental environment in which they feel they are being listened to. Each survivor will have their own priorities, needs and boundaries. Although there should never be any pressure placed on survivors to tell people about their abuse, neither should the onus be placed on survivors to hide their experiences for the sake of other people’s comfort.
Personally, finding the friends and the correct environment to talk about what happened to me saved my life. After I was raped for the first time, the fear and trauma became so great that I became afraid of everything – even of my own voice. But this silence only benefited the perpetrator. With hindsight, I have realised that my inability to talk about each assault was due to shame – shame which I placed upon myself. Not only had I never met anyone who had openly spoken about surviving sexual assault, but I had never been explicitly told that the victim is never to blame.
In my silence, my multiple assaults became my own dirty secrets, just as I was to the men who committed them. It was only through talking, first to friends then to a counsellor, that this was alleviated. Talking was so vital for me; it gave me time to process the gravity of my experiences, and view sexual violence as a crime of power – one ultimately not to do with sex at all.
Coming to university was a struggle; having to acclimatise to a new environment made me aware of just how much each incident had affected me, and made being happy and carefree so much harder. Whilst rape does not define me, it still had an irreversible emotional impact. Open discussions about sexual violence and its consequences are the most effective way in which we can all help to reduce the stigma around it and remove the shame associated with it.
“Personally, finding the friends and the correct environment to talk about what happened to me saved my life”
As the poet and activist Audre Lorde said: “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak”. This has become my approach for discussing sexual violence or any ‘taboo’ subject. Telling someone what happened or what is still happening to you is never simple – but it is vital to remember that if the subject makes the listener uncomfortable, you are in no way responsible for that. Though friends and family will need time to digest and process what you have shared with them, it is their role as people who love you to believe and support you. If they do not, find someone who will.
Being able to talk about my own experiences stopped rape being my dirty secret and showed to those around me, but most importantly to myself, that I am not ashamed. I refuse to blame myself. So next time the topic of sexual violence comes up, listen and ask questions. You will be surprised by how much people have to say.
Header image by Roman Drits