The trial of cricketer Scott Kuggeleijn has sparked another round of debate over sexual assault, victim blaming and consent. Melanie Spencer* tells the story of her rape, and explains why online outrage leaves her numb.
Content warning: This essay contains a description of sexual assault, along with its mental health implications, which may be triggering to survivors.
Another alleged rape, another debate on consent. Was she too drunk? Did he genuinely think she consented? Was he drunk too? I read the same arguments, see the same people making the same comments. Social soldiers changing the world one Facebook status at a time. I get it: you mean well. I am glad you are outraged and social media is a powerful tool. But until there is a change in legislation, and a change in the general public’s perception – and until rapists stop raping – we’ll keep going through the motions. Consent will continue to be an issue that gets media attention every few months on the back of a news story, then fades again from public consciousness.
Every time I read a rape story, it takes me back two and a half years ago to when it happened to me. To the post-traumatic stress disorder, the emotional whirlwind where words can’t begin to describe the mental torture I went through. My rape stunted me. Instead of working through the trauma, I worked an extra job on top of my full-time job to distract myself from the shame I felt about what had happened that night.
It’s not a great story but I guess this is where I write it. I was celebrating a co-worker’s promotion. My boyfriend and I had broken up two days beforehand. I got too drunk and wandered off alone in town. My memory trails off there, which I am kind of grateful for, since I would not want to remember it any clearer.
What I do know is this: two men probably twice my age bought me drinks, put me in a taxi, took me to their hotel and raped me. At some point I remember coming to and got in a taxi home. I was upset and horrified. I woke up next to my ex-boyfriend in the morning and told him what happened. He left about half an hour later and started moving out the next day.
It was the worst hangover I have ever had and what my memory didn’t remember, my body did. I had a shower and my vagina was raw, dry and sore. The shower couldn’t clean my shame. Nothing could. I was a relatively well-brought up modern woman who considered herself a feminist, but I was convinced that this was my fault. I genuinely thought I had consented and made a mistake and all I wanted was the one person I loved most in the world to come back and help me get through it. I was 22 years old, a recent graduate, and working in the public sector (none of which impacts someone’s chances of being raped, that was just the stage of life I was at).
For about six months after the rape, I blamed my change in persona on my break up and threw myself into working two jobs. I kept it up for around four or five months before the cracks started to show. My memory became hazy and people at work started to notice. All of a sudden I was afraid of drinking in front of people, or drinking too much. I didn’t go to sleep at night until I was exhausted, for fear of allowing my mind to remember that night. I was continually tired. Work noticed that too. It feels stupid to say it, I know it’s textbook victim-blaming, but I genuinely thought I deserved to feel as terrible as I did for getting too drunk one night.
I became afraid of middle-aged bald men. Working in the public sector, this was not an easy trigger to deal with. I finally cracked and went to counselling after admitting what had happened to a colleague, but I continued to put myself under an immense amount of pressure. I worked every waking hour in the day, every day. I was so busy, I didn’t have time to process what had happened – which is what I wanted.
Fast-forward to today, after about a year and a half of counselling. I’m still on anti-depressants (I went on them after my dad had a heart attack overseas the Christmas after the rape. Dealing with both became too much), I quit my second job and finally I feel like I can move on with life after what for a long time felt like suffering from brain injury.
I understand that my story is far from uncommon. This is what life is and it is unfair that in probably less than three hours two rapists could inflict years of pain on someone’s life. It pisses me off that I likely couldn’t even identify these guys in a line up. I’d quickly written off going to the police as I didn’t want the shame, the hassle, the questions. Even if they were identified, the law doesn’t make it easy for them to be convicted. The two of them would say I wanted it and I have no evidence to prove otherwise.
I am part of the one in five New Zealand women who have experienced a serious sexual assault. My post-traumatic stress disorder crippled me for about a year and a half and I could barely factor another person in my life during that time. Weirdly enough, if this happened to a friend of mine I would have immediately identified what they had gone through as rape. But when it happened to me, I processed and conveyed it to others in a way that put me at fault. Being a victim seemed shameful and I didn’t relate to being ‘a survivor’ either since I’d been too drunk to understand that I was in any real danger. I just remember grabbing my bag, fixing my dress and struggling to find my way out of the hotel room. Even once I had accepted that what had happened was a rape, I couldn’t relate to other sexual assault stories. I felt inferior to those victims, as though what happened to me wasn’t that bad in comparison.
I could have been drugged, I don’t know. My memory wasn’t clear when I met them and I don’t know who approached who. I don’t know if they knew my name, my age or what I did for a living. I was completely exposed to these two men and I know nothing about them. Were they married? Did they have children? Why did they have a hotel room? Why did they take me there? Was it my idea? If it wasn’t me was it going to be someone else? It’s hard to know the answers when I have no recollection, just hazy locations and some derogatory words thrown my way about how much of a dirty slut I was.
Early on during my one of my counselling sessions I was overwhelmed and crying that I wished these men had killed me so that I didn’t have to live with the trauma. Writing that now seems so dark and excessive but two years ago I woke up every day forced to accept what had happened was a part of me. An apology, a conviction or even an acceptance of what the perpetrators did to me will never change that.
I am glad people are outraged about cases like Kuggeleijn’s and that there is growing support for victims of sexual assault. I am still ashamed of what happened to me and have a genuine fear of forever being that girl who got raped. It doesn’t define me, but it definitely preoccupies me more than I would like to admit and for that reason I didn’t want my name published with this article. There are still those who hide behind their keyboards while judging a victim they’ve never met. She should have monitored what she was drinking that night; if only she’d done something or worn something different, she could have avoided being a victim of sexual assault.
I wish there was more education around the meaning of consent. I wish it was ingrained into everyone that they should look after drunk, incapacitated people as opposed to having sex with them. I don’t know about anyone else, but I certainly would never want to have sex with anyone who showed signs of serious inebriation. I guess that is the difference between those who rape and those who don’t.
I wish we could do more than just write a social media update on it, or engage with someone else’s status. If I had a solution, I would offer it here. I would try to help others who have been victims of sexual assault. The truth is, I still struggle with having been silently branded by two men with the words RAPED across my forehead in invisible ink. Like the one in five women this has happened to, many of whom you probably know, I don’t want to be known as a sexual assault victim, or even as a survivor. I just want to go back to being that co-worker who came out for work drinks, before I was raped.
Statistics state that only about 10 out of 100 sexual abuse crimes are reported in New Zealand and of those, only three go to trial. Only one of those cases is likely to result in a conviction. If these statistics are correct, that means the perpetrators of 99 out of 100 sexual abuse crimes are walking around in society right now. We are only reminded of this when one of those three out of 100 court cases attracts the attention of the media.
I feel for the families of alleged rapists; no-one wants to believe that their child is capable of rape. But believe me, no one wants to be raped. The actual rape itself is almost the easiest part in the entire process. It’s the aftermath – the self-hatred, the self-persecution, the shame and the physical pain. Then the flashbacks start.
You would think that after so much coverage of sexual assault issues that we’d have seen legislative changes that would make it more possible for sexual offenders to be convicted. A process that would make it easier for victims to come forward. But no matter how mentally and emotionally destroyed you are, it seems you need bruises and beatings for it to be considered as evidence. If the accused is a promising sports player or a prominent New Zealander the media will report on it – only then is it considered a worthwhile story. The two older overweight nobodies who raped me probably wouldn’t pass the screen-test, let alone be allowed on the media merry-go-round of rape reports.
When you’re in so much emotional pain, the idea of going to the police and being asked how much you drank and what you said, being asked to identify your assailants when your memory only sees chubby bald blobs – it’s next to impossible to do so. I couldn’t answer these questions to myself, let alone to authorities. So I became one of those anonymous unreported women you know. I work with you, I am your Facebook friend, I have exchanged emails with you. And I know you read countless articles about sexual assault and that you post about it, share links, tweet about how terrible it is. Like I said, I have no solutions. I do not resent that you’ve never donated to Rape Crisis or other charities that gives direct support to victims of rape. Maybe my story will help you realise you have gone through the exact same thing. I am so sad if this is the case.
I know that I’m not that special. My experiences are a daily reality for victims of sexual assault. Every day, people cry in the shower, their genitals raw and sore. Nothing can make them feel any cleaner. Occasionally their stories will be reported and I’ll read them and observe the comments between my friends on social media. And I’ll remember how powerless and incapacitated I felt the day it happened to me.
* Not her real name. The author has donated her fee for this story to her local Rape Crisis – if you’d like to donate, here’s a list of the local organisations.
If the events depicted in this story have been triggering in any way, please consider contacting any of the following organisations: