On my sixteenth birthday, I was showered with gifts and poems by a teacher. What followed was four and a half years of rape and sexual abuse. It’s quite hard to describe the effect of those years. Everything I was taught about love and intimacy, about my right to bodily and emotional autonomy, even my responsibility for others and their needs, was a lie that was systematically instilled in me so that I existed solely to fulfil his insatiable needs.
I had to unlearn and relearn so much and so I put together a patchwork programme of recovery made up of books, videos and counselling. I slowly began to believe that it wasn’t my fault, that I deserved so much better and that I had a right to justice. Years later I decided to report what had happened. It took a year and a half of police interviews, investigations and having detectives trawl through my teenage diaries, which became the main source of evidence in this historical case. But they weren’t enough. It didn’t go to court. I went through a process of grieving and when I finally emerged, I stepped into a new world. One that had suddenly began talking about the very thing that had been my secret battle for so long. People from all walks of life were telling their stories, demanding justice and saying Me Too. And just like that, in a matter of weeks, my life began to change.
During my recovery I had reached out to many groups and individuals and had created a beautiful tribe of the bravest, most eloquent, kickass humans I had ever met. And suddenly we were in demand. I was introduced to journalists, politicians and organisations that embraced me and wanted to know not only my experience but, as an “expert”, what I thought needed to change. I found myself consulting with the vice president of my union on their sexual harassment policies, being invited to the Houses of Parliament and contributing to a book about survivors’ experience of the Criminal Justice System.
In my final meeting with the police, the lead detective looked as devastated as I felt. “The system’s broken,” she said, “I work with a bunch of dinosaurs who don’t even understand the definition of consent.” And so we wrote. To re-define justice on our terms, to call out the broken system for what it is and to praise those who work within it who actually care.
At one point someone referred to me as an activist and I almost spat out my coffee. The word seemed so far from who I was and certainly from my aspirations. I had no placard, no badge-adorned beret, and I had taken my nose-ring out years ago. And yet there it was, that word, again and again. Labels are tricky things that can be empowering and limiting in equal measure - survivor, victim - but I found myself trying this new one on for size, saying it out loud and in my head, until I began to understand that unexpectedly, I had found myself at the heart of a new movement, a global conversation, and I had surprised myself by realising that I had something to say, that I wanted to say it, for that beautiful young me and for all those others who deserve justice, protection and healing.
And those very acts of activism became an integral part of my healing. The making sense of, the being heard and believed, the validation and inclusion. I was no longer alone in my private, shame-filled personal hell, but part of a global tribe, brought together for the most heart-breaking of reasons, but growing in voice and power. I became a flourishing, thriving woman who looked detectives and politicians in the eye and told them how to do their job better.
Recently, I was on Twitter musing over my profile. Under my name I had listed my many freelance work titles. I found myself clicking the edit button and then adding to the list “Activist”.