Trigger warning: contains personal testimony of sexual assault.
This piece took a long time to write, and I feel it is important to acknowledge the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the many other perpetrators that surfaced whilst writing it, and the wash of response and criticism it will sit in now that it is complete.
I was sexually assaulted. I didn’t realise this at first; Retrospect is a powerful thing. My mind hadn’t processed it yet, but my body was aware of the truth. It knew from the heat that rose up from the lower part of my belly and knotted my chest whenever I recalled the incident, and it knew from the self-doubt and self-hate that riddled me as I played what had happened over and over in my mind. It knew from the anxiety that washed over me when I left the house and it knew from the constant searching of crowds to make sure that he wasn’t nearby, even months after the assault had taken place. I used to see the back of someone and freak out until they turned and their face proved it wasn’t him. For a long time it felt like he could be anywhere and everywhere. That terrified me.
For some time, I felt like I couldn’t complain. I had been actively engaging in ‘making out’ in the back of the taxi at first, so what did it matter that he had continued when I had repeatedly pushed him off me before a clumsy hand forced itself into my mouth and a dirty finger pushed down my throat. (An interesting choice bearing in mind that he knew I was a proudly vocal feminist, don’t you think?). After all, this was a friend that I’d known for a while and, most importantly, trusted. I thought I was safe. My immediate reaction was ‘well that must be a normal thing that happens, and my watering eyes and scratched throat and the uncomfortable feeling washing over my body and the feelings of shame and embarrassment and degradation and non-consensual domination are probably just because of my inexperience, and are to be ignored.’
But after some time and space and having processed it a little more, I knew that what had happened was not okay. I knew that what had happened was not my fault. I shared my experience with a few others who I trusted, in the hope of seeking affirmation and reassurance that I wasn’t just ‘overreacting’ because I hadn’t been ‘conventionally’ assaulted, or that it wasn’t an extreme case of sexual assault.
However there was no denying that the boxes were ticked. A quick online search defines sexual assault as: ‘any type of sexual contact or behaviour that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.’ This summarised my experience. Once this realisation had been reached, the injustice kicked in and I took it upon myself to prevent the situation from potentially happening again to someone else, so I had a chat with the perpetrator, a face-to-face meeting. I set out to educate as best I could and talk about what had happened and how it had made me feel. And that was hard. That took a lot of courage and strength and downing two ciders on the pavement outside beforehand. (What was also hard, was the fact that I had to fight to not be interrupted and actually get a word in edgeways throughout this chat, as apparently being the victim still doesn’t guarantee you a stake in leading the conversation and not being subject to being told just how tough life has been recently for him.)
And so unsurprisingly, I came away unsatisfied. Despite receiving an apology, I knew that I hadn’t got my point across as clearly as I’d wanted to, as there was a strong sense of blaming it on the alcohol consumption of the evening and ‘Oh my god, that’s disgusting, I would never normally treat someone like that.’ Well hunny, you did. The fact that you would theoretically not is now irrelevant.
And this result didn’t sit well with my girl-power-taking-one-for-the-team-in-order-to-educate-and-change-the-world-one-small-step-at-a-time stance, so I decided to follow up with a text to really hit home – which was something along the lines of provoking an answer as to why, even in his inebriated state, he thought his actions to be acceptable enough to have carried them out, considering the fact that he did something that he said he doesn’t think is right to someone he said he respects. Ultimately, the consumption of alcohol does not excuse violent acts. He replied that he would indeed continue to question his behaviour, and ended with ‘Hope we can leave it there, thanks for being so understanding’ and me replying with ‘Yes of course, I’m all done ☺’.
… As if I was taking up his time.
Again, retrospect allowed me to regret these last words as I realised how compliant I sounded. And as I regard myself to be a strong independent woman who battles the patriarchy on a daily basis, compliant is one of the last words I would expect to describe myself as. Reading back over my reply now breaks my heart. I wish I could go back and give that past-me a hug and tell them that it will be alright and pity them for ever being put in a position of responding to being shut down with a happy emoji.
But alas, I cannot go back, and so that was that. He had decided without my consultation that the time slot for discussion had now expired and that life was supposed to resume as normal.
Again, this didn’t sit well with me. And so I made the decision to avoid him at all costs, because I decided that he no longer deserved my time or my friendship, let alone my forgiveness. That’s hard when you are in the same social circles and nobody knows what has happened between you both and everyone continues to sing his praises. And you have to silently watch as they do so. That’s unjust. It’s also hard when some of the few people whom you have disclosed the assault to, treat him in the exact same way as before they knew this insider information. That’s also unjust. Because that says that you don’t matter. And what happened to you doesn’t matter. And how you feel and how you’ve been affected doesn’t matter either because a man’s reputation is more important. And your heat and your self-hate and your shame and your anxiety and your trauma that has come about as a result of his choices is insignificant. And so ultimately he gets away with it.
And the worst part is that you know that you are contributing to letting him get away with it. Because sure, you were active at the start – you tried your best to explain and educate, but that didn’t work, so you have to settle on your own justice, your own mini-victory of not letting him have the privilege of knowing you anymore, because it’s not like society is giving you any other alternative coping mechanism. And you convince yourself that that’s enough, and that you can get by on your mini-justice system alone. But deep down, you know that this is a passive role, and is therefore letting him get away with it. Every awkward encounter; every intentionally dismissive interaction that you have had when you are forced to be in the same room as this person; every birthday message that is sent by them ‘hoping you’re well’ and reminiscing on good times that happened before the assault took place, is them getting away with it. Because your silence, your mini-protest allows him the choice of forgetting about you and ultimately choosing to forget to face up to what he did. You are allowing him to continue living his life as if nothing happened because he can get away with it. And of course he can – he is male.
And although the word sorry was said, I can’t forgive an apology that was only made on the belief that once sorry is said, the problem will go away – evident from the lack of aftercare shown by him. If he were truly sorry, if he truly knew how he had made me feel by what he did, he should be apologising in everything he does, in his words, in his actions, in his reformation. He should not just tell me, but show me that he will never do something like that again, never make anyone feel that degraded again, and I should be able to believe him, instead of him brushing my assertion off with his excuses.
And this is exactly the problem. The change should come from him, the effort should come from him. But it came from me. I was the one degraded, I was the one shamed, I was the one made weak by him, but I was the initiator of the conversation that what he did was not right. I had to find the strength to do that. I had to find the bravery to tell others, through the embarrassment, and live through their indifference. I had to find the ability to sacrifice myself, to submit myself to the mercy and opinions of others. They did not want to accept this information that their friend was not who they thought, so they chose to ignore it, just as he chose to ignore the person I was showing him that he is – the person he showed me he is. And this should not have been my responsibility, it should have been his. But in his denial he turned away from that responsibility, and there was no-one else who stood up to claim it, or to fight for the victim of the situation. I should not have had to convince people that he did me wrong. He did me wrong. That’s fact. Yet he is living and breathing and continuing, as if none of this even happened.
When I read about the recent allegations that surfaced in the news about Weinstein, about Kevin Spacey, about big Hollywood executives, high-brow actors, members of parliament, and the numerous assaults that they have carried out across the years, I felt emotionally overwhelmed and fragile. I felt, and continue to feel, affected. Because I am affected, I have been affected, yet I’ve been left to my own devices to heal myself. And I am reminded that although time is a great healer, it has not and will not heal the injustice that still hangs over my heart. I am still not over the injustice of what happened and I have to resort to outlets such as this to express my frustration and pain.
I am so grateful to and so proud of every victim who has sacrificed themselves publicly in aid of others coming forward and in the attempt to normalise victim visibility. But at the same time I am deeply saddened that the divulgence of this information had to come from them. I know just how hard it is to share your experience and, on top of the pain of what happened, be faced with a sheer lack of support, with people insisting you are lying, with others dictating whether your voice is even valid. It is wonderful that Weinstein has been removed from his position of power so publicly, and these women’s voices have been finally heard and taken seriously. But so many people still value their opinions over the experiences of the marginalised. And although Weinstein has been publicly shamed and a lot of people acknowledge his disgusting actions as truth, there are still people who choose not to, and there are those who will see him seeking sex-addiction treatment as a fitting form of retribution. Weinstein doesn’t need sex-addiction therapy, he needs to be taught that women are not here for his pleasure and he is not entitled to them when and how he wants. Society needs to be taught that women are not here for anyone’s pleasure, and no one is entitled to us when and how they want. No one should hold the power to touch us without our consent. And no one should reserve the right to disregard a victim’s truth.
It is clear that we need a re-structuring of the failed support system currently in place for responding to sexual assault. Yes, lots of people have come forward over recent allegations. But what do we do with this? What aftercare do they receive? There is potential for this to be a powerful time to make a change that so very needs to happen. A change that results in a society where it is not left to the victim to discipline their perpetrator when there is no other option than feeling responsible for letting the behaviour continue if being silent. A society where the perpetrator fully understands the consequences of their actions and actively engages in reformation. A society where victims are encouraged to speak out and have confidence in knowing that their truth will be perceived as just that.
Because if I tell you the truth, if I tell you that you assaulted me, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.
A big thank you to Florian Moon for their contribution and support for writing this piece.
Rape Crisis 0808 802 9999
Women’s Aid 0808 2000 247
National Domestic Violence Helpline 08457 023 047