Five months ago, Rosemary Mac Cabe wrote a brutally honest post about why she didn’t report the fact that she’d been raped. Her piece resonated with me, and my fingers itched to write a response straight away. I didn’t though. I thought about it, I thought about it for a few days. I got busy with other things. Then, I decided I’d left it too late, and my response was too long after Rosemary’s post to be timely and relevant.
Of course, women’s experiences are always relevant, no matter how historical. The truth is, that I was avoiding it. I have been writing for long enough to know that when I provide myself with excuses not to write something, it’s usually because I’m afraid of it. I’m afraid to confront my own knowledge and / or experience of the thing I’m trying to write about. I’m simply not ready. The more solid my excuses to myself, the more I’m trying to avoid whatever it is I know I need to write. I have realised, in the past few months, that I sometimes avoid writing something – or at least writing something for publication – because I haven’t processed the issue at hand. My aversion to writing in support of what Rosemary had written was born of avoidance.
Then, within the past month, Rosemary tweeted that she’d been alluded to in a podcast. I didn’t hear the podcast in question, and it has since been removed from the website where it was originally hosted, so I can’t really comment with any first-hand knowledge on its content. All I can say is that reminded me that I needed to write a response to Rosemary’s post. So, I got my pen out, and started to write. And then I dithered. I told myself (again), that I’d left it too late to respond. That the moment was lost.
Until nearly three weeks ago, when someone else decided to troll Rosemary Mac Cabe on Twitter. I was reminded that it is never too late to tell the truth. It’s never too late to speak your truth. It’s never too late to honour the part of you that worked hard to ensure you made it through the traumatic event – whatever that event was. So, today, I have decided to write – and publish – my response to Rosemary’s post of five months ago.
We don’t have accurate figures for rape and sexual assault in this country. The SAVI Report is 15 years old, and it tells us that 20.4% of adult women are subjected to unwanted, non-consensual sexual contact. A further 5.1% reported unwanted, non-consensual, non-contact sexual experiences. In addition, 6.1% of the women interviewed reported being raped. And, in that last sentence, the word reported is key. As we learn from Rosemary’s post, and the response she had to that post when it was originally published, many women don’t report their experiences of rape. Like Rosemary, many of us don’t term what happened to us ‘rape’. Many of us don’t realise that what happened to us was, actually, rape. Many of us blame ourselves.
We are conditioned to believe that when men act badly, it is our fault. We are conditioned to believe that, not only must we be responsible for what we do, we must be responsible for what men do, too. This attitude sees men absolved of personal responsibility – which is a by-product of the patriarchy, and serves men as poorly as it serves women, by infantalising men in this regard.
In her post, Rosemary talks about how she didn’t report her rapist because he was basically a nice guy, and she didn’t want to ruin his life. That’s part of the problem with the dominant narrative of sex offenders as monsters. We find it difficult to accept that men who are good to their mothers, who adopt three-legged dogs, and who give money to charity, can possibly be the kind of men who would touch a woman who didn’t want them to touch her. Sadly, the kind of men who abuse women look exactly like ‘normal, everyday’ men. Tom Meagher wrote about the ‘Monster Myth’ three and a half years ago and made the point that most cases of violence against women are ‘perpetrated and suffered in silence’.
Reading Rosemary’s blog, I was reminded of two specific incidents that had taken place in my own life. There are many more, but these are the two that sprang to mind immediately:
- I was Eighteen Years Old
I’d gone out West to spend the weekend with my baby niece and her family. Her mother – Mary (not her real name) – wanted to go out in the local town. She had made arrangements to meet her boyfriend, Donal (not his real name), at a nightclub there. So we got dolled up, Mary’s parents and siblings were put on babysitting duty, and off we went.
It was a pleasant enough night. I got talking to one of Mary’s boyfriend’s friends, whom I will call Brian (again, not his real name) – who also happened to share a house with Mary’s boyfriend. When the nightclub closed, we went back to Mary’s boyfriend’s house because they wanted some private time together. I was knackered. Mary suggested I have a sleep in Brian’s bed because he wasn’t home yet.
I collapsed into sleep – fully clothed except for my jumper – and the next thing I knew, I was waking up as Brian groped me.
‘What are you doing? Stop!’
I think it was reasonable, at this stage, for him to stop touching me. I was expecting too much, though. This white, privileged male, in his early twenties didn’t see why he should stop touching a woman who was asleep and had not consented to any kind of physical contact with him.
‘You’re in my bed.’ He responded. As if being in a man’s bed – even if you had made your way there when he wasn’t even in the building, and with the sole intention of getting some sleep – gave him the right to touch you without your consent.
‘I’ll get out of it then,’ I offered, groggily, sitting up.
He pushed me back down.
‘No. You’re here now. This is my bed. You might as well say.’
‘Mary and Donal said it would be all right for me to get a bit of sleep here, because you were out, and you wouldn’t mind.’
‘Yeah? Well I do mind’
‘I’ll leave then,’ I offered again.
‘No. Stay where you are,’ he said and got into bed beside me – wearing nothing but his boxers – grabbed my breast and started to kiss me.
I surprised myself by not freezing, but by trying to push him off me, and by saying ‘no’ again.
‘What?’ he said again, annoyed. ‘You’re in my bed.’
‘If you don’t stop,’ I warned him. ‘I’m going to scream.’
He considered this for a moment.
‘Have your bed back,’ I told him. ‘I’ll sleep on the couch.’
‘No, it’s fine. Stay where you are,’ he responded. ‘I’ll sleep on the couch.’
Later, on the way home with Mary, I recounted the episode.
‘Wow!’ she said. I thought she was aghast at his behaviour. And she was, but not for the reasons I’d hoped. ‘He must really fancy you. Brian’s got a girlfriend. They’ve been together for the past 18 months and they’re mad about each other.’
‘God. I’ve never heard of him even noticing another woman. He must really fancy you. You should be flattered.’
And that was the message I got – that the unwanted attentions of a man should flatter a woman. This is rape culture.
- I was twenty-five.
Not long out of my first marriage, I met the man who would become my second husband. He was a friend of a friend of mine. And she sent me off to meet him, warning me that he wasn’t my ‘type’, but we’d get on. She was right, he wasn’t my type, but I thought there would be no harm in having a drink with him. Within less than an hour, he’d declared he loved me, and was going to marry me. I was taken aback, but the alarm bells that should have been ringing weren’t. That was the night my schooling in the fragile Indian male ego began.
After a while, Krishna suggested we get dinner. I agreed.
‘First, if you don’t mind, I’d like to go home and change,’ he told me.
Later, people would scoff at how I fell for such an old line; but it wasn’t one that been tried on me before then, so I took what he said at face-value. The first thing he did when we got back was open a bottle of arrack and insist I tried it. I demurred. I didn’t want to drink any more without eating first. Sitting down with a glass in his hand, Krishna reverted to his earlier topic of marriage. Specifically, one that involved the two of us. Still too much of a ‘good girl’ to be rude, I did my best to be polite, but discouraging.
Eventually, he sat in front of me and said ‘I’m trying really hard not to kiss you.’
The last thing I wanted was for this man to touch me – but I had never been equipped with the tools to fend off men who propositioned me. I didn’t know what to do or say and was terrified of causing offence.
‘You keep trying,’ I told Krishna. ‘Because you’re doing a really good job. And I appreciate you not kissing me.’
He wasn’t deterred, though. He kept insisting that he was going to marry me.
‘You’re going to be my wife,’ he insisted.
‘I’m not, actually,’ I tried to be firm, but polite.
‘I’m telling you you’re going to be my wife, and you will be,’ he nodded.
‘You’re wrong about that,’ I laughed, trying to keep the tone light. Arguing with him wasn’t getting me anywhere.
In the end, he just lunged in and kissed me. It was horrible, and felt more like an assault than a caress. He was a dreadful kisser – tasting of cigarettes and alcohol and clearly of the impression that pouncing on a girl and poking your tongue into her mouth and swirling it around a little bit counted as ‘kissing’. I couldn’t escape from him, however. He’d had too much to drink and was hostile to the idea of my leaving. Too late, I realised how foolish I’d been; I was in the apartment of someone I didn’t know, and I didn’t know where I was, either.
Of course, this was Singapore, so if I’d managed to get out of the apartment, I’d have managed to get a cab to take me back to where I was staying. That wasn’t possible, however, because Krishna forcibly barred my way to the door and locked me in. I was on the fourth floor and there was no other way out. There was no fire escape. I could have jumped off the balcony. But God knows what harm I’d have done myself if I had. Left with no real choice, I stayed the night and did my best to keep Krishna off me. I wasn’t very successful, however. Eventually, I stopped saying ‘no’. There was no point.
I wasn’t happy about what transpired that night. But at no stage did he ask me what I wanted. At no point was consent raised. At no point did my ‘no’ make any difference to him. Still, it was only in 2013 – fifteen or so years after the event – that I realised what had happened that night was rape. And I had to have it pointed to me by someone else; a woman doing her PhD on re-victimisation of women spoke with me and we discussed the episode, and, gently prompting me, she asked what I would say to someone else who recounted the tale I had just told her. How, she wondered, would I term the event?
‘Well, it’s rape!’ I told her. ‘If a woman says “no” and a man continues, and has sex with her, that is non-consensual sex. That’s rape!’
‘If it happened to someone else?’ she gently asked. ‘But if it happened to you?’
I was silent for a while as I tried to make sense of what she was saying. How could I have been raped and not known it? How had I been raped, and then gone on to marry my rapist?
It turns out that this is not as unusual as we would like to think. I have spoken to a number of people since who have had similar experiences. And this, too, is rape culture. The idea that if a woman doesn’t successfully fight a man off, then it’s her fault. Never mind that we’re also told that if we fight back, it will make it worse.
Let’s not forget that even now (never mind back in 1999, in Singapore), a woman is held accountable for any and all sex that takes place. Let’s not forget that victims are still blamed for rape even when the man admits he raped her (you can read about that here, here, and here, as a few random examples)
Let’s not forget that most cases of rape happen behind closed doors and involve an element of ‘he said / she said’.
So, yes, I understand why Rosemary didn’t report the rape that was perpetrated on her. Why would she have? Would you?