Updated: Feb 10, 2020
We do reference rape, of course. Now more than ever before. The rise of the #MeToo movement has started a conversation that was long overdue, but it’s only scratching the surface. We still hold back the details. Who wants such harsh realities in their heads as they commute to work, unwind after a long shift, or lie on a beach? We’re talking around the subject of rape, but I don’t think we’re really talking about it yet.
When Christine Blasey Ford gave evidence to the US Senate Judiciary Committee regarding allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, the world held its breath. The details as she recollected them were hazy, and there were some apparent inconsistencies, but the emotion she expressed, the sense of time travel as she retreated into the moment, was raw and compelling. The general public rarely witnesses moment like these. Juries do occasionally. Criminal barristers do with greater regularity, and that’s where I saw a multitude of victims come and go over the years as I prosecuted and defended in sexual assault cases. But it’s my own personal experience of rape that keeps me awake at night.
I was sixteen years old (plus one day and one hour) when I was raped by a man who was then a special constable. He helped run a club of which I was a member, and was in a position of authority over me. He knew my family. He knew my parents were going away. He knew I was a day past my birthday, and thus finally of an age when he could claim that I’d consented to sexual activity. Some weeks after the event, he even apologised to me, and if that sounds bizarre then you have to remember that every victim and every rape is unique, and that every rapist behaves differently and justifies their own behaviour in their own way.
Ignorance about rape is still widespread. People wonder why victims choose to stay silent. The cynical claim that the real victims come forward straight away, and that those who reveal their traumas only years are obviously making it up. There’s the constant suspicion that victims have rewritten history, turning a consensual meeting into a more sinister event with the passage of time. Particularly in cases where there’s no physical injury, there’s the ever present sense that if you didn’t fight, it couldn’t have been rape.
As a crime writer, I walk a fine line with sexual assault scenes. I want them to be realistic but not glamourised. I need them to feel terrifying, but not to use these horrific moments only to beef up the suspense in my books. I need to do justice to both the story and the real victims my work represents. I’ve been accused, as have all crime writers, of being part of the problem. It’s been said that our stories encourages crime and reduce conviction rates. I think the issue is that we don’t talk about rape in sufficiently emotional terms. Victims are perceived in stereotypical terms, and the conversation is shushed and hurried. We don’t really want to talk about rape. Which is why I decided to tell my story instead of hiding behind the fictions I create to exorcise my particular demons.
I’d been to a New Year’s Eve party run by another member of the club I was in. I’d organised a lift home jointly with another club member in the vehicle owned by my soon-to-be rapist. He took an odd route, dropped my friend off first then pulled onto a lay-by along a dark forest lane. It was 1am. There were no other vehicles around. He told me he was going to have sex with me. It was that simple. There was no discussion. I’d never flirted with him, never been attracted to him. He was 28 years old and not on my radar. He was a proper grown up. I saw him no differently than my own parents. I remember not knowing what to say. My words, my sense of who I was, of knowing the man driving the car, were all gone. Completely. I was just stunned. I remember looking out of the passenger window and starting to cry. I recall very clearly the muscles in my arms seizing up as I hugged myself. I want to speak but couldn’t.
He didn’t try to kiss me or touch me in any other way. It was clear that this wasn’t any sort of romantic approach, and he didn’t try to dress it up as anything other than what it was. To put it in context, there were no houses nearby, no streetlights, I was miles from home, it was pitch black and my body just stopped working. I didn’t know what he would do if I fought him, but I couldn’t have done so in any event. My whole body - and crucially this - my brain, froze. Literally everything about normal functioning stopped. He reached into his glove compartment, for a moment that was the only light, and grabbed a condom. It was waiting there. That was when I knew it was all planned - the offer of the lift home, the strange choice of route. He lifted up my skirt, pulled my underwear aside, and forced himself into me. I didn’t say anything; I didn’t fight him. I kept my head turned to one side and I cried. There would have been no doubt whatsoever in his mind that he was raping me. No one could humanly have thought that there was any element of consent.
It didn’t last long. It was painful. It was as if I were being strangled. It felt, as far as I can describe it, like being murdered. You can’t breath, can’t move, can’t run. The violation feels like an ending. A stabbing. It is a death. When finished, he said nothing. Sorted himself out, pulled my skirt down, let me cry, drove me home, opened my door and left me to stagger into the house. I ran a bath and sat in it crying until it was freezing cold. The light was creeping into the sky before I climbed out of that water so cold I couldn’t feel my body, and that was a blessing.
The years have passed since that dreadful night, but the emotion I feel is no less real and no less immediate. It floods back, unbidden, when a friend unexpectedly hugs me. When I’m in the supermarket and I see a man who in some vague, undefinable way reminds me of him. When I see scene in a movie. And when the memories come back, several things happen. I freeze. I feel as if I’m being strangled. Nausea hits me like a bucket of cold water. Then I fantasise about killing my rapist. It’s not a plan, there’s no danger I’ll ever do it, but the sad, horrible truth is that this makes me feel better. It’s my coping mechanism. It’s an out for my fury.
If you have questions, they are most likely procedural. Was he ever prosecuted? No. I didn’t report him. He chose a victim from a strict family whose dialogue didn’t allow for talking about consensual sex, let alone rape. What happened to me in the weeks afterwards? Publicly, I just got on with my life. I made myself get out of bed, go to school, go to singing classes, read books. But I saw his face everywhere. I smelled his sweat everywhere. Once you’ve been raped, it’s as if you put on dirty clothes every day of your life. The sense that you are clean again takes years to achieve and a huge amount of willpower. It doesn’t fade away, the victim has to force it to go. You don’t survive a rape, you fight to retrieve your sanity. It’s a constant battle. I tell myself I’m stronger for it, but my loss is that I never had the opportunity to know what my life might have been like without it. The feeling I was never able to shake, is that the rape itself was mechanical. That I didn’t matter. I was a body, a disposable thing, an irrelevance. That’s what I’m left with. It’s taken me a lifetime to persuade myself that I’m something more than just an object.
The details are unsettling given so plainly, but whispering in corners about the realities of rape just isn’t working. Sobbing into handkerchiefs on camera doesn’t seem to be working either. Being blunt about it might just make people sit up and listen. The stories of everyday non-‘celebrity’ sexual assaults need to be told. It’s taken 30 years and a move across continents for me to feel strong enough to be open with these details. I’m sharing them now in the hope that the generations that follow will have the vocabulary, the permission and the confidence to be open about such things.
Helen Fields 2020