Eighteen years ago, I was violently raped and physically assaulted by a woman who I didn’t know, in a public place.
After I’d escaped, I went straight home and showered. I felt completely numb. I was worried about people I knew seeing me because I had a bruised face from her physical assaults on me. What would I tell them?
The next day I told my intimate (female) partner at the time. She said she didn’t understand how a woman could rape another woman. It was crushing. I felt instantly and entirely isolated by her reaction.
People think of women as caring and nurturing. Many really struggle to accept that they’re as capable of cruelty as men are.
When it comes to women raping women, it is an act of violence and control; it is not sex. For others I’ve told, I think their lack of understanding of what constitutes sex between women (which happens when those involved are consenting) contributes to the difficulty to comprehend woman-to-woman rape.
My partner’s reaction put me off reporting the attack to the police. If she didn’t understand, I thought, why would they? I tried to find information or a support service to help me make sense of what had happened, but there was nothing. I felt really, really alone.
Some years later, in 2010, I joined the University of Plymouth as a lecturer on the occupational therapy program and embraced the opportunity to start my doctoral studies.
I decided to research woman-to-woman rape and sexual assault. I knew it was a real problem - I personally knew other women who had experienced it - but there was an absence of credible research.
To gather data, I started with a web-based survey for members of the general public. They agreed or disagreed with five statements:
- I have experienced a woman sexually assaulting me.
- I have heard of a woman sexually assaulting another woman, in addition to my experience of a woman sexually assaulting me.
- I have heard of a woman sexually assaulting another woman, but have never experienced it myself.
- I have never heard of a woman sexually assaulting another woman.
- I do not believe woman-to-woman sexual assault is possible.
I received 159 responses, none of who agreed with the last statement. Clearly, this survey was small and not representative of the population at large. Respondents felt that national campaigns and most people they told tend to think woman-to-woman rape and sexual assault isn’t possible.
As one of the respondents told me, “when you ask people about it, there’s not many people that think women are violent, in a sexual way.”
59 respondents had experienced a woman sexually assaulting them. Of these, 38 had also heard of a woman sexually assaulting another woman. The majority of respondents (42.4%) had heard of a woman sexually assaulting another woman.
The government doesn’t report data on rape or sexual assault between women.
But, in an interview for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, I spoke with Yvonne Traynor - CEO of Rape Crisis - who stated, “Around 10% of perpetrators are women”.
I spoke to 11 people in more depth, doing face-to-face interviews and corresponding with them, generally over a one-year period.
One of the main reasons stopping them from pursuing a prosecution is the legal definition of rape.
Prior to 1994, UK law asserted that rape could only be committed by a man against a woman. In 1994, Stonewall (the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans charity) had the law changed to recognise that men can also rape men.
This remains the UK’s current sexual crimes law.
Women in the UK have been convicted of helping a man, or men, to rape another person.
When they themselves rape, though, they commit an invisible crime with victims who are, effectively, silenced.
In September 2016 a petition called for the legal definition of rape to also include female on male rape. The Government responded: “There was a considerable amount of agreement that rape should remain an offence of penile penetration. We therefore have no plans to amend the legal definition of rape.”
One of the women I spoke to, Cailey, had been repeatedly raped by an older woman for years, starting before she turned 16.
She spoke to a close friend of hers who worked in the police force, and who advised her against reporting her rape.
She told Cailey: “This is a minefield. If it was a man we might be able to get somewhere but prosecution is unlikely because it’s a woman – you’re talking about 1% prosecution rates or something.”
One respondent, Lauryn, was simultaneously raped by a woman and assaulted by her boyfriend. Lauryn did go to the police but later decided not to press charges as her perpetrators were threatening her.
Lauryn told me: “Eventually I went back to the police and said, 'I can’t do it'. And, it was a female police officer too, and she said, 'Oh, yeah, well that’s probably a good thing, just put it down to experience'.”
Many of my respondents felt they were not heard, or were met with the attitude that woman-to-woman sexual offending wasn’t serious.
“When you try and talk no one wants to know,” one told me. She’d disclosed to a friend and a therapist. “They go silent, making you feel a freak.”
Almost all the women who shared their stories with me spoke about the lack of support services for those who have been sexually assaulted by women.
They – and I – hope that will change. The criminal justice system needs to recognise woman-to-woman rape and sexual assault, and support services need to be made more aware of the issue.
When I asked why she wanted to be involved in my research, one woman, Simone, told me, “It really is just to promote awareness”.
Society, and the law, need to catch up with reality.
For further information and support, please go here.