Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Right School

"Wow, it's been four months since I first interviewed you... It's just flown by!" my boss (who isn't really my boss and it's complicated, but I still call him my boss because he's awesome) told me.

This was a staff night out on the last day of term. Quite sedate really, but the first staff night out I've been on since I lived in Dunstable, because I've never been counted as one of the staff before, no matter how long I've worked at a school.

In some ways, he's right. This term has flown by quickly, before I even realised it was happening. But, on the other hand, it feels like I've been at that school for years, like I'm as much part of the furniture as everyone else. I love it so much and it's been such an integral part of my healing process and personal journey.

Before starting at that place, I'd all but given up hope with teaching. I felt like I was useless, had nothing to offer, and like the detractors who blamed me for my experience of violence (and accused me of being unfit to work with young people) were probably right. I had no self-esteem, no confidence in my abilities.

Mr Boss Man once asked why I was so worried about a lesson observation, when I had been so chilled at interview... The truth was that I never expected to get a job. I couldn't for one second believe that anyone would actually want me, so I wasn't overly worried about rejection when I expected it anyway.

Being at this school has taught me so much. Firstly, that I do have the organisational skills to cope with this job, though it does take an awful lot more effort for me to keep on top of things than for some people! And that I'm not the messiest / most disorganised person in the school. It's a close run thing, but knowing that scatty people can get far in this profession keeps me sane!

It's taught me that I do have strengths in this job. I am good at languages and music (obviously), but my language work has given me a head start in teaching English. I've discovered that I adapt quickly, that I learn from training and work to meet my targets. I've also learnt where I can give extra to the school, in terms of clubs and things. I've found that I'm good at scaffolding and differentiation. It's not something I thought I was very good at, but it seems to come easily, as do pupil-led lessons.

I've learnt that I'm stronger than I think I am. With so many children from difficult backgrounds, I was bound to come into contact with stories similar to mine. I didn't think I'd cope with that, but I did, I am, I can. It's really empowering to know that my experience gives me perspective, strength and empathy, rather than the weakness and hindrance that I thought it would.

And, most importantly (possibly), is that I've found out how to love a job and commit to it - throw myself in entirely - without sacrificing myself and my emotions. Too often, in the past, the only time I would really work as hard as I could was to escape the pain and flashbacks. Now, I throw myself in because I want the children to learn and have fun, I want to do my best for them and for the school.

I've still got a long way to go. Observations seem to cause severe allergic reactions (well, nervous breakdowns) and I need to get the hang of this work-life balance thing... but I've discovered how much I can do with the support and input of the right school.

And, for the first time in forever, I feel truly happy.



This didn't really fit in anywhere above, but I wanted to say it anyway... the people I work with are amazing and supportive. The school is the wonderful, nurturing environment that it is because of the fantastic men and women working in there are so compassionate. I have wonderful TAs in my classroom, reassuring me constantly, a beautiful colleague in the other Year 3 class who has coped so well with a newbie, a brilliant senior leadership team and, just generally, the best colleagues a girl could ask for. The school wouldn't be what it is without them, and I wouldn't be who I am without them either!

Friday, 28 March 2014

Encounter

"Hello," the man greeted, as I trotted down the corridor. "Is there a big event on this weekend?"

I turned to face him and felt it. "It" was a strange combination of emotion and physical reaction that caught me completely off-guard; the stomach lurch, the sudden urge to vomit as my gag reflex kicked in, dizziness and itchy feet. I don't know if you've ever had real itchy feet (not just the metaphorical "it's time for a holiday" type) - the urge to run for the hills that is so overwhelming that you can't physically stand still...

It wasn't the first time I had seen him over the weekend. When I arrived last Friday night, he was on his way out of the gym. But it had been nice and easy that time - I kept my head down and scurried on by as he left. This was a little different.

Who was he? He was the man who raped me last year. I knew there was a chance that he would be around. Though it was a hotel, he was a gym member and it did make sense that he'd be around at some point. But I had rationalised that the probability of encountering him was low; I would have to be passing that same part of the corridor at the same moment. Unless I decided to chill out in the gym, it was highly unlikely. I didn't think I'd see him multiple times.

Part of me wanted to run as fast as I could. Perhaps I would have done, but I was wearing my crew badge on my lanyard, and I knew I was representing the company. So I forced myself to stop, take a breath and smiled back at him.

I'm kinda good at that now, the composing myself to look like I'm comfortable. Between meetings with male colleagues, kids' dads and other things, I'm fairly used to being alone with men (though still dislike it), and have developed a series of barriers that allow me to fake it - big smile, straight back, confident, professional attitude and an awareness of my potential escape route. And breathing. Breathing's quite important, as is holding my hands in front of me so no-one can see them shake. It's become so automatic, that I barely have to think about it on a day to day basis.

But I did last Saturday...

"Yes," I told him, my hands gripped tightly together. I told him the name of the company and explained, "It's a signing event."

He nodded. "I've heard of that one before. Are you staff or just here for fun?"

I explained that I was crew and answered his questions patiently and politely, whilst silently praying for him to leave me the hell alone.

Afterwards, it took me a while to verbalise what upset me about the encounter. "Of course you were upset - he raped you" doesn't actually cover the whole reaction and range of feelings. It was more than that. It was more than fear of him, or sorrow at what I went through, or anger at what he did or a sense of isolation....

It was absolute rage and indignation. Because not only did he turn my world upside down last summer, just when I thought I was finding my feet, but he had the gall to talk to me like I was just another person.  And that's when I realised that - to him - I was just another person.

He changed my life, had a great impact on it. But I had no impact on his. I was nothing more than a body to him and I never would be. He didn't feel any remorse or guilt or anything, because he couldn't remember me or my face, even though he spent all that time hurting me in the most vile, intimate and personal manner. He will never remember my face, but I will never forget his.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

I am NOT a statistic

91% of rapes are committed by people known to the victim.
'Only' 9% of rapes are committed by strangers.

One of the weirdest concepts for me is that I am on both sides of this statistic that Nottingham Rape Crisis Centre tweets quite frequently. And, possibly odder than that, both make me bristle equally.

91%? Are we not outraged by this figure, that so many men in our lives are taking advantage and abusing us in the most horrific way imaginable? 91%, so my case is nothing unusual, nothing special, I'm just another woman, another number, another nameless, faceless victim?

I hate that 91% statistic, because it trivialises what I've experienced, what hundreds and thousands of women have experienced, and it reduces us all to a "one size fits all". Organisations like NRCC spend so much time and money trying to educate people that we are all different, that our reactions and stories are unique, that this universal statement feels like it's undermining that.

On the other hand is the 9% comment. Because it's aiming to dispel the myths that all rapes are committed by strangers, aiming to reassure those women who think "I must be over-reacting; it's just rough sex", but it does far more than that. It takes an already isolating situation, where a woman can feel like no-one could possibly understand, and reinforces that. Been raped by a stranger? Then you're a freak, you're alone.

There's also the "97% of callers to our helpline knew their attacker" tweet, which is even more uncomfortable than the previous one. I think I was so distressed that I laughed and jeered, "Well, aren't I ******* special, then?!" at my computer screen.

And despite this, I applaud NRCC's work to raise awareness of the truth behind rape. I love that they're breaking taboos, talking about difficult subjects and getting discussions going. I just wish there was a way to do it that didn't dehumanise the brave and passionate women that they work with.

Occasionally, I get a little embarrassed that these tweets elicit such an emotional reaction. After all, I'm quite capable of switching off, removing myself from attachment from the statistics, of working alongside people on difficult topics and advocating. 

Then I remember that my emotions are what make me human. Yes, they're all over the place, unpredictable and sometimes a little disproportional, but they're mine. MINE.

And where does that leave me? Because now I feel a little guilty about my feelings, and unable to raise the questions or challenge the wording, but then I'm pleased that I reacted because it's a reminder that I'm human (and proves that these tweets actually have an impact!) and still indignant that people are being swept under the carpet.

Actually, it leaves me silent. I've been watching this for several months now, not quite sure how to phrase my discomfort, until I saw a brave woman stand up and challenge today. And I'm grateful for it. Incredibly so.

I think what I'm trying to say is that rape makes me angry. It makes me absolutely furious. I don't care whether it's a stranger, husband, friend, someone I met in the pub... because it is a man who has committed a completely unforgivable act of sexual and psychological violence. 

Yes, we need to know the statistics and strong, emotional reactions to them mean that they are taking effect, but for every statistic, can we look at the human impact? For every number, can we have a reminder that every single woman is unique, important and loved? And can we please, please get rid of "only" and language that reduces us to some sort of caged animal, a curiosity in the corner?

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Back To Nine

I still remember my first visit to Nottingham Women's Centre. I was surprised by how bright, warm and friendly the welcome area was, and how everyone else seemed...normal.

I sat down nervously on one of the sofas, not quite sure if I was supposed to make my own way up to the Rape Crisis Centre, or if someone would come down to fetch me. Or if people would make assumptions if I asked the way. I wasn't quite ready to acknowledge that out loud.

There was a blonde woman in the kitchen area, who looked up and asked if I needed help. Without any sort of judgement, she asked if I was going up to NRCC and told me to follow her. As we walked, she explained how she had been for counselling there, how it does get better, that life becomes bearable and how that place gets under your skin... you don't just walk away from the women's centre.

I didn't believe her back then. I couldn't see a way that I could live without the hurt, or that other things could be at the centre of my life out of choice and happiness rather than forcing them into the spotlight in order to hide from the horrors I was avoiding. I couldn't quite grasp how I could move on without forgetting, deal with what I remembered, be happy...

And if I didn't believe her then, I believed her even less as counselling continued. As we explored feelings and delved into the problems that I faced, everything seemed more hopeless than ever. How was I supposed to heal from something that was ripped open every time we spoke?

I began to go camping again, do the things that I loved. It gave me confidence that other things could take priority in my life, and that I was still the girl that I was before all this, even though I had changed a bit. I took opportunities and did things that pushed me, such as Roverway in Finland and the Stop The Violence seminar in Belgium. I began to learn that I had a voice. Not just any voice, but a powerful, authentic voice.

Progress isn't measured in perfection, but in the little victories. Camping in the wilderness of Evo, speaking at a feminist event, going back to the scene of the violence. It's measured in the nights without nightmares, going out without panicking, working every day with children the same age as my daughter would have been. Progress is a journey.

I was first raped on 26th February 2005. Every year, I avoid the world in any way possible on that date. Whether it is pretending to be ill or booking a day off work, I barely ever leave the house, choosing instead to curl up in a nest of cuddly toys and watch a film. The only real exception was in 2011, when I was forced to attend a first aid training day and did so whilst suffering panic attacks and flashbacks the whole time.

Last year, I was very aware of the date. I didn't work, but also never panicked or cried. I said at counselling that night that it felt like any other day. I'm not sure it did, to be honest. Not looking back on that now.

This Wednesday was the 26th February. I got up, headed to work, ate my porridge and did my preparations. I taught my first couple of sessions, got my morning hugs from the usual suspects in year three, made a few lewd jokes with my boss. I went for a meeting in his office - just me and him - to discuss a couple of issues, then headed back. And I wrote the date on the board...

"Oh..." I stopped and clutched my head, just for a second. I'd seen it and felt dizzy. Just for a second, because it had caught me completely unaware. The 26th February really was just like any other day, and all of a sudden it caught up with me; how I was stood in that place, teaching, meeting with male colleagues, acting like anyone else.

I suddenly realised exactly what that woman had meant. I hadn't forgotten what happened to me, I hadn't forgotten what day it happened on or anything else, but somehow it was manageable. Somehow, I was able to get up, go to work and just do my normal thing.

After that brief moment, I continued for the rest of the day. And when I got home, remembering the date, I put all my cuddly toys on my bed, and did my annual tradition of nesting with a Disney film. Not because I needed it, not because I was hiding, but because it's part of me - I love my Disney and I deserve it after a tough day.

My past is always going to be a part of me. In some ways, because of the writing that I do and the campaigns I'm involved in, it will be quite an integral part of me and something that I'm not necessarily willing to cast aside. But it's something that I work with, giving myself time to heal, grieve, celebrate and love, as I need it.

These days, I find that I'm the woman talking of experience and how we can heal. I'm the woman that praises the women's centre and NRCC and the amazing work they do with women of all backgrounds. I'm the one that's never really left, still doing things and feeling like the women at the centre are extended family. And I find myself thanking those women from that very first visit for welcoming into their community.

In This Place

In this place,
I feel the ghosts of my past
flickering in and out of existence.
I feel what was and what could have been
drowning out the present, colliding.

In this place,
I can  see my journey around me;
the panic ridden start and the call to action.
I see the women whose lives I touched
and the ones I never will.

In this place,
the emotions clamour to be heard;
wanting acknowledgement
and yet now - just as months ago -
I feel myself holding back the tide.

In this place,
I witness the growth;
the blossoming of awareness and my relationship with myself.
I witness the areas of need
and hold myself accountable to self-care.

In this place,
I promise myself truth -
just as I did back then.
I promise myself love and patience,
to allow myself to grieve.

This was written as part of Nottingham Women's Centre's "Writing For Healing" session, which I stumbled upon. It will be performed at their Silence The Violence event later in March.

News Headlines

This article was written as part of the Special Contributions Team for the EVB Campaign. For more information, please visit their website.

Every day, we are faced with a myriad of victim-blaming stories. A brief visit to three of the major news outlets uncovered no fewer than twelve inappropriate headlines or by-lines. From placing emphasis on a victim’s alcohol consumption to casting their abuse into doubt through misplaced quotation marks, each tells a stark tale of the media’s attitude towards those experiencing violence.
“Ethopian teenager who says she was raped by seven men…”
“155% rise in children groomed by sex gangs.”
“A beautician was left scarred for life after a fellow clubber glassed her when she refused to dance with him, it is claimed…”
“The woman was attacked while drunk…”
“Left demands answers from senior Labour trio over links to child sex group”
“Drama teacher charged with having sex with schoolboy she met while directing production of hit musical”
Though the last refers to the female abuse of a male, it is still an important example of how sub-editors choose to represent the sexual assault and violence towards children, young people and minors who are legally unable to consent to sexual activity.
In fact, victim blaming happens so often in today’s media that many people are increasingly immune to it. In creating a hierarchy of “worst examples”, are the ones at the top of the list those that shock, or the ones so subtle that they infiltrate the public consciousness at an unnoticed level? In fact, is it healthy to create a hierarchy at all, or should we challenge each and every instance?
Every single article, headline or comment that involves victim blaming is important. Each and every instance damages confidence in society, encourages self-doubt and self-blame. Each case reinforces society’s belief that male perpetrators and their reputations should be protected. There is a tendency to assume “innocent until proven guilty” which neglects to respect the needs of the victim.
In a society where over 90% of sexual assaults are thought to go unreported, it is imperative that women are believed and treated with the dignity that they deserve, so that they feel valued as members of the community and so that they have the confidence to work with authorities in the knowledge that they will be supported if or when they feel that they want to take further action.
Why does so much victim blaming exist in the media, particularly with regard to sexual assault and court cases? It is largely, as we know, both a symptom and cause of the gender inequality that exists, and created by the personal contexts of the journalists and editors. But more than that, the culture of legal action in which we live, where the press is held accountable for every comment and by-line printed about public figures, it is understandable that they would be wary about false accusations and anything that could cost the company. Unfortunately – and wrongly, of course – many editors find it far easier to side with the well-known personality, than to go with an anonymous member of the public who has little method of recourse.
However, there are ways to avoid litigation without blaming the victims of abuse and without holding them accountable for their own experience. There is language that can be used to report cries and allegations that allow women to retain confidence in the system.
Many instances of victim-blaming in recent headlines have been linked to three areas. But it is essential that sub-editors and journalists are not just challenged, but offered alternatives.
Firstly, all reports concerning children and minors who have been victims need to be referred to as instances of rape or sexual abuse. It is not sex, they are not having relationships with their abusers. If a young person is under the age of consent, then they cannot consent. Lack of consent is called rape.
If a person is in a position of responsibility, they are the ones who should ensure that any infatuation, signs of sexualised behaviour towards them (which can in itself be a warning sign of other abuse) or other unusual activity is referred up the chain, to the designated child protection officer. All persons working with young people receive extensive safeguarding training, from those involved in youth organisations such as Girlguiding or The Scout Association, to those working in schools. People in positions of care must not be mitigated by apparent flirtation – they are the abusers when acting in these cases, not the young person.
In cases purporting to allegations of sexual assault, it is imperative that the language used validates the information given by the victim whilst maintaining the legal boundaries. For example, terms such as ‘claims’, in addition to quantifiers such as ‘apparent’ and various quotation marks that lay doubt on the case should be replaced by neutral terms such as reports, allegations and – most preferably in a legal situation – charges. It is too easy for a journalist’s need for synonyms to open up connotations about the plausibility of the case.
Thirdly, a better understanding of this country’s legal system needs to be conveyed in writing. Not guilty does not mean innocent. A perpetrator can only be convicted if the crime can be proven beyond reasonable doubt which, in cases where the crimes may have been twenty or thirty years in the past, can be extremely difficult. Even more so when the people to be convinced are a jury made up of those exposed to victim-blaming on a daily basis.
Inconclusive evidence does not make someone innocent, and it certainly doesn’t make their allegations a “flight of fancy”, as they have been referred to in some parts of the media. Not guilty simply means that the jury wasn’t absolutely, 100% certain of the crime.
Subeditors need to be cautious when using the word innocent, or commenting on the victims in these cases of male violence against women. They must be accurate – speak of guilty or not guilty, or even not proven, but the word innocent is not an alternative for this, nor is the assumption that the victims in these cases have been “inventing” the trauma that they have experienced.
Headlines and by-lines needn’t be less “sensational”. They needn’t abandon the principles of snappy sound-bites and high sales. They needn’t be wordier nor must they risk legal action for reporting unsubstantiated or unproven claims. But editors, sub-editors and journalists must respect the basic human rights and dignity of victims and adopt a stance of neutrality that ensures those experiencing abuse feel supported rather than distrusted.
[This piece was written prior to the media reports about a 14yo child charged with rape of his mother and so the associated headlines are not included in this analysis.]

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Right Victim

“I know it wasn’t my fault,” I told my counsellor last summer. “It was his; he was the one who did it… At least it was only me he got.”

This was my reaction to being raped a second time. At least it was only me.

I couldn’t quite understand why she was so upset by this, not at the time. After all, surely it was better that I was the victim than someone else? I was already damaged goods, I’d already been through it once before, and I was getting the right support so didn’t have to experience the ordeal of finding it again. If he was going to attack someone – and statistics would imply that it was premeditated to some degree – then I was grateful it was me and not another woman.

I thought that I was being rational and mature about a terrible situation, that my presence that evening had somehow saved this nameless, faceless victim. To some extent, a lot of women do this, try to put a positive spin on it. I know I’m not alone, and protective strategies such as this have their place. We need ways to carry on.

But as time went on, I started to realise something awful. Because by assuming that responsibility, or accepting myself as the “right person”, I was becoming complicit in the victim-blaming culture that had developed around me.

No, I wasn’t suggesting it was my fault because I had been alone in the sauna, or that I had made myself vulnerable in the clothing that I had worn. However, by adopting a position as the “best” target, I had created a hierarchy of merit.

No-one deserves to be raped. No-one is asking for it or putting themselves in the wrong position or to blame in any way. It is only ever the perpetrator’s fault. End of.

A single woman shouldn’t feel “grateful for the attention”, nor should anyone feel that it’s “harmless fun”, and someone who has been there before shouldn’t feel any less important or any more deserving because of their past.

The End Victim Blaming Campaign asks us to think about our own frame of reference, how we respond to stories and why we respond in that way. Sometimes it’s also useful to think about how we would respond if it was another person reacting that way too, allowing us some perspective and a chance to review without feeling that the self-care is self-ish.

I know that if a friend or colleague told me that they were relieved it was them, that they didn’t matter and they weren’t important because they were damaged, I would be appalled. Because we all matter; we are all worthy of love, care and respect.

As a teacher, I’ve worked alongside children who have been victims and witnesses of male violence against women and children. It never fails to shock me how many so-called professionals will say, “At least it’s only ----‘s family, it’s not like they had much promise anyway.” No. Just no.

You see, there are even further reaching implications than hierarchies compounding victim-blaming. The idea that some people are more deserving of assault than others is in direct opposition to equality. If we believe in equal rights for any group, we need to believe in equality for all. How can I support feminism and the idea that all humans are equal if I don’t consider that child to be just as deserving of safety and love as every other child in my school? How can I support equal rights for all people if I won’t even afford myself the same dignity as I afford others?

Challenging others starts with challenging ourselves. How do we respond to others and how do we respond to our own situations? Do we allow ourselves healing time? Do we allow ourselves to care? Because believing in our own rights and equality, believing in our own right to safety and compassion, is an important step in challenging the hierarchy and victim-blaming culture.


There is no “right victim”, not even me.




The Right Victim was written as a submission for EVB Campaign's website, which they are posting on 20th February 2014.