I am #notguilty

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Recently, I wrote a short story about how a young woman was sexually assaulted.

As is often the case for victims of sexual assault, she blamed herself for the attack. The narration follows her feelings of doubt, guilt and mistrust in the weeks that ensued. When she finally tells her then-boyfriend, he holds her responsible and accuses her of provoking it and being unfaithful. It took a long time for her to finally acknowledge that she was in no way to blame for the events of that day.

The #notguilty campaign has recently swept across cyberspace. Launched by Ione Wells when she wrote a letter to the man who sexually assaulted her, the campaign strives to abolish victim blaming. It encourages victims to shed feelings of responsibility and speak out.

In light of this, it is time that a confession is made: there is nothing fictional about my story. In the French, sun-drenched summer of 2010, this happened to me.

In the aftermath, it immediately became a dark secret. A dirty affair of the past that was buried deeper than I thought possible, revealed only to a carefully chosen few. I was ashamed. I genuinely perceived it as my own failure. A failure to look after myself, to accurately judge another’s character, to defend myself from such unwanted attention and actions. It was difficult not to expect the reaction of my ex-boyfriend to show its ugly face every time the words were coaxed from the chasm within. The few times that I did unveil my experience, I would brace myself for the accusations. Protecting myself from this anticipated reaction, the explanation was always peppered with blame and self-criticism, building upon the already-strong feeling that I was responsible for my attacker’s actions on that day.

Upon publishing The Caravan, the few that were aware that this was no fictional piece commented on my bravery at sharing my experience. I felt brave; it felt huge. I hid behind the screen of fiction, yet I still found myself holding my breath as I watched the reaction of readers, releasing a sigh of relief when only positive feedback followed.

But why was I afraid? Why do we have to be so brave to speak out about experiencing such an attack? This is not an ordeal rarely suffered: over 400,000 fellow women experience sexual assault every year within England and Wales alone (Rape Crisis England and Wales; 2013). Yet, despite this figure, only 15% of women who were victims of serious sexual offences in the same year reported the incident to the police (Ministry of Justice, Home Office and the Office for National Statistics; 2013).

Never did I imagine that I would be one of the 85% that did not report my assailant.

I am not proud of it. However, when submerged within feelings of self-blame in the days that followed, when I witnessed my ex-boyfriend’s reaction, when I was well aware that it was simply my word against my assailant’s, reporting the attack was unfathomable. It did cross my mind, but the idea was swiftly suppressed. I already felt that I had a complete lack of control over the series of events. Immersed within a state of helplessness, I dreaded heightening it by trying and failing to convict my attacker; by hearing more on how I could have prevented the attack and how I was fundamentally responsible.

If my ex-boyfriend had reacted differently, if he had, instead, turned to me and told me that I was in no way to blame for this attack, would I have reported it? It is hard to say for certain, but I know that I would have given it a lot more thought.

This is not said to blame him. In my story, I state that I do not resent him for his reaction. And this is true. I do not in the slightest. He reacted in the way that society at large encourages. We have all witnessed the jump that is too often made when hearing an account of sexual assault to the question of the victim’s behaviour, her clothes, the time of day or night. I have heard these words trip from the mouths of colleagues, friends and politicians, with complete disregard for the impact that this has upon victims. We are immersed within a culture whereby it is completely acceptable to push the responsibility upon victims.

This is, however, said to demonstrate the detrimental impact that the current prevalence of victim blaming within society has upon victims. A prevalence that needs to change. It is time we acknowledge that the fault never lies with the victim. Ever.

This statement holds true in every case, whoever the victim is. The behaviour, career, education, nationality, sexuality, of the victim is irrelevant. Of course, it is far easier to focus upon victims’ behaviour. Did she wear a short skirt, drink too much, or exude the ‘wrong signals’? Did she make herself vulnerable? We insist that women are equally as entitled as men to be in the public sphere; yet if a woman is attacked, her behaviour is suddenly condemned and brought to question.

“Was she drinking? Yes? And she walked home alone in the middle of the night? Well, she was sort of asking for it then wasn’t she?”

No-one ever asks to be violated in such a way. If no consent is given, the fault lies solely with the perpetrator.

It is far more manageable to judge victims’ actions, rather than admit that the belief that female bodies can be treated as a possession, to be used and abused, is still rife across the world. More manageable for society at large, but certainly not for the victim, who loses the support of the community when she most needs it. Criticising victims may be easier, but it is not right. It is not a solution, and it will not fix the global prevalence of sexual assault.

One in three women (33%) has experienced physical or sexual violence since the age of 15 within the EU (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights; 2014). The longer we spend focussing on victims’ behaviour and the more we encourage victims to feel responsible, the longer we avoid tackling the real problem. Consequently, more attacks go unreported, and the longer this issue will continue its thriving existence.

I never previously wanted attention for the attack that took place five years ago.

I was determined not to let the events identify me, own me, or change the way in which I lived my life. However, by swallowing it and concealing it behind the determination that came as a result of the attack, I also allowed myself to feel ashamed. I allowed myself to feel humiliated by the moment in which I felt the most powerless and in which I had no control over who was touching my body. And I allowed myself to own it as a personal failure.

But I refuse to do this any longer.

Now I am claiming your attention, because victims should be able to voice their ordeals without fear of scrutiny. I know that I am not alone in my experiences. I know that many others will feel a pang of understanding when they read this that goes far deeper than sympathy, because they know, they have been there, they have experienced it too. We, as a community, should be listening to victims who speak out, thus taking a stand against those who feel entitled to violate others. If we do not open this dialogue within society at large, others will continue to feel responsible for the violations inflicted upon them, just as I did.

These perpetrators should not and will not stop us from living. But this determination is made more difficult when society insists that we are partly responsible by stepping outside of the safe haven of our home. Living does not happen within these four walls. I refuse to allow not only violators, but also societal judgement, change the way I wish to live.

Now, five years later, I am releasing the feelings of responsibility that once consumed me.

I was sexually assaulted.

I did not ask for it.

I did not deserve it.

I will not feel ashamed.

Alongside every other victim of sexual assault, I am #notguilty.


Image credit: Raise My Voice via Compfight

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