'I didn't realise what happened to me was rape'
"I felt like it was my fault because, before that night, I had found him attractive"
I’d seen him around quite a bit at uni. He was good-looking and smart. People talked about him like he was a celebrity. I’d had a fling with one of his friends six months earlier, but we’d never spoken properly. He seemed to shimmer whenever I saw him, and was always surrounded by a group of male friends who all had the effortless cool of people who knew they had the world at their feet.
It was my third year. My finals were over, and it was almost time to leave and figure out what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my life. That year, the summer was unusually hot. Every day I woke up expecting it to rain, but it never did. The air fizzed with the electricity of freedom and possibility.
We all prepared to leave our student houses for good. For almost two weeks, not a night went by without a party. It was at one of them that it happened.
The party was going to be at a secret outdoor location just outside of town. All we were told was what the dress code was, where to meet people, and what time.
I got ready with my two best friends. We drank some bargain basement booze, did each other’s make-up, and got a taxi to the location. When we got there, my friends were taking drugs so I joined in. I did a small bump of MDMA (the powdered form of ecstasy). I’d done it before a few times, and this felt like a safe place to do it – there can’t have been more than 100 of us, and we all knew each other.
I danced and danced and danced with my friends. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him. He hovered and slowly seemed to be moving in concentric circles towards me. We started dancing together, he offered me a drink.
Later, I woke up lying in the grass. The bass from the party thudded faintly through the ground. I was reassured that I hadn’t gone too far. It was cold, the ground was damp with dew. There was someone on top of me, he was trying to force himself inside me, but my body had frozen. I realised that it was not a dream. I saw who it was. The shock hit me – how could it be him? I knew him, everyone knew him. People you know don’t do this, do they? Had I somehow made him think this was OK?
"I’m going to count you as a notch on my bedpost no matter what,” he said in a low, gruff voice. When I’d heard him speak before, his voice was soft. Now he sounded angry and frustrated.
I couldn’t find my voice. Like the bass from the party, it was faint, muffled, and just out of reach. When I tried to tell him to stop, the words wouldn’t come out, they stuck in my throat. When physically forcing himself inside me didn’t work, he lurched over me and tried to force me to perform oral sex on him for what seemed like hours.
It was like I wasn’t even involved. I had left the scene. I mean, my body was there, but I was floating somewhere above what was happening, looking down and trying to make sense of it.
The sun slowly started to creep up over the horizon. It must have been 5am, maybe 6am. Relief flooded over me. In the dark it felt like time had stood still.
“I just don’t think this will work," I whispered. “Stop, it’s not going to work”. I spoke quietly and calmly. Somehow, I had found the magic combination of words. He stood up, pulled his trousers up, and, without saying a word, he walked off.
I stumbled back to the party, which was still going on. I found my friends – they were still dancing and having fun. We shared a taxi home. I said nothing about what had happened, and nobody asked.
I was raped, but I couldn’t immediately say it was rape. The word seemed so big and I felt so small.
I knew what I was supposed to do – tell people, call the police – but I was scared that I would be judged for getting too drunk, wearing an almost see-through dress, or taking illegal drugs. They would ask how I ended up lying on the ground with him, on my own with him, and I wouldn’t be able to answer because I didn’t remember. They would ask if he had spiked my drink. I thought he had, but I wouldn’t be able to say for sure either way.
I knew it wasn’t my fault, but I worried that nobody would believe me. I didn’t want to be questioned. I wasn’t ready. If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, I would report it, but I didn't. Like so many others, I stayed silent - 85% of those who experience sexual violence in England and Wales today don't report it.
I had gone to a party, dressed up, and wanted attention. I was single and 23 years old. I had committed no crime but, somehow, I felt like I had asked for it. I struggled to fully accept what had happened to me.
Seven years later, I now know that if you’re not sober enough to say yes to sex, you aren’t able to give consent. Back then, though, we didn’t talk about consent as much.
Legally, for sex to be consensual, both parties have to give permission and have to have the capacity to make that choice. I never once gave him permission to be rough with me, to force himself inside me, to overpower me.
If you’re unconscious or incapacitated by alcohol or drugs – like I was – you can't give consent. Having sex with someone who can't give their consent is rape. It’s as simple as that.
Deep down, in my heart and my gut, I knew this immediately after it had happened. But the process of coming to terms with being raped was slow and painful. It took me years to even say the word 'rape' out loud. I still hate saying it.
There were so many what ifs, and each one seemed, somehow, to cement my own responsibility for his actions. Whenever I thought about it, it was like I was putting myself on trial.
Stereotypes still shroud rape in shame and secrecy. Growing up, we’re taught by our parents to fear attacks by strangers, to take care in dark alleyways, and never to walk home alone. We take this on board - we take our headphones out, we carry our door keys in our hands, we look back to check, check, and check again. We do all of this despite the fact that only 10% of rapes in England and Wales are committed by strangers. The majority are carried out by someone known to the victim.
Somehow, even though I knew better, I believed that story. I had absorbed it by osmosis growing up, allowed it to make me feel so much guilt and stigma that I stayed silent. I was swept away by what initially felt like a bewildering situation because I was in shock. I struggled to see what happened as rape because I knew the perpetrator. I felt like it was my fault because, before that night, I had found him attractive. He was not the shady figure lurking in the dark that I had been taught to fear.
That one night has had a lasting impact on my relationships and my mental health. It took me a long time to come to terms with being assaulted and, actually, only now am I really starting to properly process everything. I’m in a long-term committed relationship, which has given me the space to open up about it.
Reading other women’s stories through #MeToo and listening to the testimonies of women like Dr Christine Blasey Ford have also helped me to finally cut myself off from thinking about the corrosive shame I felt and, instead, join the conversation around consent.
I will never understand why anyone would ever think it’s OK to force themselves on someone, but what I do know is that no-one – and I mean no-one – asks to be raped or sexually assaulted.
It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, how much you drank, whether you took drugs or, even, if you went out hoping to pull. Rape is only ever the responsibility of the perpetrator, and there is nothing – and I mean nothing – confusing about consent.
Issues around consent and rape form part of a current EastEnders storyline - find out more here.