When I was fifteen years old I was on school holidays at the coast with a friend’s family. We’d been to a huge party, so big that it spilled down out of the units and onto the beach. There were hundreds of people there and I lost my friend and with her my ride back to our unit. I knew the buses didn’t start until morning and I didn’t have enough money for the taxi fare. But I was tired and drunk and I wanted to go to sleep.
I’d been talking to a guy and he said I could crash on the couch at his parents’ villa. I didn’t know him that well but had met him many times previously over the years and he was a friend of friends. I gratefully accepted.
We let ourselves in quietly so as not to rouse his parents and he set me up with some blankets and pillows in the lounge room before saying goodnight and going to his bedroom. I made a bed and fell asleep immediately.
I woke to find him on the couch with me, initiating sex. I said no and repeated the word over and over as I didn’t know what else to say. He kept going. When I started crying he told me to be quiet or I’d wake his parents up. I thought if they came out and found us they might throw me out and I’d have nowhere to go. I stopped crying.
He eventually left and I cried again and fell asleep. I got up early, folded the blankets, let myself out silently and caught the bus to my friend’s place. I said nothing about it to her.
When I was seventeen I went to a house party after a football game. Everyone had drunk a lot and my boyfriend and I went to an empty room to fool around. We had sex, it didn’t last long, and we both fell asleep. Whether it was more accurate to say I passed out seems academic at this point.
I woke up later to find him having sex with me. I protested weakly before realising it was actually one of his friends and not my boyfriend. I screamed at him to get off me and he laughed and called me a slut. When I kept yelling he said “okay, okay” and left the room, still laughing. I cried. I gathered my clothes and dressed. I found my friends and we left. I said nothing about it to them. They said nothing about it to me. I actually went to the trouble of breaking up with that boyfriend.
What I am telling you is that I’ve been raped twice.
The circumstances should be irrevelant to that fact but I’ve related them in the service of a bigger story.
Why didn’t I tell anybody at the time? Mostly because I did not realise I had been raped. In both cases, I was sure that it had happened because I had made bad decisions and brought it on myself. I had conversations with myself that I couldn’t bear to have with other people, along the lines of: what did I expect? What was I wearing? If only I’d been smarter, stronger, more worthy of respect, they wouldn’t have done that to me.
Many years later, I came to understand that these experiences were rapes and I was not to blame. Somebody had decided to treat me this way. A person had made a very deliberate decision to violate me and commit an assault on me, as surely as I did not deserve to be raped. I had not asked for it. By definition, I couldn’t ask to be raped. Two different young men had behaved in very similar ways towards a young woman who immediately took responsibility for their crime. I could not have avoided it by dressing differently. What did I expect? I should have been able to expect that I’d be treated like a human being. I should have been able to expect that I could be asleep and nobody would decide to rape me.
Now I know all this. Now I know that an overwhelming majority of rapes and sexual assaults are committed by people known to and trusted by the victim. Now I know that telling girls they must be careful not to get raped is not the same as telling boys they must not rape. Now I know that I live in a culture that trivialises, normalises, humorises, and apologises for rape. Now I know that it was not my fault. But when did I figure this out?
It was during SlutWalk in 2011.
That was part of my journey being one of the organisers responsible for planning and executing the event last year. But it echoes the stories of so many survivors who contacted us to say that until then they’d believed themselves responsible for the rapes, that for so long they’d thought ‘If only I’d done something differently, it wouldn’t have happened’.
I thought about telling my story out loud a few times. I had firsthand experience of the powerful impact of SlutWalk on a survivor. But I always found reasons not to share it. I didn’t want to hurt my friends with the knowledge of what had happened to me. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. I didn’t want the actions of other people, twenty-odd years ago, to define me in the eyes of those in my life now. I didn’t want to be “that girl who got raped” for all time. I didn’t want to detract from the clear messaging of the campaign that we’d all worked so hard to build. I didn’t want to be an object of pity. I didn’t want to hear variations on “It’s terrible what happened to you but…”. I didn’t want to admit that I could be so obtuse to the events in my own life and claim to be a feminist activist. I didn’t want people to think I was trying to speak on behalf of all survivors, and I didn’t want anyone to think that SlutWalk was just a personal crusade.
As you can see, even when you accept that you’re not to blame for a rape that’s committed against you, there’s a lot of self-reproach and confusion and anxiety about what it means and how you can control it. Often it feels like the best way to control it is to keep it to yourself. Ironically, it can feel empowering to maintain silence. So why talk about it now?
Because it’s wholly unfair that survivors feel stigmatised and defined by the actions of their abusers. Because my friends will be proud of me and will show me support and love. Because I told my partner and we both cried until I felt better and stronger. Because people keep asking why SlutWalk matters. Because my story could never detract from the message of SlutWalk because it clearly demonstrates the power of it. Because, of course, people will blame me and we will continue to stand against them and say no. Because I’m not an object of pity. And because SlutWalk is a personal crusade. Women are raped and then told it’s their fault and I take that personally.
Karen Pickering is a two-time organiser of SlutWalk Melbourne. She hosts Cherchez la Femme on the first Tuesday of every month at the Gasometer Hotel in Collingwood. Talk to her @jevoislafemme.