A Simple Acknowledgement
For the last week, the national discourse has been dominated by a story of sexual violence. There was a moment of collective horror like a held breath, and then anger. Threats, accusations, hypocrisies small and large: a focus on the men perpetrating, the men perpetuating, the men punishing.
This week we have been speaking to a survivor of sexual assault. For reasons that should be clear, we have published this piece anonymously. It's thoughtful and humbling and important. Until we hear more stories like these - until we confront the fact we're swimming in them and don't even know it - stories like last week's will keep catching us off guard, and we'll keep panicking and swimming in circles, and nothing will change.
Trigger warning for sexual violence. The experiences and opinions described here are those of the writer alone and she does not purport to speak for any other survivor or organisation.
I am a journalist and for the past week or so my work-related world has revolved around the so-called Roast Busters case.
I am also a survivor of sexual assault.
In some ways, it's not an unusual situation for me to be in. Unfortunately there's a lot of sex crime in the world and some of it comes across my desk, and some of it requires me to ring someone up and ask them questions about it. I've come to terms with the fact that, every so often - with a small shock of recognition in the blur of the fast-paced news cycle - the faces and stories of those women and girls and sometimes men, the people we're writing about, remind me of me.
Sometimes it's a simple, passing acknowledgement, the way you get a familiar feeling when you see a car in the street that's the same kind your mum used to drive when you were a kid. You note that moment of recognition and move on. But sometimes, when the story or the face is so much like yours, or it's a case that so consumes the news agenda and the office small-talk that your world for days becomes entirely about that event, your response can be more than that.
This is what rape survivors and their allies talk about when they refer to being triggered.
I've learned, over my years as a journalist, to hold the horrible things at arm's length, to let myself feel the pain of them but not to let them affect the other parts of my life. I love my job, and to me it's largely worth that effort. But the ugly jolt of alleged sex crimes as shocking as these ones, a case that dominates the discourse of an entire country for days on end, sends concentric ripples into the rest of my life as well.
By the second day of the Roast Busters story, my jaw hurt from clenching it. As each new detail came out and was discussed around me in the office, I got a weird, floating feeling in my arms and legs that I know from experience to be adrenalin. After a few bursts of it I was exhausted, but I lay in bed later - one in the morning, two, three - unable to sleep. My eyes were gritty and I picked at the skin on my fingers until, by the third day, my hands looked worse than they had in years. I started feeling too sick to my stomach to eat.
I thought about posting something on Facebook, but there are members of my family who don't know I was sexually assaulted. I'm Facebook friends with colleagues who are expecting me to cover the Roast Busters case and don't know I was assaulted. Newsrooms are tough places and people expect that journalists will behave like tough people. I've no doubt that I'm Facebook friends with survivors I don't know about, who are just as nervous about being outed as I am in this situation. I'm seeing a guy who doesn't know yet about this thing in my past, and probably doesn't need to find out in a pained, wounded social media rant. So I stayed silent.
On the fourth day, a friend of mine made light of the fact that a man I know had recently expected to be allowed to make a move on me in exchange for a favour he had done for me. My friend's comment was not cruel and was meant completely innocuously. Instead of laughing, I sat in a cubicle in the bathroom shaking, wondering whether or not, this time, I was going to be sick. Later that night, the same friend was proudly retweeting staunchly feminist articles about how terrible rape culture was. He even hashtagged it so that everyone would know exactly how outraged #rapeculture made him. He got a lot of likes on Facebook.
My friend had the best of intentions, but he failed to understand that the alleged sex offences committed by young men in West Auckland, and him telling me I shouldn't mind a man who is more powerful than me expecting sex in return for a favour, are both the product of exactly the culture he was supposedly so offended by. It's culture where some men believe they are entitled to sex and that women are a commodity for providing it, and that we're not supposed to mind how and when and where it happens. The man who'd wanted appropriate repayment from me for the favour he'd done for me probably isn't a rapist. But the Roast Busters case didn't happen in a vacuum, and the man's behaviour exists on a spectrum that includes what the Roast Busters allegedly did, too.
I felt too vulnerable, too raw - too incredibly, incandescently angry - to tell my friend that. My Facebook and Twitter have remained utterly empty of commentary on the case; I haven't been able to work up to a single furious hashtag.
On day five, after a discussion in the office about police questioning of young women, I came out in cold sweats just remembering my wait at the police station. The cops thought they had put me in a sound-proof room while they tried to find a female officer to talk to me. It wasn't a sound-proof room. They couldn't find a female officer. A cop peered through the window as he walked past. "Phwoar, whose is that in there?" he said, to someone I couldn't see. I should have complained about that. I didn't.
I had been brought straight from the scene and was wearing a short dress. When people asked afterwards - and they did - I lied and told them I had been wearing trousers.
Later, I sat in another room with a very kind male cop, the door ajar, while he asked me where and how the offender had touched my genitals. He apologised first for having to ask. I said I just wanted to get it done so I could go. He asked, "Did you try to fight him off?" I said I did.
For two years afterwards, I lay awake at night thinking, did I? Did I? Did I?
Months after that, I agreed to a lesser charge for the offender so that he would plead guilty - even though he would likely have been found guilty at trial - because I was having nightmares every night about having to answer those questions again in a courtroom. The police rang me on my cell phone at work to check I was OK with the lesser charge; I had about a minute to decide and I took what felt at the time like the easiest out. Sometimes I regret that decision; mostly I don't. At the time the police rang me, I was - honestly - trying to finish writing a news story about rape. I put down the phone and made the deadline. My limbs felt funny.
I know I am incredibly fortunate that my attacker was prosecuted at all.
In some ways, this past week has started a national conversation on an amazing level - one that needed to happen. It makes up about half of my Facebook newsfeed every time I log in; it's all anyone's talking about at work, out at drinks, on the news. People who have never thought about these issues before are starting to form opinions, be challenged, made uncomfortable. And lots of ways that's good. It's great.
But every time the conversation starts up in the office again, I fall silent. No one has asked me why that is; I'm not sure what I'd tell them. I haven't left any comments on my friends' posts. I watch some of my male friends and colleagues doing brave, admirable things; setting great examples for others - especially for other men - and reaping a lot of praise in liberal circles for it, too. And I support all of that. So why do I feel so minimised, so silenced by this conversation that's going on? Why do I feel like the voices I'm hearing the least are those of survivors, while people loudly jumping on the feminism 101 bandwagon for the first time in their lives are praised for being so enlightened? And why, in the case of some of my friends who I see propping up rape culture and patriarchy with one hand while condemning those nasty West Auckland alleged rapists (or J.T., or Willie, or Bob Jones) with the other, do I feel so cynical about whether this issue's going to last as hashtag material for their Twitter feeds beyond the end of this week? Why do I feel like many of those having this conversation don't realise that for some of us, alleged rape is not just a news story; it's a reality we have to wake up to every day for the rest of our lives?
Most of all, why do I secretly want this national conversation, of immense benefit to so many, to be over?
Well, the last one's easy: because I want my life - hard fought from my attacker and from the cloud that has hung over me too often in the years since - back. I want the flashbacks to stop; I want to get through a day, to go for a run, without the constant monologue that says checkbehindyou, checkbehindyou, checkbehindyou. I want to laugh and sleep and eat a sandwich and do my job without the shock of being reminded, at any given moment, of the things that happened to me. I want to stop feeling like the only person who doesn't have an opinion on the Roast Busters case, because looking people I know in the eye and telling my story is still, I'm afraid, too painful to even entertain the thought of doing it.
On the surface, my unwillingness to put my own face and name to my story feels a lot like cowardice. Perhaps it is. But what I do know is that once the flurry of discussion around the Roast Busters case has died down, and some of those currently grappling with the issue for the first time have moved on with their lives, I will still have to live mine. For a long time after that moment when I looked at the man standing in front of me and realised - just a second too late - what was about to happen, it felt to me like I had no control over anything. I had to win it all back. In the immediate aftermath, before I was in a position to assert what I wanted, my story was told over and over without my permission - as gossip; as a cautionary tale; as evidence; out of concern. I felt, for a while, as though somewhere in other people's re-telling I had stopped being myself and started to be nothing more than this thing that had happened to me.
I never quite learned how to deal with the panic in people's eyes as they frantically tried to reconcile the compassion they were obviously feeling with the things they'd had ingrained in them about who rape victims must always be. That look, that moment of incomprehension, isolated me more than any way in which I'd ever isolated myself by staying quiet. When someone told me, once, that she didn't understand how I'd ever worked up the courage to leave the house again, I understood both that it was meant as a kindness and also that I had never felt more alone in my life. The internal struggle to believe I could be bigger than this awful, destructive thing that had happened was bad enough; knowing that even the people around me weren't sure I could do it was devastating.
Alongside that, I discovered that even some of the people who loved me felt it was OK to say make statements that began, "Why didn't you", and "This is why you shouldn't", and "But can't you just". Often, when someone first heard that I had been attacked, they seemed to require me to adequately document every aspect of my behaviour before they revealed what their response would be - whether it was in order to satisfy their prurient interest, or to validate how real my assault was before they afforded me the compassion that only "real rape" would inspire.
And when these things were said to me, it wasn't by radio hosts or newspaper columnists or police officers or strangers; it was by my friends. I reached a point where I simply couldn't bear to be disappointed by another person I loved - not because they were at all disappointing people, but because we'd all been shaped by a tremendously disappointing culture. I did not - and still don't - feel robust enough, invulnerable enough, to be used as a public face of the dark, simmering undercurrent of sexual violence that is present in every part of our society. But I ache for the absence of voices saying, "This is what happened to me," to at least be noted.