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I was raped when I was drunk. I was 14. Do you believe me, Richard Dawkins?

I had not consented because I was not conscious enough to consent. Do you understand what that means?


Dear Richard Dawkins,

I was raped. I was raped when I was drunk, passed out. I was raped when I was drunk, passed out, when I was 14 years old. I was raped when I was drunk, passed out, when I was 14 years old and a virgin.

This is a fact. I know you don't believe me.

I was at a friend's house. Several girls were staying over. My friend had invited her boyfriend and his friend to come over. It was one of the first times I'd ever drunk alcohol so didn't understand that you shouldn't drink it very, very quickly like the Coca-Cola with which it was mixed. I felt ill, I went to lie down in her bedroom. I passed out. After that there were just moments I remember.

Pain. Being dragged off the bed onto the floor. Being pulled by my hair. Held down. A friend walking in and seeing what was going on and running in to rescue me. He pushed her out and locked the door. I remember the screaming and banging on the door while he continued to rape me while I drifted in and out of consciousness.

To be honest, even though decades have passed, I don't like to think about it much. Even now those vague memories still cause me enormous mental anguish.

I've never said these words aloud before. I've never spoken about the details before. I've never told a counsellor, I've never told a friend, I've never told my husband. I've told a few people in writing. But they can't see me when I'm typing. I'm sobbing right now. Decades on and I'm sobbing.

By the time I'd got to school on the Monday, he'd told everyone that he'd "had sex" with me seven times. I'm fairly sure, he didn't tell anyone "I pulled her off the bed by her hair" or "I held my hand over her mouth when she shouted out because of the pain of her breaking hymen". But seven times? Is that possible? I ask you as a biologist because I can't remember what happened. Could he have actually raped me seven times? That seems like a lot. I expect he was bragging.

It doesn't really matter because it started "a meme" at my school about me. You know all about that. I was "Lucky 7". People started giving me things with the number 7 on it - cards, stickers, old sweatshirts. People would stick a bit of paper on my back with the number 7 on it. Just kids being mean, but it hurt, that meme hurt me so much. It hurt because there were so many of them doing it. It went viral. It hurt because I just had to take it. It hurt because they all assumed that I had consented.

I had not consented because I was not conscious enough to consent. Do you understand what that means?

Within a few weeks I had cut off all my hair to about an inch long. He had pulled me by the hair. I didn't want hair anymore.

Within a year I had started making myself sick after eating. I was repulsed by my body, repulsed by being "a woman". I wanted to be small, invisible, a child.

My friends that had been at the house that night remained silent, they didn't join in on the bullying, but they didn't defend me either. Eventually, they drifted away from me. Or rather I pushed them away.

For the next 10 years, I retreated further and further away from myself, too. I created a bright-yet-tough exterior to keep everyone away from what was going on inside me. No one knew about my bulimia. No one knew that I had been raped. Inside was a fog. I had covered up my memories of that night and the subsequent bullying at school. I tried to tell myself it didn't matter. Move forward. It's all fine. Stiff upper lip and all that.

Funnily enough, the mind doesn't always work like that.

My bulimia had got so bad that I would spend entire days doing little other than eating and vomiting, eating and vomiting. I would take food into my body, force it into my body until it hurt and then endlessly, violently try and get it all out. Over and over again. Day after day after day I was metaphorically reliving that one night. I kept trying to get it all out.

When I was 24 I had an epiphany. It was simple, but profound: I liked myself. The "bright-yet-tough exterior" I had created to protect myself had grown into someone rather interesting. I liked her. I liked me. And, not believing in a soul, I knew that I am merely the result of my experiences both good and bad, even that horrendously bad experience that I still hadn't ever talked about, even that.

Soon after that epiphany I was able to stop making myself vomit. I realised that the endorphins released when vomiting had prevented me from really feeling emotions over the previous decade. It was like an addict coming off drugs. Once I started feeling emotions- good emotions, bad emotions- I revelled in feeling them all. My life was good.

Then I happened to see him.

I met up with a group of my old school friends and he was there. I didn't speak to him, but I just stared at him. I couldn't stop staring at him. Yet I felt like I wanted to vomit when looking at him. Not nausea exactly, I wanted to purge. I wanted to get it all out. He was still inside me. I wanted him out. I wanted him out. God, I just wanted to destroy him. It wasn't the best school reunion there has been, but I got through it.

That reunion was over 20 years ago now. I'm happy, successful, have a family, a great husband. I don't think about being raped that often, but I think about it considerably more than any other experience I had as a teenager. Every time I read a news story about a woman being raped, I think about it. Every time I read a woman's confessional blog post about being raped, I think about it. Every time I read research or statistics about rape, I think about it. Every time I see a rape portrayed in a film, I think about it. Every time I read the word "rape", I think about it. Every time I see you on social media talking about rape, something it is very unlikely you will ever experience, I think about it. I don't think about it all the time, but I have to face it constantly. And I know this is how it will be for the rest of my life.

I still can't talk about it. I couldn't bear to hear the words I've just written to you come out of my mouth. That would make it somehow too real. Women who can speak about being raped are stronger than I am. Maybe one day I'll be able to say the words to someone.

Do you believe my story? Do you think the fact that I was "too drunk to REMEMBER" (your words) means that there's a good chance I could have made it all up? Misremembered somehow? Fabricated memories? Would you need to hear my rapist's side of the story, too, in order to make up your mind? It was a long time ago, he probably just has a vague memory of "having sex" with me, but that's it. He might not remember any details as it was so long ago and he wasn't the target of bullying about it at school, bullying which burned the memories in day after day after day. And it's pretty likely he didn't spend a decade with an eating disorder reliving it day after day after day. Nor is it likely that every news story, film plot, social media pontificating about rape reminds him of it. So, his recollection will be hazy. Would he have to say the words "yes, I raped her", in order for you to believe me? What exactly would he have to say for you to believe my story over his?

Maybe my story is easy to believe because of some of the post-rape behaviour I exhibited - an eating disorder, for example, is a classic response to sexual trauma. At the time though no one at school suspected a thing. When they called me Lucky 7, they assumed I was a willing partner. They got absolutely no response from me at all. I wasn't "hysterical" nor frenzied nor anxious nor panicked when another "I am 7" birthday badge appeared on my desk. I was numb. If I had found the strength to say, at the time, "I was raped" would I have been believed by you? Or do you need me to have suffered the decade of mental illness to accept my side of the story?

Maybe it's easier for you to believe I was raped because I was passed out beforehand. Would it be harder for you to believe me if he'd walked me into the room before I passed out? Would you think I was somehow complicit because I "let him" walk me into the room? Would it be harder for you to believe me if I'd kissed him beforehand? Would you think I was "asking for it" if I'd drunkenly kissed him, then told him I needed to lie down, then he walked me to the room and I passed out? Where is the cut-off for you between Rape and Not Rape?

I was raped. I was raped when I was drunk, passed out. I was raped when I was drunk, passed out, when I was 14 years old. I was raped when I was drunk, passed out, when I was 14 years old and a virgin.

Do you believe me, Richard Dawkins?


The author's identity has been withheld at her request.

Update, 16.22: Richard Dawkins has responded via Twitter: "Yes, I believe her. Why would I not? Unlike the hypothetical case of my tweets, you have clear & convincing memories. In my tweets I explicitly stated that I was considering the hypothetical case of a woman who testified that she COULDN'T REMEMBER." Read the full tweets beginning here

Photo: Getty
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Sheepwrecked: how the Lake District shows up World Heritage's flaws

Here's hoping future statements about farming and the environment aren't quite so sheepish.

“Extremists like George Monbiot would destroy the Lake District,” tweeted Eric Robson, presenter of Radio 4’s Gardener’s Questions. But he’s “just standing up for nature”, others shot back in Monbiot’s defence. The cause of the clash? The park’s new World Heritage status and the continuing debate over the UK’s “sheep-wrecked” countryside.

Tension is such you can almost hear Cumbria’s Vikings chuckling in their hogback graves – for sheep farming still defines the Lakes as much as any poem. Hilltop farmers, like Lizzie Weir and Derek Scrimegeour, have sweated the landscape into shape over generations. And while Wordsworth may have wandered lonely as a cloud, a few hundred pairs of pricked ears were likely ruminating nearby.

UNESCO’s World Heritage committee now officially supports this pro-farm vision: “The most defining feature of the region, which has deeply shaped the cultural landscape, is a long-standing and continuing agro-pastoral tradition,” says the document which recommends the site for approval. 

And there’s much to like about the award: the region’s small, outdoor farms are often embedded in their local community and focused on improving the health and quality of their stock – a welcome reminder of what British farms can do at their best. Plus, with Brexit on the horizon and UK megafarms on the rise, farmers like these need all the spotlight they can get.

But buried in the details of the bid document is a table showing that three-quarters of the area's protected sites are in an “unfavourable condition”. So it is depressing that farming’s impact on biodiversity appears to have been almost entirely overlooked. Whether you agree with the extent of George Monbiot’s vision for Rewilding or not, there are clearly questions about nibbled forests and eroded gullies that need to be addressed – which are not mentioned in the report from UNESCO’s  lead advisory body, ICOMOS, nor the supplementary notes on nature conservation from IUCN.

How could so little scrutiny have been applied? The answer may point to wider problems with the way the World Heritage program presently works – not just in Cumbria but around the world.

In the Lake District’s case, the bid process is set-up to fail nature. When the convention was started back in the 1970s, sites could be nominated under two categories, either “cultural” or “natural”, with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) advising on the first, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the second.

Then in 1992 a new category of “cultural landscape” was introduced to recognise places where the “combined works of nature and man” are exceptional. This means such sites are always evaluated principally by ICOMOS, giving them more resources to research and shape the verdict – and limiting the input IUCN is able to make.

Another weakness is that the evaluation bodies can only follow a state’s choice of category. So if a state nominates a site as a Cultural Landscape, then considerations about issues like biodiversity can easily end up taking a back seat.

According to Tim Badman, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, this situation is in need of redress. “The way in which this separation of nature and culture works is increasingly out of tune and counter-productive,” he says. “Every natural site has some kind of relationship with people, and every cultural site has some major conservation interest, even if it might not be globally significant. We should collaborate much more to make that a virtue of the system.”

The more you think about it, the madder the notion of a “Cultural Landscape” sounds. Landscapes are, after all, inherently scoped out by man, and there is little in the natural world that humanity has left untouched. Especially those in Western Europe and especially those, like Cumbria, that have been felled and farmed by a succession of historic invaders.

Relationships between advisory bodies are also not the only failing in UNESCO’s approach; relationships between nations and the convention can be problematic too. At this month’s meeting of the committee in Poland, it was decided that the Great Barrier Reef would, once again – and despite shocking evidence of its decline – not be on UNESCO’s “In Danger” list. It prompts the question, what on earth is the list for?

The reluctance of many nations to have their sites listed as In Danger is a mixed blessing, says Badman. In some cases, the prospect of being listed can motivate reform. But it is also a flawed tool – failing to include costed action plans – and causing some governments to fear attacks from their domestic opposition parties, or a decline in their tourism.

On top of this, there is the more generalised politicking and lobbying that goes on. Professor Lynn Meskell, an Anthropologist at Stanford University, is concerned that, over the years, the institution “has become more and more political”. At the most recent session of the World Heritage Committee earlier this month, she found nominations being used to inflame old conflicts, a continuing regional dominance by Europe, and a failure to open up many “at risk” sites for further discussion. “All Yemen’s sites are in danger, for instance” she says, “yet they couldn’t afford to even send one person."

Perhaps most challenging of all is the body’s response to climate change. At the recent committee gathering, Australia raised the subject by way of suggesting it cannot be held solely be responsible for the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. And Turkey attempted to water down a reference to the Paris Climate Agreement, claiming the language used was overly “technical” and that the delegates present were too inexpert to comment.

According to Tim Badman, climate change is certainly an area that needs further work, not least because World Heritage’s present policy on the subject is now a decade old. Even the most ambitious interpretation of the Paris Climate Agreement would still see very significant damage done to Heritage sites around the world, Badman says.

There is hope of change, however. For the most polite yet sturdy response to Turkey’s objections – or, as the chair ironically puts it “this very small ecological crisis” – I recommend watching these encouraging reactions from Portugal, Phillippines and Finland (2h30) -  a push-back on technical objections that Meskell says is rare to see. IUCN will also be producing the second edition of their World Heritage Outlook this November.

Positions on the Lake District’s farms will also hopefully be given further thought. Flaws within World Heritage’s approach may have helped pull wool over the committee’s eyes, but future debate should avoid being quite so sheepish.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.