Dismantling shame and harnessing anger: life as a survivor and advocate

Upon writing this it is 6 months since I shared my story, writing for I Am Arla about my experience of childhood rape and the journey to finding my voice in the aftermath. The last months have taught me a lot. Upon sharing my story, I immediately felt like a weight had been lifted. Although of course I was nervous about how it would be received, it was out there. I was free. The messages of support I received and the other survivors who shared their own stories with me as a result of sharing my experience taught me the power of speaking up. The idea that my story could inspire others was so uplifting and empowering. Community and unity are powerful forces for good. The vast majority of people have treated my story with respect, love and support, and for that I am incredibly grateful. However there were those who did not support me. Those who disengaged from the conversation because they were uncomfortable. Those who tried to make light of my story, make it the butt of jokes, even. Those who tried to explain it away or to silence, question or gaslight me. Because my voice as a survivor caused them discomfort. I learned a lesson that I think all survivors learn at some point: how people react to your experience is a reflection of them, not of the validity of your trauma. While sharing my story was incredibly liberating, I still find it extremely difficult to talk about the details of my rapes. The broken trust, the loss of safety, the missed warning signs, losing my childhood in that way, all the ways I was misunderstood and unprotected that facilitated the ability of my rapist to assault me multiple times over the course of three years. It is a lot to process. And I am grieving. I am grieving for the child Sophie that was lost at ten years old. Looking back all these years later, I see all the ways my life changed as a result of what was done to me, and I grieve for that. But I simultaneously celebrate the life I have. Not to forgive or credit my abuser at all, not even accept all the ways the abuse changed me; but to acknowledge the strength I have discovered in myself as a result of my experience. The perspective. The passion to empower others. The fire inside that spurs me to act, to be an active part of creating change for future generations of women. The fight I have within me. The community of incredible women and survivors around me. I have also been thinking a lot about shame. One of the hardest things for me was untangling the irrational feelings of shame I had around what my abuser did. I was a child, I was a victim of rape, how could I ever blame myself? But part of me did. It took me a long time to unravel that the shame was his; his shamelessness put his shame onto me. So I have been working to let go of any shame I feel about being a rape survivor. Feeling shame gives him power over me again. It lets him win. And he has not won. The patriarchal stigma around rape has not won. I am not worthless, and I do not need to be ashamed. His shame is not mine to carry. For all survivors out there: it was not your fault and it never will be. I have also been learning to accept my anger. Anger in women, in a patriarchal society, is seen as coarse, jarring, impolite. I think that when you’re a woman, you are conditioned to put anger to one side. We learn early on the importance of a strong facade. So I have spent years labelling my anger as sadness; and indeed often the two are certainly intertwined. But it has been important recently to face my anger. I realise that people who have not had my experience will probably not understand my anger. I am angry because I was raped as a child, multiple times, by an adult man. I am angry because I wasn’t protected. I am angry because he is living his life, with no accountability. I am angry because the society we live in lets this happen, over and over, to thousands of people. It has taken me a long time to reconcile that my anger is valid. That anger is not an unreasonable reaction. That I deserve to be angry. Accepting and embracing my anger, and then channelling it into speaking up, activism and advocacy has been a huge step in my healing. Every week we seem to hear more stories of historic sexual violence being brought to light, or recent horrific tragedies which spark necessary widespread conversations around violence against women. As a survivor, these can be tiring. I’m tired of women and girls being scared in their daily lives, at school, in the street, at work, in bars…everywhere. I’m tired of the narratives around teaching girls to protect themselves rather than teaching boys to respect and speak up for women and to not perpetrate sexual violence. I’m tired of girls growing up experiencing daily harassment and not being taught how wrong it is. I’m tired of boys not being taught about consent. I’m tired of those who question, devalue, victim-blame and refuse to believe survivors who share their stories. I’m tired of the ‘Not All Men’ crew who come out defensively instead of examining their own behaviour. Sure, it’s not all men. But it is all men who are not consistently examining their own behaviour, calling out the behaviour of other men and stepping in when they see a woman feeling uncomfortable. It’s enough men that thousands of people are sexually assaulted and harassed every year. I’m tired of women being consistently failed by the systems supposedly in place to protect us. We should be able to live our lives, fully and vibrantly, in any way we choose, without being raped. And I’m tired of women having to use their experiences to educate others, or being pressured to share details in order to be taken seriously. I have been dissecting this conditioning recently; the pressure people, especially women, feel to share personal experiences to justify our calls to dismantle a patriarchal culture that makes us unsafe. Sharing our stories should be a sacred, empowering and healing step on our own journeys, not a necessity to educate those who question the existence of rape culture. I’m tired of society trying to place sexual violence as a ‘women’s issue’. It is not. Sexual violence is a human issue. In fact, it is a male issue; it is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men. And I am sick not only at the lack of accountability for perpetrators right now, but the ability that many men feel to simply ‘sit this one out’. Men: you cannot sit back. You cannot avoid the conversation anymore.You think because you have not personally raped or harassed someone, you’re in the clear? You are not. Not being an abuser is the bare minimum of human decency. Women have been having this conversation for years. The only way things will change is if you get involved. 97% of young women in the UK have been sexually harassed, a 2018 YouGov poll found that one third of surveyed men in the UK believed rape myths and out of nearly 60,000 reported rapes in England and Wales in 2020, only 1.4% were prosecuted. What do those numbers tell us? What do they tell the men in the grey area, the potential perpetrators? They tell them that rape is essentially being decriminalised. As a society this should scare us; just think how many abusers that leaves in society? And survivors have to face not only the fact that they are unlikely to receive justice or accountability for their perpetrator, but that our society is stacked against survivors of abuse. At this point, I have not reported my rapes to the police. The statistics, the daunting process of reporting, the lack of evidence, the historic nature of the crimes, my fear of repercussions from my abuser. These are just some of the deterrents I face when considering reporting my experience. Part of me wants to hold my rapist accountable, but justice is unlikely. And that is painful and heartbreaking. One of the ways I personally feel most empowered in my healing journey is through fighting for change. Yes, it’s a systemic and institutional issue and it needs systemic change. But systemic change takes us as individuals and as a society engaging in the conversations and doing our part, making what change we can with our friends, with our families, with our children, in our workplaces, in our schools- wherever we can. Yes, we must fix the justice system, but we also must fix the patriarchal society that this sits within. Because it is this system that allows violence against women to continue. This patriarchal system, in fact, breeds sexual violence. And it takes all of us to change it. Listening to survivors is a great first step; but then its up to you to engage in the conversations and be active in the movement to end sexual violence. Recent events have been hard for survivors. So for all of you, my community, I leave you with these reminders: You can’t go back in time and redo your life without your trauma. But you can take your younger self’s hand and tell her that life continues. You will grow, you will learn, you will heal and love and find safe spaces. There is hope and joy and life on the other side of this. I promise. Your grief and your anger are valid. You are strong and powerful and resilient. Your worth is inherent; it is not determined by what was inflicted upon you. It was never, ever your fault. A mantra for the triggering moments: “I never have to go back there.” Write yourself into the centre of your narrative. Framing yourself as the centre of your own story can help you to take the power back. Healing is messy and complicated, it is not linear. Give yourself time. Honour yourself and your story. It is yours. Whether that be by sharing your story or not; both are equally valid. Hold yourself tighter and love yourself harder right now. You deserve it. Pause, breathe, then get up and keep fighting. Sophie x

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