The brain is a fascinating and terrifying thing.
I have discovered that it can hide things from you. Things that have happened to you, to your own body, while you were conscious. Pieces of trauma that, for whatever reason, you are incapable of dealing with. Until one day, you’re in a strong place. And there’s a trigger. And that black, awful folder pops out of its filing cabinet in your psyche.
And there it is. This thing, laid in your lap that you weren’t expecting, but that you now have to deal with. To look at. To sit with. To process. To try your best to heal.
Once you realise that you’ve been sexually assaulted, you can’t unknow it.
It was a video clip on Twitter that was the trigger. A girl wakes up in a varsity dorm, next to a guy. Something’s not quite right. She leaves awkwardly, meets her friend for coffee, they rehash the previous night’s party and then she starts talking about going home with this guy. She’d had too much to drink – you see where this is going. And at the end she asks her friend, “Was that what I think it was?”
And just like that, something clicked inside me. This memory surfaced and I knew even before I had articulated it for myself. I had to rush to the bathroom before the tears became a flood.
One weekend during my first year at varsity, I went with a friend to her nearby home town. We went to a local pub and met some of her friends there. One of them had brought another friend of his along. We got chatting as we had some drinks and hit it off. At some point during the night, probably on the dancefloor, we kissed. Later, he said he needed to go and fetch something from his car, did I want to come with?
At no point did I think he meant anything else. And, to be fair to my naïve 18-year-old self, we did actually go and fetch something from his car, I forget what.
It was on the way back to the pub that he pushed me against a wall and started kissing me. He started putting his hand down the front of my pants, and I stopped him. “No,” I said. He stopped.
As he kissed me again, he slowly slid his hand down the back of pants, which I allowed. And it stayed resting on my bum for a while. Until he moved it. Inside me. Forcefully. I tried to stop him. I tried to fight. But he was too strong and I was too drunk. And after trying and trying to stop him, it was easier just to let it happen.
When he eventually stopped and I went back inside the pub to the bathroom, I thought my period had started. I actually asked my friend if she had a tampon, not telling her anything else. It wasn’t til the next morning that I realised that he had broken my hymen. I still didn’t realise then what had really happened. I didn’t let myself. I filed it away in a “drunken varsity nights” folder in my mind, and then pushed a bookcase in front of it.
More than a decade later, when I was stunned by the surfacing of this memory and the realisation of the assault, it still sunk in gradually. I went to see a therapist and finally said it out loud. I said it out loud again to friends. And it was the third time I did this that the full weight of it finally hit me, as did the resultant wave of grief.
I felt so deeply sad for first-year-varsity me. I wanted to sit her down and hug her and have a really honest conversation.
I knew what rape was. I had listened to many talks about it. The danger of it, to me, lay in attacks in dark alleys by strangers. Not someone I liked. Had danced with. Had kissed.
And this is where I think we’ve gone wrong. We don’t talk enough about the grey areas. The situations where you’ve consented to everything up to that point. When things are a bit hazy because you’ve had too much to drink.
And it’s something we need to talk about, with women and with men. Because, I really do believe that for as many women out there who don’t realise that they’ve been sexually assaulted, there are as many guys who don’t realise that they have sexually assaulted someone.
We are taught, from when we’re little, to be nice girls. Your scratchy-faced grandparent wants to kiss your cheek? Go on, be a nice girl.
I don’t think we realise how deeply entrenched that can be.
This is such a huge topic and I don’t want to write a thesis on it. Other people have done that, well. What I will say is this.
If I could go back and talk to my first-year self, I wouldn’t say, “Don’t get too drunk. Don’t kiss boys you’ve just met. Especially not at the same time.”
Varsity is all about those things, and I don’t regret doing them.
What I would say is, “Trust your instincts. Trust that voice inside you that says, ‘No.’ If you’re in a situation where that ‘no’ needs to be heard, say it. If it doesn’t register, scream it. There is never, ever a point where it’s too late. Where you’ve let things go too far. Where it’s your fault.”
As I sat down to write this I did something that I’ve been putting off for weeks. I looked up the legal definition of rape. Does a finger count? I had known the answer, really. I just didn’t want to put it in those terms for myself. Sexual assault seems easier to deal with. Rape is something I find more difficult to process. I’ve avoided the term even in the writing of this article.
But that’s what it was. And, while it’s still a raw realisation and I have a long way to go, I know that it’s in acknowledging that, in letting the grief come, in sitting with it in the moments I feel strong enough, that healing will come.
I got an email recently, the night I told some friends what had happened. After they left, one of them sat down and wrote this for me:
“If I have learned anything in my work in this field it is that women are resilient. That once something like this happens to you, or you reach a place where you are able to remember and recognise it, things aren’t ever the same, but that this too can be a hopeful place. There will come to grow in you a knowledge of yourself and your own power, and nobody will ever be able to take that away.”