Sexual assault: a crime that society’s failing to address – a survivor’s story

By Mary*

Trigger warning: this blog discusses sexual violence and may be upsetting for readers. A list of support services is listed at the end of this blog.

Growing up, I’d never imagined where I’d be now. A survivor. Of not just one, but multiple sexual assaults.

I’d always thought that to be raped was one of the worst things that could happen to me.

I empathised with survivors. Yet the crime, the risk and the perpetrators seemed so far away from my life and my existence.

As a teenager, I knew of only one survivor (to my knowledge). As far as I knew, none of my close friends or family had been affected (however, I would now question this).

Sexual assault was not something I imagined I’d be talking about now – other than as an ally and advocate against gender-based violence.

However, little did I know, that I’d be assaulted twice by the time I was in my mid-30s. And that my perception of assault was to change rapidly. As would my perception of society.

Yes, things would never be the same again…

Society and sexual assault: (mis)taught perceptions

As a woman, I grew up being taught to protect myself. I was told to not walk alone at night, to have extra cash in my handbag (back in the day) and to check-in on friends to see if they’d got home safely.

Danger is a reality that we learn to pre-empt and recognise – but hope never accumulates into anything real.

Yet the reality is, it is real. And more so than we think…

Why? Because the perception of assault we’re taught as young girls/women, is VERY different to the reality.

Here in the UK for example, we don’t live in a conflict zone – where rape is used as a weapon of war). Child/forced marriage is criminalised and crippling poverty (whilst prevalent) isn’t a common push factor (whilst of course recognising the factors that push people into sex work).

As a society, we’re generally taught that sexual assault is alien, far away and completely distinguishable from our everyday lives.

Through the media and a lack of education on consent and relationships, sexual assault is painted as:

  • Usually violent (with physical threats, e.g. with a knife)
  • Carried out by an unknown criminal (although we are being taught more about child sexual abuse, marital rape and date rape)
  • Something that you’ll be sure of if it happens to you (both during and after)

You’ll scream. You’ll say “no”. You’ll say “please stop!” And, most crucially: there’ll be absolutely no doubt about what’s happened.

A doubt that won’t be echoed by loved ones, that won’t be questioned by society and most importantly: by you the survivor.

Society tells us that the after the assault, we’ll receive sympathy, understanding and support. That “everything will get better”.

Yet, surviving two assaults has instead taught me the harsh reality. One we all need to face…

From child to adult: coming to terms with assault

For years I carried the “shame” of how I lost my virginity. I was 16 and under the influence of alcohol. Today, I still hold only a few hazy memories of that night.

On holiday overseas, I went to the perpetrator’s apartment with a friend after celebrating my exam results.

I didn’t want to lose my virginity when I agreed to go. I hadn’t planned anything to happen (no condoms in tow). And, I wasn’t remotely interested.

In his flat, I was sat on the sofa with a drink. Yet, the next thing I remember is being directed to his bedroom, fully nude, my hand in his.

Then: lying on my back, searing pain. Blood.

No protection – putting me at risk of unwanted pregnancy and contracting an STD (things I was very clued up about, knowing I’d use protection when I’d eventually have sex).

Leaving his apartment, he refused to walk me home.

Once back at my hotel, I felt like something inside me had died. That life would never be the same again.

I lay on the bed, crying – without really knowing why.

The next day, I went in search of the morning after pill at a local pharmacy. I thankfully got it after being re-directed to the local hospital (as well as a negative STD check once home).

My case was common. Research has found that in 41% of cases of penetrative sexual assault, a condom was not used.  

Yet there was not one safeguarding check. No one asked me about consent (that I can remember) or questioned the lack of contraception. Nada.

There were questions about my last period. But, presuming/discovering I was over the age of consent (which I was), no other questions followed.

And I didn’t question it either. I thought it was consensual. I hadn’t screamed. I hadn’t “fought back”.

I don’t really recall wanting/agreeing to it, but I hadn’t said “no”. I knew what was going on. I just couldn’t remember everything.

Intoxication or hazed trauma – who knows. My “friend” later told me that she’d told him: “to f**k me.”

The fact that I was a teenager with a man in his early 20s – a child whose virginity had been stolen – remained ignored, misunderstood and buried.

Life moved on. Except, I carried a sense of guilt and shame that I’d “made a horrible mistake”. A burden that I carried for almost 20 years.

Fast forward into my mid-30s, my then spouse referred to the incident as an assault. Assault I thought? I wasn’t assaulted.

It wasn’t until a friend (a childhood survivor himself) referred to me as exactly that with a mutual friend, that I learnt the reality.

Again, questioning him, I denied it. Yet many conversations later, I came to realise: I was assaulted. I just hadn’t realised.

Had this happened to a friend, I’d never have doubted it. Yet with myself, there was a blind spot.

But I knew what was happening? I didn’t tell him no? I chose to have a drink.

A child, under the influence of alcohol, unable to make “choices” about contraception – it all started to slowly make sense.

Informed consent, power dynamics, coercion – these were all topics we’d never been taught about at school. But should have been.

Now an adult and almost two decades later, I was coming to terms with the reality – albeit with difficulty.

I confined in more and more friends (male and female), expecting them to say that I was making it up/had misunderstood (as I still often believe/doubt).

Yet, over and over, friends would say the same thing: “Mary, that’s rape”.

Yes, all of that shame and self-hatred I’d carried was directed to a victim – a victim of a crime knowingly and happily carried out by a grown adult.

A man that’s probably married with kids by now. I often wonder, does his partner know…?

Silent stigma: denial and misinformation

After learning the reality of my assault, I thought things would get easier. But they didn’t…

I discovered that being a survivor is a secret that you’ll carry with you forever – with mounting pressure.

Society is simply not equipped (or willing) to deal with the issue.

With a culture of victim blaming, a lack of understanding on consent and relationships, shame and stigma around assault and gaslighting of victims, survivors’ struggles continue beyond the trauma of the assault itself.   

And what’s more, you learn that: you’re never safe from sexual assault.

I know this because, the sad truth is that, the more I talked about my experiences with friends, the more I realised just how many people had been affected. Both male and female.

Some had kept the secret hidden for years – telling no one. And others, like me, didn’t even realise they’d been assaulted.

Sharing our experiences, more than one female friend came to realise that their “first time” or first sexual experience had been forced by the man in question.

Men who didn’t talk about what happened, men who gaslit them, men who denied it.

And it was this gaslighting that I too was about to discover. As, a few weeks into dating one man, I was assaulted. An act he denies.

Gaslighting me, he claimed “it didn’t happen”. He then accused me of being rude (when confronting him) and “selfish” for not meeting his “sexual needs”.

Gaslit, confused, and worried that I was simply “triggered” by the past: I didn’t know what to think. The memories were hazy but the panic and tears very real.

Telling him I needed space, I lay on his bed (he was in another room) and cried. Alone. Then, realising it was night and being confused, I stayed and proceeded to make dinner.

The next morning, discussing the previous night with friends, the tears began to flow. My breakfast then lay thrown up and flushed down the toilet.

I told him it was over. “We had a great night last night… I can’t change your mind about it” he echoed, opening the door. I walked out and never saw him again.

Distressed, I tried to return to my normal routine. After all: it wasn’t the first time it had happened. I was a “strong woman” I told myself.  

Yet the irony is that I missed a call for specialist trauma services that day because I couldn’t face picking up the phone. However, I carried on.

Until the next day, when I simply couldn’t do it any longer. I broke down and my mental health started to plummet.

Lessons as a survivor: blame and barriers

Confused about what happened, I reached out to more friends. I was shocked, dazed and trying to make sense of what happened.  

The incident that took place when I was 16 was different – I was as a child – and an intoxicated one at that.

But now, a young adult, I’d encountered a different scenario. One that occurred with a man I was dating.

We’d been intimate before and what started as consensual, had ended up with assault.

Digging through the hazy gaslit scenario in my mind, I found myself Googling the issue. And I came across an article entitled: “Can you call it ‘rape’ if he makes you can omelette in the morning?”.

What I discovered, was a whole unspoken side of assault that only survivors and experts know and understand.

The reality is that:

Yes, in the aftermath, lay a whole series of problems, ranging from societal attitudes towards assault, to poor conviction rates.     

To this day, I haven’t reported either of the assaults to the authorities and I haven’t told my family.

Why? Because the fact is that, I’d be taking a risk.

A risk of being inadvertently blamed (“why did you go to his flat?”), a demand for answers and a feeling of “breaking their heart” as their perceptions of me (as a “victim”) would shatter forever.  

It was more emotional turmoil that I simply didn’t – and still don’t – need.  

After hearing the varying reaction from a female family member regarding the two murders of Sarah Everard (murdered by a policeman) and Zara Aleena (a woman walking alone at night), I knew I didn’t want to open that can of worms.

During a telephone conversation, the question: “Why was she [Zara] walking alone at that time of night?” stood in stark contrast to a more blatant display of sympathy for Sarah – who had been handcuffed by a policeman and ordered into his car.  

Of course, no decent person believes any that anyone should be assaulted or that it’s “their fault”.

But then why the questions? It doesn’t matter if some is walking around stark naked, at 3am in the morning, in the pitch-black dark: no one has the right to assault them.

Yet, continuing to blame survivors, we’re not only subject to a crime itself, but the burden of the secret that society throws back in our faces.

Time after time, we hear: “what was she wearing?”, “why was she out alone?”, “she just regretted it the next morning”.

Of course, we should all think about our safety – but if only people could spend more time and energy calling out the sexism and abuse, than simply projecting onto survivors. Then, perhaps we’d get somewhere.

Instead, society continues to simply perpetuate the problem and stigmatise survivors. For example, if victim blaming wasn’t enough, add to the equation the reactions, responses and fears of (heterosexual) men.

I, of course, learnt quickly to not tell men. I came to realise that my “secret” must only be shared with people who’d demonstrated the trust, love and capacity to “cope with it”.  

Some men saw it as a vulnerability – attempting to exploit the situation. Narcissists would feed off it. Like a bird of prey seeking out a target.

Then there were the cowards. Men that made it all about themselves, “fearing” that I’d blame them for something if we ever got physical.

Again, the misogyny that continues to create the environment for assault in the first place, continues to “punish” survivors. Painting us as victims for men to contemplate about how they can best manage or exploit the situation.

As survivors, we don’t want pity. We don’t want fear. We simply want to be respected and to be safe.

We don’t want thinly veiled attempts of empathy because “women are someone’s mother, sister, wife etc.” We deserve respect because we’re individuals in our own right.

We’re all human. And we don’t deserve to be abused

Yet, it doesn’t end here. On top of the “who to tell” dilemma lies the risk of going through more emotional upheaval if we report the crime.

Why? Because here in the UK, the perpetrator will most-likely face no court case or sentence.

Plagued with a sense of guilt for not protecting other women (against a crime I didn’t commit), for not speaking out against injustice, yet a fear of “perverting the course of justice” by reporting a false crime, I haven’t reported anything.

Speaking to friends, advice included: “it’s not worth the excess trauma”, “it’s his word against yours” and “they’d rip you to shreds”.

And they’re right – there’s no one answer.

It’s my (unconfident, confused) word against his. And, if we were to get to a courtroom, prosecution rates are so low, they’d most likely not be found guilty.

Here in the UK for example, in 2021, 67, 125 cases of rape were reported to the police.

And how many subsequent prosecutions? A grand total of: 2,409 (for the period 2020 to 2021).

Yes, only 5% of cases that were taken to trial resulted in prosecution.

Dame Vera Baird, Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, issued a statement on the issue and it’s pretty damming:

“The distressing truth is that if you are raped in Britain today, your chances of seeing justice are slim.”

Coming to terms with my assaults, I started to better understand why survivors weren’t coming forward and why historical abuse is often buried and kept secret for so long.

It’s like being punished all over – by both society and the legal system.

Rape culture: gaslighting survivors

Following the emergence of the #MeToo movement, we have seen an increase in survivors reporting sexual assault and greater awareness on the reality and prevalence of sexual violence globally.

Generation after generation, we do seem to be moving forward. However, not quickly enough.

We’re hearing, for example, more and more slogans such as “no means no” which attempt to raise awareness of consent.

However, these fail to recognise that consent isn’t always about vocalising “no” – as opposed to a simple “yes”.

Consent must be informed, clear and NOT REMOVED. Understanding the context is critical.

For example, is there alcohol involved? Is there coercion? Are all parties able to understand the concept of consent and reality of sexual intimacy?

What we need to be teaching about is INFORMED consent. Because, just as the reality of an assault is hazy to the survivor, so is the education and understanding of sexual assault we’re being given as a society.

There must be no doubt. And yes: you can change your mind or the circumstances may change.

Take for example the issue of stealthing where a condom is removed without the other person’s consent. This is now rightfully now classed as rape here in the UK.

Yet the reality is that songs such as “Blurred Lines” and “rape jokes” perpetuate a continual rape culture. And this has serious consequences, building:

“…an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynist language…thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.” 

(Marshall University’s Women’s Center)

Jokes about “her regretting it in the morning” and confusion over sex whilst intoxicated need to be addressed for what they are – skirting the issue in question.

A lack of education, prevailing misconceptions and continuous victim shaming continue to promote an ongoing rape culture. A culture where informed consent is, at best misunderstood, and at worst: ignored.

The abusive practice of gaslighting for example, is also now only just coming to public knowledge.

However, it continues to be used as a tool of denial and shaming by perpetrators and non-perpetrators alike in the context of sexual assault.

So, how do we move forward? Well, we need to tackle the issue head on – starting with the historic culture behind rape.

We need to dispel the myths and victim blaming narratives about clothing, alcohol and “times and places”.

And we need to encourage everyone to speak out and to educate children and adults alike on consent, assault and sexual trauma.

Creating change: education, advocacy and accessibility

To ultimately prevent assault, we need a deep socio-cultural shift in attitudes.

We need to call out the narratives that shame victims and de-toxify spaces that promote rape culture.

We need critical education on informed consent which can critically help to both prevent assault and help survivors to better understand their experiences.

For example, a friend of mine recently ran a workshop on consent and sexual assault to a group of women. Whilst the workshop went well, what he didn’t expect was for four women to approach him afterwards saying they’d been affected.

They’d carried the abuse without realising for (what can only be assumed as) years.

Yet, understanding the abuse is just the first step. Because, when survivors accept that the abuse has happened and look for support, it’s often inaccessible and/or inadequate.

When I was looking for specialised support for example, countless charities offering specialist counselling were so overwhelmed that many couldn’t even put me on a waiting list.

And this was before the second assault even took place…

Survivors must be able to access crucial emotional and legal support in safe, accessible spaces which offer trauma-centred care and result in higher conviction rates.

This will hopefully encourage survivors to come forward, help aid their recovery and ultimately get justice.

Ultimately, it’s only when we stop blaming the victims, offer solid support and hold the perpetrators accountable, that we’re making it clear as a society that assault is wrong – it’s a crime – and you won’t get away with it.

So, time’s up folks. This issue must be addressed.

Survivors deserve better. Future generations deserve better. And we, as a society, deserve better.

The question is, with (as one fellow survivor so eloquently expressed) sexual assault being the only crime where we blame the victim, is society ready and willing to change…?

Support services and further information:

If you – or someone you know – has been affected by sexual assault, or if you’re looking to find out more information on the issue, here are some helpful resources:

For non-survivors in particular: please speak out against abuse. Offer a confidential empathetic ear and denounce victim blaming for what it is.

And to each and every person out there: teach the people in your lives that if there’s no (informed) consent; it’s assault.

Plain and simple.

*Name changed

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