When I was in my early twenties, one of my closest friends turned up at my house too early one Sunday morning. She was wearing her clothes from the night before. She couldn’t speak, she was crying too much. I got as far as asking “Did he?” and she nodded. I made her tea, put my arm around her, stroked her shoulder. I told her it wasn’t her fault. What I did not tell her was that it had happened to me too. I didn’t tell her because I had never told that story to anyone.
A few years later, another close friend told me she was seeing a counsellor at the Rape Crisis Centre. I gave her a hug. I bought her a pint. I didn’t tell her it had happened to me too. I didn’t tell her because I had never told that story to myself.
I was 15 when I was raped for the first time. I was 17 when I was raped for the second time. Both attacks happened in friends’ homes. The first time, it was my boyfriend, the second time a friend of a friend. In both cases I had been drinking and I had been flirting. And in both cases there was a moment when drunken flirting turned into rape.
It was clear both times that I had not consented and that I was physically and emotionally hurt, yet neither man apologised or acknowledged that he had done anything wrong. And because I did not speak out against them, I perpetuated the illusion that this had not been rape. In fact, in the case of my boyfriend, I continued seeing him for a couple of weeks afterwards. And, yes, I had sex with him again. What was I thinking?
I was thinking what so many rape victims think: that I had sent out the wrong signals. Being out late, being drunk, being alone with a man – these were all obviously wrong, and I was doing these wrong things almost every night of the week. It was reckless. It was asking for it. It was my fault.
Of course, it was not my fault. But I had internalised the view that girls are responsible for policing the boundaries of sexual behaviour. And because of this toxic idea, I accepted the sexual attacks as a punishment.
In the wake of both attacks, I said nothing. I did not report them as crimes, and I did not confide in friends. I told myself that no one would believe me. And yet, I knew that wasn’t true. Because my friends would have believed me. And their belief was part of my reason for staying silent. I didn’t want to be “that girl”, the “one who got raped”. Silence was a mode of survival because I sensed, at 15, that denial was safer than stigma.
Safer. That word has different resonances. In the aftermath of rape, there is a craving for safety. The action of having my clothes pulled off me, my legs forced open, a penis shoved dry inside me, showed me how little power I had. I could not bear it, so I hid.
I hid not only from the rapes, but from all the other unsafe parts of my life, all the ways I broke the “good girl” rules. I did not want to admit to the reality of rape because it was tied up with other forms of guilt and fear and denial about the risks I took with my body, about how I used myself as a kind of currency. I thought I knew the value of what I traded. But the truth is I put no value on myself at all. I know that now, but I think those men knew it back then. They knew they were safe raping me because I was too lost in my life to pose a threat to them. That was the signal I sent out.
There is a kind of violence to saying the word “rape” out loud. The fear of saying it, of seeing its hurtful impact, is one of the emotions that holds us back, that stops us naming the unnameable. Though the rapist is the real origin of pain, we make the mistake of seeing ourselves – our words – as responsible for spreading that pain. We are taught from childhood to mind other people’s feelings, and so not saying the word “rape” becomes a kind of tactful silence in which we protect others from the violence we have experienced. We keep them safe.
It wasn’t a hashtag that changed things for me. I’d been aware of #MeToo, but I didn’t think it applied to me. Until, that is, I found myself in a room with other women telling their stories. It was their voices – halting, eloquent, cracking, clear, soft, loud – as much as their words that made me admit I had been lying to myself for years.
When I decided to write down what happened to me, I knew my friends would read it: the ones who had confided in me years earlier, the ones I had offered sympathy and silence. I hesitated. How could I expect them to read it, when I had not confided in turn? When I had not stood in solidarity with them? When I had betrayed them?
And there it is again. Guilt. It is a peculiarly cruel aspect to the aftermath of sexual violence that, even 20 years later, though I no longer feel guilty for “letting” it happen to me, I feel guilty for not reacting in the right way. At the time I did not have the words, or the capacity to utter them, but still my internal monologue berates me for not speaking out, for not “sharing”.
My friends, of course, are far kinder to me than I am to myself. They do not blame me for my silence. Still, they were surprised when they read about my experience of sexual violence. One friend told me she was shocked by it. “You must have guessed,” I said. She shook her head. I had thought we had a kind of code in which it was understood that things like that had happened, even if we didn’t speak about them. I was wrong. I had hidden myself too well.
And so now I talk to my friends. I talk to my partner and my sister and my parents. To my students, and strangers. Since I’ve spoken out, I’ve found myself talking about rape on television, on radio, on podcasts. I have written, as I am doing here, about pain and shame and resilience and strength.
Make no mistake – the pain of having been raped does not simply go away. Though it has faded over time, talking about it requires me to reanimate the emotions I felt back then. And so it costs me something, it always costs me something to say to a room, or to write on the page, “I was raped”. But it is a cost worth paying. A cost I am finally able to pay.
“Notes to Self” by Emilie Pine is published by Penguin