“People invest a lot of trust in the relationships they form. If this is abused, it can leave that person doubting ALL relationships.” NRCC (@NottsRapeCrisis), Twitter.
This morning, I read NRCC’s Twitter feed and came across this gem. They post a whole host of facts and comments that speak out against sexual violence, but also offer something akin to solidarity, a sense that we are not alone in how we feel. I only discovered them on Twitter two days ago, but thoroughly recommend following them.
I felt moved to comment and reply to this, but found 140 characters sadly lacking in terms of writing an honest and truthful response. So I came here, because this is exactly the reason I first set up this blog. It’s my way of responding in a little more detail.
In my “Speak Out” piece (Change Listen Educate), I spoke about how rape is not about sex, it’s about power. I was quite adamant about that, and it’s true. At least, it is for the rapist. The truth is that for women who have experienced sexual violence – for ME – it is so much more than that. Yes, most things fundamentally come back to power and control, but the effects splinter off in ways that you wouldn’t even imagine possible.
There are the “obvious” effects, if you will. For years, I was unable to sit in a room alone with a man, I couldn’t walk anywhere alone (at first in the daylight as well as at night). These things are much better now, though I still have bad days and times when it feels a little... uncomfortable. It’s not so much that it causes me distress as the fact that I am aware of my situation. Like now. I’m in an office at the end of the corridor with my male colleague. Instead of just continuing, I have a split-second internal dialogue about where the exit is, where he is, where the phone is... and I’m aware of his movements. In fact, I’m aware of everyone’s movements, all the time.
You sort of expect that, though. That someone who has experienced sexual assault would find it difficult being around men, that they wouldn’t want to be in a vulnerable position outdoors or indoors. That sort of makes sense. And it does get better with time. Such a cliché, but true. The awareness is there, but it’s not terrifying like it was.
You also sort of expect people to find news reports or events on TV about related incidents difficult. Because seeing a rape storyline handled in a soap, whether well or badly, just reminds you of everything you’ve been through. And when reactions are different to yours, or the outcome or events are different, you don’t put it down to individuality or even the fact that it’s fiction, but you put it down to your own inadequacies. It compounds your feelings of shame and helplessness.
But what people don’t realise is how sexual assault and this abuse of power affect people’s lives every single day.
You stop trusting your own decisions because you blame your own instincts for getting yourself into that mess, so you second guess every tiny thing that you do. The last few weeks, I have been asked whether I want a couple of extra counselling sessions in September. I have a gut reaction and I’m doubting it. I don’t trust myself.
You stop trusting other people, because last time you did, you got hurt. And that lack of trust extends in so many ways. It’s not just physical intimacy that becomes a problem (and by physical intimacy, I’m also including hugs and other displays of affection), but even being able to share experiences verbally with people. You doubt what they are going to do with that knowledge, because once it’s out there, it’s out of your control. You have to trust them, and that’s incredibly difficult.
Friendships decay because you put up walls and barriers to protect yourself. And even if friends have an idea of what’s happening, they don’t know how to support, or where to turn to for support themselves. Often, they feel guilty for wanting this, when they feel they aren’t the ones in need.
You can’t risk a romantic relationship because of fear it will happen again, or even fear of reliving the past. Flashbacks and panic attacks are a very real possibility, and somehow sacrificing a love life seems quite a reasonable trade to avoid that horror.
Speaking to strangers becomes an ordeal, even on a professional level. You get to a point where you do it so often that you can get on with it, but it’s never going to be comfortable, not like it was. Because you know nothing about that person or what they’re capable of. You don’t know what situation you’re putting yourself into.
It’s very easy to become isolated, not least because people aren’t able to speak out. We are socially conditioned not to talk about “taboo” subjects, which include issues of violence against women. We feel like we’re alone, both in our feelings and our experiences, but we’re not. Trusting others is difficult regardless of your past, and this compounds the matter.
It’s easy to hand someone a phone number and send them in the direction of a service like NRCC. It’s easy to advise someone to seek counselling. But in reality, counselling means yet another relationship that necessitates trust. It means another environment in which you have to trust yourself and it means another relationship that is going to eventually end. It’s a huge step and not as easy as one might think.
In rereading this, I realised the importance of showing the positive. Because it can get better. No-one should be put in a position where they need it, but there are so many services out there that can be accessed. With help, you can learn to trust again, you can open up to the people around you and you can even (if you want to!) accept the odd hug without jumping out of your skin. It’s hard to rebuild once trust has been broken, but it’s possible.
The truth is that sexual assault affects all your relationships, just as it affects all aspects of life. I can’t say whether it will always be this way, because I am still learning to trust again (even if it is a slow and lengthy process!), but it does have a lasting effect. Like a broken pot, you can build it back together, but there will always be the faintest of cracks.