MIND THE GAP
‘Last night I had sex with a stranger and didn’t use a condom,’ I told my friend, shrinking into regret. As the day rolled painfully by, my shame grew until it was this squirmy thing wriggling in my stomach, writhing and gnashing and bloodying up the flesh and bones that held me together.
I’d matched with someone on Tinder. We met for a quiet drink, he was friendly and engaging, so I invited him to my flat. Lots of kissing and heavy breathing and awkward moments where my top got stuck around my head on its way off and his belt refused to unbuckle in my clumsy hands. I opened my bedside drawer and rummaged around until I found a condom.
‘I’m not wearing that.’
It was usually a struggle to get men to wear these, but I’d never had someone refuse so belligerently. I frowned. ‘We can’t have sex unless you do.’
‘Come on,’ he said, as though those two words would be enough for me to throw my health out the window.
What followed was six hours of him trying to persuade me to have unprotected sex. I stood firm in my decision, never faltering and we eventually had half-hearted sex with a condom, during which the Tinder date appeared wildly disinterested. We stopped to eat pizza and shoot diluted pillow talk into the oppressive quiet of the early morning.
As the birds started chirping their requiem and the sun tried to push its way past the thick corners of my curtains, the disappointing night drew to an anticlimactic — no pun intended — close. I wished he would leave but didn’t have the energy to ask him to, so I popped a Valium in my mouth and swallowed.
‘I can’t sleep naturally with someone in my bed,’ I told him when he eyed the tablets. I lay down, regretting inviting him here, wishing he’d been a grownup, yearning for the night of passion I’d pictured when I matched with him a lifetime ago. Eventually, the thoughts fuzzed and fizzled into nothing as the sleeping tablet washed over me, relaxing every muscle in my body. I was seeing double by the time we were having sex again, this time without a condom.
‘I can see two of you,’ I giggled, closing my eyes, and drifting off.
Shame. Shame was sharp and heavy in the air. It punctuated every step I took like a mist that refused to detach itself from my skin. It crept up my nostrils as I inhaled and sunk itself to the bottom of my glass of water. It was not a foreign feeling. It was a specific strain of shame; this being the latest in a long line of guilty, bleak mornings where I wish I could simply stop existing to erase all memory of the night before. This shame began the night I lost my virginity and continued for fourteen years. It was only a few years ago I had a new perspective for that night. Some friends and I sipped coffee and told stories about the first time we’d had sex. Like giggling schoolgirls, we exchanged sorry tales of limp erections and inside-out condoms.
When my turn came, I laughed and said, ‘I lost my virginity to my best friend’s boyfriend. He was twenty-one at the time and I was fifteen. It’s so bad, I still feel guilty about it. He invited me over when my friend was out of town and gave me a lot of booze and cocaine. I’d never done it before. I was so drunk and jittery from all the drugs when we had sex. I was this wooden mess and didn’t get that I was supposed to look like I was enjoying it.’
My friends stared agape.
‘Babe,’ said my friend, wrinkle-browed and wide-eyed. ‘Rape!’
Fourteen years of thinking I’d done this monstrous thing. Fourteen years of looking back at my fifteen-year-old self with contempt. Puzzling at how that person could correlate with the person I am now. Is it any wonder young women default to guilt after sexual assault? Look at what happens when a woman tells a man she has been sexually assaulted. In my experience, the man’s face will cloud over with indignation. Aghast with shock and anger, he wants to find the perpetrator and exact revenge on them. He cannot believe this has happened to someone he knows. That’s if he believes me. Many reactions I’ve received from men have been steeped in suspicion. They want details. They want to know just what kind of rape it is I suffered. If it wasn’t the cut-and-dry-lurking-monster-dragging-me-violently-down-an-alleyway, then there are too many dynamics to consider. A significant contrast when I disclose the same information to a woman. She glances down, nods heavily, and shares her own hackneyed story. I don’t use the word ‘hackneyed’ in a pithy way. I use it because the dictionary defines the word as ‘made commonplace or trite; stale; banal’. So accustomed to sexual assault and rape is a prevalent subject in my life am I, that it has become ‘commonplace, trite, stale, banal’. I am a woman who has been raped in the truest sense of the word, twice. Then there have been many of these vague sexual assaults that lie in the grey ether where no one has any answers. A million reasons for why I am to blame are trying to skitter onto the page as I write this, because it has been intrinsically woven through society that blame and guilt should be attributed to the victim. We know this. Relinquishing blame does not mean shirking responsibility for my own actions and circumstances. I have put myself in many questionable scenarios over the years. In these situations, I have been assaulted. Nuance is too often discarded in the cascade of these discussions. I shouldn’t put myself in compromising situations. Equally, or perhaps weighing heavier on the scale, men should not assault me.
I had a conversation with a man not long ago regarding a friend of his who had been accused of rape by a woman, also a friend of his. Let’s call the man I spoke to Charlie.
‘I know him and he’s a nice guy. He could have his future ruined over an allegation,’ Charlie said.
I gritted my teeth, trying to decide how best to respond. ‘If it’s true, her life has been ruined,’ I replied carefully.
‘Oh yeah,’ he countered quickly, ‘of course, I know that. But he’s nice.’
Nice guys rape people. Nice men sexually assault girls. Nice men molest little boys. My ex-boyfriend violently raped me one night. He was nice. I gave a statement to the police but he’s so popular that I didn’t have the mental strength to battle an entire town. The condom guy from the beginning? He was lovely. The following day I confronted him about what he did, feeling terrible for doing so because he was so nice. When I was raped at sixteen, I told my friend straight away and she didn’t believe me because she knew him, and he was nice. Rape and assault come in different shapes and sizes. It is committed by everyday men.
This disparity between men and women, the understanding of what it is like to be the other sex, was once astonishing, the gap between the sexes too wide. I wish wholeheartedly that the younger me could have understood this gap, with its convoluted theories and patriarchal rules that tell us how different men and women are. We profoundly need young women to grow up with stories like these and to understand what all forms of sexual assault and violence look like. We need a generation of women who don’t have to spend years with shame and guilt, until one day their situation is reframed for them, and they understand they were assaulted. Or they feel they won’t be believed if they tell because it was their boyfriend who raped them. I have hope now, because a gap that was once so wide it pitched men and women miles apart, is slowly closing, and there seems to be an end in sight, however far away it looms. As the gap between men and women closes, we must still mind it, because there it still lies. I see it lingering in the contrasting reactions from the sexes when I disclose a rape. I hear it when a man tells me his nice friend has been accused of sexual assault. Men should know better, but we live in a culture that enables the continuance of inequality, which allows ignorance to prevail. We need more stories from the swathes of women dealing with the persisting hangover after sexual assault. The women and men who continue every day, burdened with scars left behind while the person responsible lives his life. Our cases are dismissed, and we often can’t prove rape and sexual violence. But we do have the power to make changes in society.
I am telling you my story so that you, the survivor, feel less alone. So that you, the victim, hear another woman’s story and think ‘okay, so it’s not just me’. I know you know that already. But the public just does not how common, how usual, how exceptionally normal it is to have these stories in our repertoire. It is imperative that we stand strong as an assembly of people who feel like an anomaly, to prove that we are a multitude of scarred people. That we heavily outweigh the 2%-10% of people who have been falsely accused of rape. To help women and men understand that those shameful memories plaguing them are not memories they should feel guilt for. At least three of the sexual assaults I suffered occurred without me realising I’d been assaulted straight away. Give people the information that allows them to understand the facts of what has happened to them.
I think I, and many other women, know the reason for this lack of information. Simply put, rape and sexual assault are difficult to prove in a court of law. One of many solutions is to utilise the only tool in our collective arsenal, our voice. We can make our stories known. We live within a legal system that consistently fails women. Rape and sexual assault are often a difficult thing to prove, but the shame surrounding such crimes, and the strong possibility that one will not be believed means rapists are rarely prosecuted, often due to a lack of reporting. When teenager Gaia Pope’s body was found on a clifftop in 2017, she had been in a turbulent mental state that was proven to have contributed to her death. In 2015, at the age of seventeen, she alleged she was raped and reported the assault to the police. Despite the fact the suspected man was already in jail for an unrelated sexual offence, Gaia was warned by detectives that the case was unlikely to succeed or even go to court. When police posted on Facebook about the attacker being jailed for an unrelated offence, an influx of comments appeared from other victims and their parents describing times he’d assaulted them. Gaia was suffering with post-traumatic-stress-disorder at the time of her death. A BBC One documentary, Panorama’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Britain’s Rape Crisis, aired earlier in 2022, highlighted how just over 1% of rape cases in the UK end with a conviction. The chance of a perpetrator being caught and punished for rape or sexual assault is so slim that Dame Vera Baird, formerly Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner and currently a barrister and politician, says, rape has effectively been decriminalised. With the arrival of the hashtags #metoo and #timesup, one starts to believe that there is significant change happening, but the documentary opened with the recent finding that just 1% of reported rapes lead to a conviction, which is the lowest rate ever recorded. With only one in six rapes being reported in the first place that puts the conviction rate drastically lower than 1%. The programme described the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) declining cases they don’t think will result in a conviction, the police in turn don’t forward cases they think the CPS will decline. Victims make an even smaller calculation. It took me ten years to report the most traumatic rape I endured, and even then, I never went past the interview stage due to lack of faith in the legal system. Last year I filed a report against the condom man but felt so unsupported by the detective assigned to my case that I dropped it almost immediately.
Perpetuating the myth of what rape looks like is the representation of rape and sexual assault in the media. Fantastical portrayals of wild assaults that are rarely a true picture of what rape looks like. Books such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and American Psycho depict sexual violence, but in a way in which rape rarely occurs. In Graham Cavaney’s book, The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness, he describes sexual abuse as a ‘crisis in genre’. His abuser wasn’t this gothic monster, he was a seemingly nice teacher. Instead of dramatized, melodramatic fantasies that often appear in fiction, it would be monumental if we could see more of the representations present in, I May Destroy You and The Luckiest Girl Alive. My boyfriend of four years violently raped me in 2012. When I was sixteen, a man known to me raped me while I lay trying to sleep at a party. There was nothing violent about it, but I said no over and over. He was big, in his late twenties, and I was a small and emaciated sixteen-year-old. Sabine Sielke, author of Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, talks about the representation of rape as the rhetoric of rape instead of the analysis of rape as a social fact. She describes the Central Park rape of 1989, a violent lynching by a group of men on a random woman. This is the most common representation of rape in literature, film, and television. When three out of four rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, this is not a realistic representation of most sexual violence.
Once I realised the stark reality of what had happened after I took my sleeping pills with that Tinder date, I asked him to meet me. I told him, ‘I think you’re a genuinely nice guy, but I feel it’s my duty as a woman to tell you that what you did the other night was wrong.’
‘How do you mean?’ he asked.
‘I said no about the condom thing for hours. Then I took some Valium to sleep, and my answer changed. You should have known I wasn’t in my right mind.’
‘On reflection I feel the same way. Considering your past, I’m worried I caught an STI.’
I blocked him on Instagram and gave a statement to the police. I dropped the case before it had even begun. As per most sexual assault cases, I could see there was no evidence, and a court case would be more heartache. I felt profoundly discouraged by the detective assigned to my case. Eventually, feeling gruelling injustice at having gone through something like this again, I revisited the case. The detective spoke to the man who claimed everything was consensual. I’m certain he believed that. The most frustrating part of this story is the fact that the man didn’t understand what he did was wrong, no matter how many times it was plainly mapped out for him. I really grappled with what the right course of action was, from the very beginning, because I understood he hadn’t known he did anything wrong. If he’d acknowledged his transgression when I first explained it to him, I don’t think I would have reported him. However, his ignorance made me feel responsibility towards making the world a sliver of a fraction better by showing what he did was wrong. I have since dropped the case; however, I hope the shock of a detective speaking to him might make him think twice next time he wants to have unprotected sex with a woman who has said no hundreds of times or is asleep.
Time is slipping by, and I need to see a change in my lifetime. My grieving period has passed, the anger subsided, and I accept that the legal system is unable to do much more for me. The more I tell my story, the less it gives men the chance to hide behind ignorance. The more men hear our stories, the more men think twice. We need to reframe everything society thinks it knows about rape. Let’s educate girls and boys on what coercion looks like, what covert rape looks like, statutory, assault, the word ‘no’. I never want another person to have to wake up unsure about whether they have been assaulted. I never want another man to wake up and go about his day never knowing the pain he has caused.
Sexual assault does not come in the form we’re led to believe by misrepresentations in the media. It occurs in the small hours when we puncture the darkness with the word ‘no’ and our boyfriends take what was never offered. It happens when we’re so drunk, we are unable to consent. It happens when someone twice the size of us refuses to take no for an answer. It happens while we sleep. It happens in our beds and in public bathrooms. It happens down alleyways with boys we knew in school. Sometimes it’s a friend, sometimes it’s a date, sometimes it’s a pushy man we met at a party and sometimes it is a stranger. The shame and guilt attributed to these instances of abuse are, often, the deterrent for reporting, or even acknowledging, that someone took advantage of us. We need stories. Talk about it. Normalise the subject of rape. Encourage women, and men, to tell their stories. Close the gap between men and women and bring the wall of ignorance down so there is nowhere to hide. I believe you. And so will the rest of the world if we share our stories.
If you were affected by any of the content in this article you can find helpful information and support here.
Additional information about financial abuse can be found here.
Barker, M. (2022) Luckiest Girl Alive. Available at: Netflix. (Accessed: 13 December 2022)
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Morris, S. (2022) Police Warned Gaia Pope About Trauma of Pursuing Rape Claim, Inquest Hears; Detectives Told Teenager There Was Little Chance of Court Case Succeeding, Inquest Jurors Told. The Guardian. Available at: https://go-gale-com.yorksj.idm.oclc.org/ps/i.do?p=AONE&u=urjy&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA706574042&inPS=true&linkSource=interlink&sid=bookmark-AONE (Accessed: 24 October 2022)
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