Monthly Archives: November 2012

Time to Have a Voice

 

“The United Nations’ (UN) International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is an occasion for governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations to raise public awareness of violence against women. It has been observed on November 25 each year since 2000.” [1]

International day for the elimination of violence against women is an occasion which aims to give female victims of violence a voice; to make people aware of an issue which still goes on.  To mark this occasion, I’ve decided to tell my story.

Almost nine years ago, I was attacked on my way home from a night out.  It was two days after Christmas.  I had been walking home from a nightclub around two or three o’clock in the morning.  I know this sounds crazy, but I lived in a student-y area where there were always people around and I had done it a hundred times before.  It’s one of those things where you think “It’ll never happen to me!”  But it did.  People have said to me that I was lucky; and I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.  It was a sexually-motivated attack, but my attacker was disturbed before he did me any physical harm.  I managed to walk away with little more outward damage than the bruises of his fingers on my face from where he had grabbed me to try to stop me from screaming.

I suppose if you look at it that way I was lucky.  I was one of the first in a series of around ten women attacked by this man over a period of eight days.  Each attack increased in severity as the attacker grew bolder.  In that respect I suppose I’m lucky I was one of the first.  I didn’t- and still don’t- feel lucky though.

This is not an experience that every woman should have to expect to go through at some point in her life, and in my case, I should be thankful that it wasn’t worse.  This is something that should never have happened.  My attacker had a warrant out for his arrest out at the time.  It took the police over a week to catch him.  I had to suffer the stress of police interviews, an identity parade, an impending court case and the prospect of having to face my attacker in court.  All of this took place over around four months, and it coincided with my dissertation submission and final exams at university.  Rather than looking on the bright side and being thankful that the attack hadn’t been worse, I was furious that it had happened to me at all, and people telling me I was lucky made it worse.  It undermined the pain I was going through.

Although I was not badly physically harmed, and the outward signs healed fairly quickly, the damage inside was far greater.  My outlook changed almost overnight.  On the 26th of December I was confident, outgoing, a risk taker and probably a bit too much of a party girl.  By the 28th of December I had to sleep in the same bed as my mum because I couldn’t bear to be alone.  If I was left with my own thoughts for any length of time, I replayed what had happened in my mind and would freeze.  I didn’t leave the house for over a week. I still remember the first time I left the house after that.  I can visualise it exactly, as if it happened five minutes ago.  I only walked to our local shop, but I clung to my dad’s arm like a crippled old woman, constantly checking over my shoulder. In a sense I was crippled.  My sense of who I was had been smashed into dust, and I had no idea how to move forward.

At the time the police offered me counselling, but in the immediate aftermath, I refused.  The title ‘victim support’ made me cringe.  I didn’t want to be a victim.  No one knew how to talk to me about it, and so everything I was feeling was left unsaid, and actually, this is the first time I have ever actually disclosed what I was thinking and feeling.  In truth, I was ashamed, and I didn’t want to drag others down with me.

Over time, and with the absolute unwavering support and patience of my parents (and I will always, always feel a debt of gratitude for this- even though they would say they were just doing their job as parents- I feel like they brought me back to life.  I don’t think they will ever understand quite how much that meant to me.)  I slowly started to regain my ‘self’.  Following this there were a great many ‘firsts’.  The first time I was alone in the house.  The first time I went back to my student accommodation.  The first time I went back to work.  The first time I went out alone.  Each one was a little victory, and a hugely significant step on my path to being able to live my life free of the restraints I was enforcing on myself.

Without being melodramatic, this did fundamentally change who I was.  I am no longer a risk-taker.  I will go to extreme lengths to ensure my personal safety, and I worry about my friends and family when I can’t see them, and not just about something similar happening, I am generally far more anxious about the world in general now.  I would also say that I am more subdued, and even the way I dress is a bit more conservative, but I guess that’s what happens when a policeman interrogates you about the specifics of your clothing on the night of your attack to ascertain whether that might have provoked your attacker.

Now I’m better. Not the same as before, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in its own right.  I still occasionally think about what happened though.  Not as frequently as before, but when I do the same thing happens.  I become paralysed.  Fear and panic take over and I forget to breathe, and I have to snap myself out of the trance.  I am still angry.  For what that man did to all of us (I met the other girls at the identity parade.  No one spoke to each other, but we all wore the same expression, averted our gaze and got out as quickly as we could) he was sentence to thirty months in prison.  I assume he was probably out in just over a year.  It sometimes strikes me that I might run into him in the street.  He could be living around the corner, but I have to put that out of my mind or I don’t know that I would ever be able to un-freeze.

I think that not talking about it made it worse.  I wish I had had the balls to just force someone to hear me out, so that I could exorcise all of the hurt, anger and bad I had festering inside me.  If there’s one thing I want others to take from this, it’s that.  Talk.

Below is a piece of writing I did a few years ago to try to get some of the bile out of my core.  I suppose it’s a little of me baring my soul.  At the time it was a form of catharsis, and even all these years later, putting it out on a public forum is terrifying, but it still feels like a sort of release.  Hopefully it will show that even after you fall apart, even when you can’t make sense of yourself, you can fight your way back, it just takes time.

 

Open Letter to J.R.C.

How to begin?  I have so much to say to you and nothing at all.  How are you?  What are you doing now?  Where are you?  The last question is the one that frightens me the most.  It feels so strange to address you as ‘you’.  That feels so familiar, accepting, forgiving.  It seems strange to me that there is no pronoun to use that seems appropriate.  That encapsulates what you are, and what you are to me.

I am fine, now, in case you are wondering, although I don’t suppose you are.  Do you even know who I am?  Do you remember me?  Did you ever even know my name?  It seems strange to think that you had such a colossal impact on my life, in who I’ve become, and I probably barely even registered on yours.  A blip.  An error in judgement that cost you part of 36 months.  Do you hate me for what I did to you?  Can an empty shell feel hate and remorse?

I try not to think about what you did.  Not any more anyway.  There was a time of course, when I could not stop thinking about it; when I replayed it in my mind, and projected alternative endings and fantasised about sequels.  I could not sleep at night.  The darkness and solitude conjured up a weight on my chest which swelled and crushed until I had to physically shake myself out of a trance induced by my mounting panic.  I listened for your footsteps outside my house.  Of course they never came, you don’t even know where it is, but at night, in darkness and solitude, I did not exist in the real world.  I existed in a world where I was alone, and you wanted to finish what you started.

The first few days I was in suspended motion.  I was in limbo.  I honestly felt like my life as I knew it had ended and I just didn’t know how to start it again.  However, just knowing that my parents were there to catch me was just enough to set me back on my way again.  I wonder if they even know how much they did for me.

I sometimes think about how they must have felt, but in all honesty, I cannot even imagine.  Whatever it was, they didn’t let it get in the way.  They must have felt so angry: how dare someone do that to their child?  I suspect there may have been a touch of guilt, as those close to victims of violence probably feel when they cannot prevent it.  Whatever it was, they did not succumb to it.  They poured themselves into carefully putting their broken daughter back together again.  Of course I know they were angry and they were hurting, I could see it in their eyes when they heard me give my statement to the police.  Hearing the things that you did and wanted to do to their daughter must have been heart-breaking.

To their infinite credit, they focused on staying positive for me.  Oh I know that my father would have loved to get you alone, and he told me so once, but for the most part they did not waste their breath on you.  They gave me everything I needed, were with me every step of the way out of the darkness, and for that I will be eternally grateful.  Even today, nearly five years later, they still worry about me a little more than the others.  If I’m running a little bit late, they call me, just to check.  I don’t mind though.  For their endless love and support I will always be indebted.

The first time I ventured back outside was like being re-born.  The whole world seemed different.  It looked the same, it was the same, but my perception was completely altered.  I clung to my father’s arm like an invalid but his strength was my emotional crutch.  Physically, you hardly left a mark.  Some small, finger-print sized bruises on my face, but the real scars are inside.  Although they have healed over, they will always be here, like the mark on my knee from where I fell over in my first year at school.

That was the day that I realised that actually, I would be ok.  That the world had still gone on, it was only me who had stopped.  I knew that my dad would not let me go until I was ready and that the only person who could push me back into real-life was me.

For the first few weeks I was shaky.  I think I sank to the bottom on the evening I had to identify you.  I waited in a room with the other girls and all of a sudden I truly felt like a victim.  The humiliation was like a slap in the face and I hung my head, ashamed at how something like you could define me as such.  I looked at my dad and I think he understood. 

At first I didn’t want to leave the house on my own, then, gradually I regained my confidence.  Eventually I was only afraid to be out alone at night.  I still am.  I don’t think that will ever go away.

In some way, I think you opened my eyes to the way the world really is.  Was I really that cocky and arrogant before?  Sometimes I think it is good for me to be so cautious now- sometimes I think I’m missing out.  My sense of self-worth however, is completely re-invented.  I have a new respect for all of my achievements, however small, because I did it.  Me.

So in a way, I guess you have helped to make me a better person.  Not in every respect though.  I’ve gone from feeling afraid to guilty and now I’m mostly angry.  Not all of the time, but sometimes it hits me.  It takes over and clouds my mind like a mist.

My vitriol festers inside.  An opposite, equivalent to my heart.  Like a living, pulsating entity.  I imagine it would look like a clot of bluebottles clustered round a small, dead piece of me.  But it doesn’t get to take over very often now.

Sometimes, for a few seconds it grabs control and I am literally hypnotised by it.  I have visions of smashing you into a thousand jagged fragments.  Literally as you did to me figuratively.  Even though you are not there, I experience the physical manifestations of my rage.  A quickening of pulse and breath; muscles tensed ready for revenge; jaw set against you.

Then I’ll snap out of it, feeling ashamed of myself for succumbing to thoughts of you.  I look around to check if anyone noticed the change in me.  And this is what I hate.  Despite the fact that to me, you are worth nothing, not even the effort of my anger.  To me you are not a human being.  You are the sum of all the right parts of a human being, but something important is missing.  I don’t even want to think about you, let alone be angry when thinking of you.  You see, when that happens, and I feel like disregarding the fact that you are a person and committing an act of violence, I become closer to what you are, and that disgusts me.

Sometimes I wonder if I am over-reacting, making a fuss over nothing and still going on about something I really should be over by now, after all, did I not escape relatively unscathed?  Frightened?  Yes.  Bruised?  Yes, but they heal.  Some of the others, so I’m led to believe, were not as ‘lucky’ and I was.  The people who consider me so have a strange definition of luck.  I do not consider myself lucky to have met you. 

I have friends who, at the time, didn’t seem to care about what happened.  They expected me to continue as normal, and played no part in the recovery process.  They cannot understand.  The effect of an experience cannot be measured according to the perceived severity of the incident; the effect is wholly personal to the victim.  I am the only person who truly knows the effect your actions had.  Of course, there were consequences for others, but I am the only person who can define what happened to me on the morning of December 27th 2003.  Regardless of how little you may think you did, I am the only person who can tell you the full extent of the impact of your actions, and I am the only person who can decide if you have fully atoned for what you did.

How do I feel about you now?  I’m not sure I can fully answer that.  I don’t think that you acted out of malice or evil, I think you were selfish.  In an attempt to gratify your impulses, you did what you wanted, without any thought for how it would affect me.  It may sound strange, but I don’t think you actually intended to harm me.  That didn’t enter the equation.  It was not about me and how I might feel about what you were doing, it was about what you were doing made you feel.

No, I don’t think you actually intended to harm me, but you did.  For that I can never forgive you, because you see, unlike you, I am a human being.  A human being who has been violated.  You are an empty shell.  Your disregard for others shows a lack of empathy.  Maybe you would not feel like this, but I do.  I am human.  I want to be free from the hatred, but I can’t.  I will always have this putrid, stinking abhorrence for you buried in my chest.  I want to be the kind of person who forgives you, but I can’t.  I don’t think I ever will.  I’m too human.


[1] www.timeanddate.com [accessed 20/09/12]


Oi, Boys! How about no?

Don’t be a dick.  It’s a simple rule, but it’s one I try to live by.  If you’re not sure whether you should do something just ask yourself: would a total cock do this?  If the answer is yes, don’t do it.  Not difficult.  That’s why one of my pet hates is when people act like dicks and then wonder why other people don’t respond positively to it.  Yes, I am thinking of something specific, and boys, you ‘aint gonna like this!

Now before you start moaning, let me just clarify before we get started proper: I am not talking about ALL men.  Not by a long shot.  I am pleased to admit that most of my male friends would never dream of doing this, and also agree that guys who do are dicks.  However, in my experience, there are quite a lot of men (well, boys, actually, in my experience) who do think that the type of behaviour I want to discuss is acceptable, and to be quite honest, however many it actually totals, is too many.

Now I’m not sure what the collective term for this set of behaviours is but it’s characterised by a couple of things: a group of young-ish ‘lads’; usually booze is involved and often, but not always some sort of pub or night club (although my most recent experience of this took place in the car park outside my house- yes, really!)  It can involve comments, gestures, unwanted contact, grabbing and physical violence, all in the name of catching a girl’s attention.  It’s the things that groups of boys do to try to impress each other, while secretly hoping that the girl will fall for their cheeky chappie charm.  It’s the same mind-set as the wee boy in the playground who pulls the girl he fancies’ hair.  Personally, I call these guys gropists.

What I’m actually talking about is sexual harassment, but most of the perpetrators would be horrified with that label.  A few months ago I had cause to speak to a group of young boys that I work with about this type of behaviour.  When I used the words ‘sexual harassment’ at first, they started giggling.  Then this turned into disbelief- they thought I was over-reacting.  Then, when I explained how this works in the real world, and the consequences it could lead to for the guilty parties, the look of shame set in as they realised how shitty their behaviour had been.  The problem, in my experience however, is that very few of the young men who behave like this are willing to accept that they have done anything wrong.

In my (reasonably) short life time I have been subject to a number of experiences where I have had to defend myself from the unwanted advances of socially-inept young men.  I have been grabbed; actually lifted up; yelled at; insulted and followed.  I’ve had someone chap my window in the middle of the night.  He thought it was like ‘Romeo and Juliet’; I was about thirty seconds away from sending my dad out with the baseball bat.  I’ve had someone unexpectedly hand me a pair of prosthetic ears while I was waiting to be served at a student bar.  My friend and I used to go out clubbing together quite a lot and coined the phrase ‘circle of love’ to ironically describe the sensation when a group of boys circled us on the dancefloor.  I had never realised until that point that young men hunt their prey in packs.  I have heard of things worse than this happening.  If you haven’t heard of it already, Google ‘slut-dropping’ and prepare to weep.

Most recently I had a pair of charming young men wait for me to return from walking my dog at half past eleven on a Saturday night and tell me that they had been waiting for me to come back.  What utterly tremendous stupidity.  It takes someone with very little powers of reflection to fail to see why it is not a good idea to say that to a woman on her own late at night.

My responses to these acts of idiocy are varied.  Sometimes a withering put down will suffice; or a death stare can be quite effective.  I had a fairly standard reaction to gropists who grabbed me; I would grab them back by the wrist and cooly inform them, that should they repeat the action, they would be pulling back a stump.  I had to scream in the face of the guy who picked me up before he would put me down.  I’ve been so angry on more than one occasion that I have punched the gropist involved.  In all of the situations I have described, I never once invited the attention, perhaps other than possibly having the brass-neck to wear a short dress (please, get the irony inferred).  In each of them I was left feeling angry, insulted and demeaned.  It is difficult not to be offended when someone you don’t know has treated you like you are a bag of crisps on a shop shelf.

To paraphrase one of my favourite authors, one minute you’re a doll, the next you’re a dog, all because you dared to disapprove of being pawed or catcalled.  We ladies can’t really win in this situation.  There is real danger in the idea pervasive amongst those who are responsible that this is a joke.  It can only be considered a joke if the person it is aimed at agrees, not the instigator.  Any type of attention can be unwelcome, and that should be respected.  No one has the right to touch someone else uninvited, however innocent they think that contact might seem. You do not know a stranger’s circumstances.  You don’t know what experiences they have had in the past, and you certainly don’t have the right to decide what is acceptable to do to another person, regardless of your motives.

To be clear, this is not a post about sex offenders.  I’m not talking about sexual assault or rape, that’s a whole other subject, and I would hope there is no ambiguity about what is not acceptable there.  The real problem here is that a lot of people (the ones responsible) don’t think that there is a problem, and that for me is a bigger problem than the problem itself.  Are you lost yet?  Nearly there.  The attitude that it’s just a bit of fun, and that us harridans who have the nerve to complain about it really need to just lighten up is a throw-back to the times when women were considered to be the property of men, and they had to just put up and shut up.  The normalisation amongst some young men of what is blatantly the objectification of women is very worrying, even more so is the fact that many of them have never even considered that they might be doing something offensive.  It shows that all the progress made towards economic equality is really just a veneer for an underlying core of old-fashioned sexism: the men are the bosses and can essentially do whatever the hell they like to whomever the hell the like.  Providing they are female.

If this attitude goes unchallenged, I think that everything else achieved in the name of feminism seems rather patronising.  That ok, we can have our equal pay and employment rights, but really, all the boys are trying to do is shut us up, because deep down, they feel they are superior.

So, who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs?  Culturally there is a bit of a tradition of this in nightclubs and student unions, where young women are encouraged to take part in sexualised and often humiliating stunts for some sort of prize, usually shots of some variety.  It could be argued that these young women themselves are to blame; if they didn’t join in, these activities would very quickly die out.  I must say there have been times when I’ve wanted to shake some wee lassie who I see being hassled on the dancefloor who smiles up through her eyelashes at the cave man groping her arse in order to get her attention, then turn to her friend and roll her eyes.  If you don’t want him to do it- tell him to stop!  This, however is veering dangerously close to ‘she asked for it’ territory.  The fact is that the girl should not have to respond to this sort of behaviour in the first place.  Many young women are afraid to challenge this, especially if their particular would-be suitor is a member of an above-mentioned pack.

Ultimately, the fault lies with the perpetrators, not the victims, but how do we tackle a problem that many of the guilty parties are not even aware exists?  Does it need to start with the new boys being born?  Do we take responsibility for educating our sons and hope that eventually the problem dies out?  Do we continue to punch the idiots who do this until we punch some sense into their thick skulls?  Do the owners of the establishments where these incidents often occur need to take a tougher stance on this sort of behaviour?  Or is it bigger than this?  Is this something that we need to be making more noise about on a national level?

The answer is, I don’t know.  When it comes down to it, I’m just a torn-faced harridan having a rant about something that really annoys her on a public forum.  What I do know for sure, is that I’m not the only person who feels this way.  Not by a long shot.