Talking about my experience of sexual assault was one of the most difficult but rewarding things I have ever done. I was blown away by the kind messages I received and speaking up reminded me of how strong, resilient and powerful I am. My wish for any survivor of a sexual assault is that they can feel like that again.
Courtney, a 23 year old nurse and avid Sims 4 player, spoke to me about her rape and her healing journey. With so many of her words and thoughts echoing my own, it has been quite difficult at times to do this interview. Reading about people’s experiences of sexual trauma is hard, but hearing Courtney’s story was ultimately a comfort because it reminded me that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t a victim and that things get better.
Courtney and I are survivors. We are not statistics. We are not to blame. We are not defined by what happened to us.
We are daughters, friends, colleagues. We are loved. We are strong. We are enough.
In your own words, what happened?
When I was about 20 years old, I was a bridesmaid at a family wedding. I remember that the day had been lovely – we’d had a three course meal, lots of wine and some cake. It was June and mildly warm and most of the guests were wearing dresses to suit the weather. I remember watching the couples dance and looking with “those eyes” at my boyfriend at the time who did not want to join the dance floor.
A few hours passed by in a blur and after a lot of wine, my boyfriend and I headed up to the room we were sharing. At this point, we’d been together 1 year and 8 months. I’d lost my virginity to him and I had no issues or reasons to believe he was capable of anything violent or horrifying.
I don’t like to remember what happened as it’s still very raw to me even though a few years have passed, but he was trying it on and being very suggestive. I have a quirk of sorts with the fact that I only ever want to have true, unprotected sex with the person I marry, something my boyfriend knew. I remember saying no. Despite being very drunk, he climbed on top of me and raped me. I remember the pain, the sound of the bed creaking and the weight of him trapping me underneath him as he passed out.
People say “all you’ve got is a scream sometimes” and I couldn’t agree more, but I didn’t. I remember feeling paralysed and not quite believing that this had happened to me. I remember laying awake for hours, sweating, tired, angry, betrayed. I found out later that it was completely justified to feel those things.
I wish I could go back to that day and fight back, but then I think I will never let that moment define me. I will live with these emotional scars for life, but I won’t live my life in fear or shame anymore.
I loved this man, and that happened.
I lost control of my body and my voice that day. In that moment, I felt powerless.
Powerless is a word that describes how I felt too. Can you describe the emotions you felt after and how what happened impacted you?
Being another number in statistics was difficult. The fact that 15% of rapes go through to a successful prosecution was a major part of why I never spoke up. You can’t explain how you feel until you actually go through it. I used to be one of those girls who swore she’d report if she was raped, but now I understand why people don’t.
For three years I couldn’t utter those words. The stigma of shame and victim blaming impacted me so hard. I went off the rails. I hated the thought of his touch being the last on my skin, him being the last person inside me so intimately. I had to do something about it. I went out a lot and I’d do anything to get noticed by any gender to have sex. It was so out of my character and it is something to this day I dislike talking about. I’ve read that it’s common for people to react this way, but I hope anyone who reads this can at least be assured they are not to blame and maybe avoid some of the things I’ve gone through.
Something people who haven’t experienced these traumas can struggle to understand is why someone didn’t say what had happened straight away. Why did you not tell someone?
The biggest reason? Shame.
I was so ashamed. I’m both introverted and extroverted, and my friends had all heard my opinions on this matter. I couldn’t handle admitting to myself that I was raped, let alone any of my friends, family or work colleagues.
I remember thinking at that time I was ‘damaged goods’ and ‘disgusting’. In our culture, victim blaming is rife and I hated the thought of being under that spotlight. It’s only since the ‘Me Too’ movement that the impact of assaults, rapes and other sexual advances have stopped becoming such a taboo subject and it is certainly one of my biggest inspirations for speaking up now.
It’s brilliant that you now feel in a position to be able to talk about what happened. When you didn’t feel like you could tell anyone, what was keeping it to yourself like?
To keep such a huge, scary secret is soul destroying. Imagine having a huge weight that you can never lift no matter how much you try, and no matter how much it hurts you, it stays put. That is the best way to explain my feelings on keeping it to myself. It’s caused me to have mental health issues over the last couple years like depression and anxiety. Recently I have been seen by mental health teams for suspected stress-related psychosis.
Once you spoke about your rape, how did your life change?
I remember talking to my friend at her house. We’d drank wine, had pizza, had a lovely evening and out of the blue I blurted out “Remember in June 3 years ago when I came back home moody and angry and I shut myself away for a month? Well, it’s because I was raped!”
That was literally the conversation. I was drunk, sleepy and tired of holding it in for so long. I wanted help. I wanted justice for the girl who was too afraid to scream. I cried for a long time after revealing to her what had happened. I knew she’d gone through something similar and I wanted to talk to someone who understood, so I just let it out.
That metaphorical weight I spoke about before disappeared. For the first time in three years I could breathe. I could truly open my lungs to air that was not tainted by shame, despair and fear. I finally felt safe and secure, like nothing could hurt me anymore.
You previously mentioned movements like the ‘Me Too’ movement that has done so much for survivors in terms of feeling able to share their stories, but there is still a huge narrative of victim blaming. What is your experience of this?
It’s definitely true. I know so many strong women who have had horrifying experiences, especially at university, yet they’ve been shut down by those who swear they want to do more for students. Universities, politicians and the justice system fail victims.
Yet it is us, the “victims”, who fail to see this and we all blame ourselves, saying things like “I was drunk”, “I passed out and never said no…” or “I let them do it at first because I wanted them to like me.”
The biggest thing I’ve learnt is that it does not matter if it is someone you love/who loves you back, rape is rape. No means no.
How does the experience impact your life now?
I’m still healing. I know I have a long way to go until I can say “I’m fine” and mean it, but I know I’ll get there.
For so long I felt like I was alone and that speaking up wouldn’t make a difference, but I know now that is untrue. The more I kept it hidden and in denial, the worse off I became.
I am still in therapy and I still have bad days, but you know what? It’s okay. It’s okay to not be okay. Sometimes we put so much pressure on ourselves to appear happy all the time and it’s too much. I say cry it out, wipe those tears off when finished and then get up again.
If you could speak to someone who has just been sexually assaulted, what would you say?
I would tell them to never hide it. Speak to someone as soon as they can, because even if they are the strongest person ever, their mental health can only take so much. I’d want them to take care of themselves and think if they want to report it first and foremost. The path they take varies from there.
If you don’t want to speak to anyone yet, then know there are people who love and care about you. You are not disgusting, you are not stupid, weak or pathetic. You are a survivor. You are loved. Nothing will change that fact.
Rape and sexual assault is a traumatic experience. It is valid to address and recognise it as such.
You said that you know it will get better, and it will. What things have helped give you such a strong, positive outlook?
Please realise, this is after three years of distractions, therapy and a lot of reading up on rapes, assaults and meeting others who have gone through traumas like me. I needed to understand what had happened to me before I could start to heal.
I had a relationship at the beginning of this year and that person taught me so much. It was my first real one in three years because I wanted to be a better version of myself before I took the plunge to be with anyone else. This person taught me that I was valid and that my experience did not define who I was. Yes it happened, but it wasn’t everything I had to offer, in fact it had nothing to do with me in that sense at all.
Whilst that relationship is over, the things I learnt from it have stuck out. The refreshed perspective I gained from focusing on something other than this trauma made me open my eyes and see clearly.
I am enough.
I am brave.
I am a survivor.
Surviving something like this is something to be proud of. How would you describe yourself?
I’d say I’m just me. I don’t see myself as special because of what I went through. I see myself as another person who experienced trauma she should never have had to. But I refuse to be known as that girl who was raped – I just want to be known as myself. I will never be defined as that girl. My experiences have made me stronger, but they do not and never will define me. I will continue to love myself, live for myself and not allow those experiences to live for me anymore.
Talking about experiences like this is incredibly brave. Why did you chose to do this interview and how does knowing that your words will bring comfort to someone else feel?
I thought to myself it’s about time. There’s something so healing about writing it down, like it’s a way of letting go the pain and hurt I felt.
I hope that my words help someone else so they don’t go through the hell I have, and maybe be braver than I and do something about it more than I ever could. I hope someone finds comfort in my story and knowing that it will be okay eventually.
If you could sum up your outlook on life in one statement, what would it be?
In the words of RuPaul; “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”