When I was 18, I was sexually assaulted, and it was the worst thing that ever happened to me.
At the time I didn’t have the language to describe it – I normalised it, pushed it down. It wasn’t serious enough to be called assault, was it? Assault seemed to be something worse, something more tangible. I would get over it, I repeated, but time and time again my trauma rose to the surface when I was confronted with sexual situations, and I froze, terrified of something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
For two years I didn’t date anyone, which was my way of subconsciously coping, but when I finally started to put myself out there I referred only to my assault as ‘something that happened to me’. Finally, at 21 I am beginning to come to terms with what actually happened; though I can’t help but wonder how different my life would have been had I understood what sexual assault actually meant all those years ago.
I went to Catholic school, you see, where sex education isn’t compulsory, and the very minimal understanding of sex I was given consisted of the biological ins and outs of heterosexual sex (pun intended). Sexual assault and rape were taboo topics, often normalised through playground jokes and ‘lad culture’.
Before I go any further, I want to clarify what sexual assault actually means, both for my sake and yours. Generally, sexual assault is defined as unwanted sexual contact, whether this be non-consensual touching, attempted rape, forcing the victim to perform sexual acts, or rape, though this is not an exhaustive list.
The second season of Netflix’s vastly popular show, Sex Education, involves a great and nuanced representation of sexual assault, in which Aimee is traumatised after a man on the bus masturbates and ejaculates onto her leg. At first, she brushes it off as nothing, funny even, but when retelling the story, her friend informs her that it was sexual assault and they report the man to the police. As the season progresses, Aimee’s trauma manifests into her not being able to get on the bus, and she withdraws from her friends and boyfriend, unable to resolve her fear of intimacy.
While Aimee gets the happy ending she deserved, her story tells a disturbing truth about the sexual violence women face daily and how this has been normalised. Her friends share her pain, revealing their own varied assault stories – one was catcalled, one had their breast grabbed non-consensually, one was sent an unwanted dick pic, one was followed home, and one was flashed by a man at the pool. Each experience, while seemingly small at the time, deeply affected the women for years to come. The whole storyline hugely resonated with me, so much so that it made me reach out for help – the show finally gave me the language I was missing to be able to fully describe that ‘something’.
There’s no need for me to go into the details of what happened that night, because I’ve moved past that now – but for the last three years I’ve been replaying it in my head, convincing myself that it wasn’t assault. As my first sexual encounter I had nothing to compare it to, but I knew I wanted it to stop in the moment. I’d said no, but that wasn’t enough – maybe he didn’t hear me, or maybe I didn’t actually say it out loud, I rationalised to myself. After it happened, I felt ashamed and dirty – I scrubbed my mouth out as hard as I could with a toothbrush that night, thinking if I scrubbed enough I might be able to forget his unwanted taste and the feeling of his inescapable body pressed against mine. Was this how everyone felt after their first experience? Was I weird for not enjoying it?
Female pleasure was never part of the mainstream dialogue surrounding sex when I was growing up. Even now, it is not prioritised – earlier this year I attended a sex education exhibit where I was able to read some textbooks designed to teach children about all things sex and puberty, and I was surprised at the stark contrast between the gender divided sections – for the boys, puberty was all about how fun masturbation could be and how sex was going to feel so good. For girls, there was only pain – period pain, breast pain, pain during and after sex – could anyone blame a girl for not realising sex was supposed to be enjoyable?
Now I know I wasn’t weird, and that there are a number of natural responses to being assaulted. You might find that you feel tense in certain situations, get headaches more frequently, or even develop Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Self-protective thoughts might prevent you from addressing your trauma by blocking out memories. You may push people away, or you might become hyper-sexual in an attempt to take back control. Whatever your reaction, it’s not weird.
‘It was assault,’ a rape and sexual assault crisis line worker told me a few weeks ago. ‘I’m sorry that happened to you,’ she said – and for the first time I felt like I could breathe. Over the next few days I began telling the people closest to me about my assault – most victims are advised to share with those they trust. But even as I spoke the words aloud, there was that familiar voice in my head telling me I was being dramatic – it’s still there as I write this, though I’ve learned to pay less attention to it now.
What people don’t tend to realise is that, even though my assault happened years ago, to me it feels like it happened only a few weeks ago. Giving a name to it is almost as traumatic as the experience itself. After a particularly depressive episode last week where I repeatedly told myself that no one would ever want me because of all my baggage, I’ve managed to emerge intact out the other side (with the help of my therapist) having realised that I need to be kinder to myself, and stop assuming the worst in potential partners. Every week I know there will be a new battle to face – but I know I’m strong enough to deal with it now.
Aimee’s happy ending was all about her getting on the bus – so what’s my bus? Life isn’t as clear-cut and simple as TV, even if Sex Education does a realistic job at portraying it. My bus, and yours, won’t arrive until we as a society fix the problematic behaviours that we’ve all been complicit in normalising – but it might get here sooner if we start holding those around us accountable for creepy actions, empowering others with the language to describe what is and isn’t okay, and not undercutting each other’s valid feelings by saying they’re being dramatic, or that it wasn’t that serious. Because it was that serious, and it wasn’t okay.
I was sexually assaulted, and it was the worst thing that ever happened to me. But if sharing my experience helps even one person, then maybe it wasn’t all for nothing.
Words by Holly Pittaway
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