Warning: This piece includes description of sexual assault, which may be triggering for some readers
At the age of 15, I was raped by an 18-year-old I’d been talking to online.
I’d spent weeks chatting to him on MSN, texting him when my teacher’s back was turned, and whispering secrets to him over the phone at 2am. Needless to say, on the day we’d arranged to meet up, I was bursting with excitement.
The original plan was to go on a date to the cinema but within seconds of meeting, he announced that he’d forgotten his wallet and didn’t have enough money to pay for our tickets. I offered to pay for them myself but he refused and suggested I go to his house instead.
I knew going home with someone I’d only just met was a ridiculous thing to do but I convinced myself I’d be okay. It’s not like my date had turned out to be a 40-year-old paedophile and – as far as I knew – he was who he said he was. Besides, I wanted us to spend time together and didn’t want to hurt his feelings by rejecting his invitation.
When we arrived at his house and walked into his room, he immediately started tugging at my clothes. When I protested, he told me if I didn’t do what he said, he’d throw me out on the street with no clothes on. I’m not sure exactly how long the assault lasted, but if I had to guess I’d say at least two or three hours.
On my way home that evening, I convinced myself what happened was my own fault. It didn’t cross my mind that it was rape, but I did wonder why on earth any woman would choose to do the things I’d been forced to do. Although I tried to push what happened to the back of my mind and carry on with life, in the years that followed, I’d think about my rapist every so often.
“I googled his name out of curiosity... and I quickly discovered he was in prison for sexually exploiting an underage girl”
In February 2018, I googled his name out of curiosity. I told myself that he’d probably have a girlfriend and kids and live a normal life, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. His name and face were right there on the front page of Google and I quickly discovered he was in prison for sexually exploiting an underage girl when he was 27-years-old.
A couple of days later, I reported him to the police for what he did to me. The police were sympathetic and made me feel believed, but after an eight month investigation they told me there wasn’t enough evidence to take the case to court. I was devastated that I’d never get justice and too angry to keep quiet, so I started writing about my experience online.
It’s been reassuring to know that the things I write have the power to help others, but I often worry what people think of me and have doubts about whether I’m doing the right thing. As easy as these words are to type, looking someone in the eyes and saying the words ‘I was raped’ out loud makes me feel sick to my stomach.
As difficult as it was to tell family, friends and the police, telling the men I date is even harder. Whenever I’ve tried to tell dates or boyfriends that I was raped, it’s felt like a desperate plea for attention, sympathy and intimacy.
I’m so scared that the men I date will read the things I’ve written online that I’ll go to great lengths to make myself as difficult to google as possible. On dating sites, my name is ‘Jen’ rather than ‘Jenni’, I don’t tell matches my job title, and if they ask what company I work for, I find a way to change the subject.
There’s something unsettling about the power imbalance that comes with going on a date with someone whose darkest secrets are firmly hidden while yours can be uncovered by a digital stalking session.
Last year I dated someone who stumbled upon my surname by mistake, despite my best efforts to keep it from him. When I realised I was totally googleable, I forced myself to tell him about the rape so he’d hear it from me first. My heart was pounding, my face was burning, and I could feel individual beads of sweat dripping down my back. By the time the conversation was over, I could have done with a shower. His reaction was largely positive and supportive, but afterwards I was obsessed with the idea that his opinion of me had changed – even though in reality, he didn’t actually do anything to suggest that was the case.
Earlier this year I started to see a rape counsellor and I told her that writing about my experience online had unearthed fears of rejection and judgement.
“I worry men will think I talk about these things for attention,” I said. “What if they’re ashamed of me because I overshare things most people would keep private?”
When we talked in greater detail, I realised my fears partly stem from a negative experience I had when I was 20. I’d been dating a man who would often call me names and gaslight me into thinking everything I said was a lie. When I tried to tell him about the rape, he suggested I was making it up for attention. I decided he was probably right and went back to bottling the memories up.
When I’m not worrying that I won’t be believed, I worry that I’ll be seen as weak or traumatised. I think this fear stems from the one dimensional depictions of rape victims we often see on our screens. In movies, rape victims are often disposable devices used for no reason other than to give the main character a reason to seek revenge. On TV, rape victims’ lives are often ruined beyond repair as a result of their trauma. In the media, news stories about rape victims tend to be accompanied by a stock photo of a woman curled up in the corner of a room or peering mournfully through some blinds.
“When I’m not worrying that I won’t be believed, I worry that I’ll be seen as weak or traumatised”
We’re told rape victims are automatically troubled, distressed and traumatised. If the victim does eventually emerge with strength and power like Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones, their abuser is given credit for making them who they are.
In lieu of three-dimensional survivors on TV, I’m reminding myself that I’m a three-dimensional survivor and I have the power to write my own story going forward. I can either let fear control me and my rape define me or I can express all the other parts of who I am.
I recently went for drinks with an old friend who I’d not seen in years. When he asked what I’d been up to, my first thought was the police investigation, writing about rape on the internet, and nights in my living room crying and drinking whiskey. But I realised I was under no obligation to mention any of those things and instead, we could talk about happy and funny memories. If he happened to read about the rape online, that didn’t matter. I still didn’t have to talk about it unless I felt comfortable enough to do so.
The risk of an old friend uncovering this part of my life is very different to having a Tinder date learn about it, but this encounter was a reminder that there’s so much more to me than being a rape victim. Therapy is helping me to realise that no one else is thinking about the bad aspects of my life as much as I am. They’re probably far too busy focusing on their own troubles to spend their free time thinking about mine.
While some people are affected by sexual violence, others have survived abusive childhoods, battled addiction, or grieved following the loss of a loved one. It’s almost impossible to get through life without becoming hurt by it in some way and so chances are the men I date will have traumas of their own. Trauma – or a willingness to write about it – isn’t something we should be ashamed of and it certainly doesn’t make us less deserving of first date romance, good sex, and love.
Have a compelling personal story you want to tell? Find out what we’re looking for here, and pitch us on firstname.lastname@example.org
Useful helplines and websites:
- Victim Support - Visit victimsupport.org.uk or call 0808 168 9111 Sexual Abuse Referral Centres - Find a SARC
- Rape Crisis - Visit rapecrisis.org.uk or call 0808 802 9999 The Rape and Abuse Line - Visit rapeandabuseline.co.uk or call 0808 800 0123 (answered by women) or 0808 800 0122 (answered by men).