Writing by Eve Dangerfield // Photograph by Sophie Pellegrini
Content Warning: Rape and Sexual Assault.
Note: I wrote this article before the Brock Turner case blew up on social media but I didn’t submit it. I wanted to speak out against rape culture but I was so very, very scared. I told myself I wasn’t ready. That I had nothing important to contribute. Then I read Emily Doe’s letter. I cried. Then I re-read the letter. Then I cried some more and said, “To hell with this.”
I’m sick of feeling ashamed. I’m sick of acting like anyone’s feelings are more important than my own. Most of all I’m sick of rape. So I will add my voice to this conversation. I will add my face and my name. I will tell my friends and family and acquaintances and fans (?) that if you know me, you know a rape victim. Please let the knowledge sit with you, as it has sat with me for the last five years of my life. Please let my goofy, utterly normal face be one you picture when people talk about rape. When you don’t know anyone who’s been touched by sexual assault it’s easy to have assumptions about victims, perpetrators and the circumstances in which they collide.
But here I am, another young woman who had the misfortune to pass out in the proximity of a nice young man with a promising future and who awoke from that experience, a rape victim.
You may never know Emily Doe but you might know me. And you will know others, it is likely you already know others cowed and silent like I was. But the more we speak up, the more we acknowledge what happened to us and why the more cracks appear in murky surface of rape culture, or at least that is my dearest hope. So here we freaking go.
I was on the cusp of twenty, dancing in my sailor girl dress. He was an awkward boy, gangly and freckled. It was my horror five years later to discover he looks a great deal like Brock Turner. Or maybe Brock Turner looks like him. Either way, this boy was not a confident one. Everything he did had the distinct stench of someone trying very hard to be cool. He kept trying to buy me drinks, kept dancing up next to me. I wanted him gone but at least in his mind, he had cause to linger. His best mate Rob* was dating my best mate Sarah* and he and Rob hadn’t driven all the way down from New South Wales for nothing now had they? Wink-wink nudge-nudge.
I wasn’t having it. I didn’t find him attractive. I didn’t find him funny. He could have driven from the outer moons of Pluto to bang me and I wouldn’t have cared, something I made clear from the get-go. Sarah tried placate me. “Just be nice. Relax. He really likes you! Besides, he’ll be gone by Sunday!”
And, because I love Sarah, I had to attempt to be polite. All weekend I had been polite, but that night I’d had enough. I was rolling my eyes, refusing to talk to him, groaning whenever he stood on an amp to dance like an electrocuted clown. Eventually I told Sarah I wanted to leave the bar. She agreed and we left. On the walk back to the car the boy kept trying to fall in line with me and I would speed up or slow down accordingly.
“You didn’t even want to walk beside him,” Sarah sobbed years later. “You wouldn’t even look at him.”
Rob drove, Sarah called shotgun and the boy sat in the back with me. Tired from dancing and putting up with a petulant man-child, I curled up and fell asleep. I’ve always slept well in cars, I find the hum of the wheels on bitumen soothing. Less than an hour later we were at the gates to my house. Sarah shook me awake. As I slowly gained consciousness several things struck me at once. My calves were resting on the boy’s lap. My skin was hot and prickling, like it was trying to crawl off. My underwear was slick with what I’d later discover was blood. My vagina and anus were sore.
I looked at the boy, whey-faced and staring out the window and I knew two things:
1) I’d just been sexually assaulted.
2) He was going to pretend it never happened.
I never, not for one second saw it coming. I was warned about watching my drinks, going home with strange men, giving boys “the wrong idea.”
I was never told not to fall asleep in my best friend’s car, next to a boy I’d all but told to fuck off.
This former-choirboy-turned-army-cadet had met my parents, we’d discussed our favourite U2 songs, we’d split a chips and gravy and then he’d spread my sleeping thighs and molested me while my best friend chatted to his best friend less than thirty centimeters away.
That was the night I became a statistic. One of the one-in-five women who will experience sexual assault at some point in their lifetimes. Eve “Short-Straw” Dangerfield reporting for duty.
Until that point, safety was the only thing I knew; comfort, security and unconditional love. Until that point my life had a simple narrative “smart girl from a nice home is doing well thanks.”
Yet somehow, in the length of a single car trip, I became a rape victim**.
The aftermath was heinous. Some rape victims are filled with fear, others crippling sadness, I was angry. Furious. Beside myself.
I thought if I did the right thing I’d be fine, I’d swallowed that lovely lie hook, line and sinker. When the world elected to make me, a “good girl” with one previous sexual partner, a rape victim I decided it could reap my fucking wrath.
I started fights in clubs, bars, offices, pubs, with friends, strangers, mailmen, and drunk guys three times my size. I shouted, I screamed, I occasionally threw punches. I put myself in dangers way and said “do your fucking worst, I played by your stupid rules and I got raped. Safety was never even an option.”
It was as though I’d been injected with a noxious growth hormone. I morphed from a dreamy (read: space cadet) teenager into a snarling eight-foot monster. I wasn’t the only one. Sarah, my beautiful beloved Sarah, got her injection too. She stuck with me every step of the way. Supported me beyond anyone else. We read about rape culture and rape victims and feminism and social injustice and our skin rippled with stretch marks from realising our vulnerability so quickly. I was angry; Sarah was bitter. She had to live with encouraging me to be nicer to my rapist. She had to live with glancing at the backseat and seeing my dress pulled up. With failing to understand what it meant.
“It could have been me,” she said many, many times. “It was just luck that it wasn’t me.”
Robert Frost wrote, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”
My life went on. Forever moving, forever changed. I know things now, things I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t fallen asleep that night. If fate hadn’t dealt me that hand. If the boy wasn’t an entitled shit-bag. I share eleven of these things now, for me and for the women like me. It is my hope that if they offer even the slightest shred of insight or comfort, the worst experience of my life wasn’t for nothing after all.
11. Your story is your own. I can (and often) sum up my rape in three words: it was shit. I elaborated here because while it’s still undeniably shit, the backstory assists the greater message. If talking about your rape hurts, you do not have to talk. That is your right. It does not mean it didn’t happen or doesn’t matter. If you want to use your experience to bring gravitas to a situation you have every right to be brief. If someone tells a rape joke in my presence I say, “Well I was raped and I don’t think that’s funny.” Trust me people are too busy shitting themselves to ask for details. And if they do? If they’re those soul sucking individuals who demand details? Tell them to go read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini if they want a good cry and leave you alone.
10. Some loved ones can’t handle it. Sex makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Sexual assault, as you may have gleaned from the name, involves sex. Sex of the garbage, one-sided kind I wish I could erase from the face of the earth. Rape is only sex for the perpetrators. For the victims, for me, it was nothing but a violation. Unfortunately, some people don’t know the difference. They might carry you up a mountain, nurse you through dengue fever, be prepared to give you their freaking bone marrow but when you are raped, they can’t look you in the face. They don’t want to think about you “having sex.”
You weren’t “having sex.” You were getting beaten up in a sexual context. You were mugged of your right to walk this earth unmolested. But you can’t tell them because they’ve made it clear they never want to discuss it ever again. This hurts. This hurts so bad it’s hard to breathe. My advice to anyone in this situation is not to try to force people to see what they are wilfully blind towards. You need to focus on healing yourself.
9. People don’t want to know that rape can happen to anyone. Like the Brock Turner case, my sexual assault proves rapists walk among us. That they are our brothers and sons, they are the “good guys” who have decent jobs, love their mums and decide to assault sleeping girls because … well I don’t know. Because they can? Because they weren’t going home without copping a feel? I have no idea why the boy raped me. That’s not the point. The point is he did it.
The reality that “normal” men (frequently) rape “normal” women freaks people out. They want rapists to be tombstone-faced crackheads on CCTV. They want victims to be sex workers and sluts who should know better. Much like climate change, experiences like mine are ignored because it’s easier for people to cope that way. But that doesn’t make them any less real.
8. You will see rape everywhere. After I was raped it was like someone signed me up for an extremely unwelcome Google alert. I would scroll through a news website and instantly find the articles about rape. I would sit next to the radio, not taking in a single word but the instant I heard “rape,” my whole body would tense. I would memorise every “funny” tweet, blog, and Facebook post about rape
“The boys raped Essendon today!!! Carn the BOYYYYSSSSS!?!??!” and think about it over and over and over again.
If you’re in a bad headspace, you develop a toxic relationship with your rapey google alert. You seek out rape stories the way junkies seek out putrid, brown rocks of crystal meth. Perhaps you want to validate your experience, perhaps you’re addicted to the sadness, but soon you feel it in your fingers; you feel it in your toes, rape is all around you and so the feeling grows. You need to fight this impulse. The world needs rape survivors alive and whole not melting into despair like Dali clocks in the sun.
7. You will criticise yourself. Try not to though. You cannot rank your sexual assault on a scale and decide how sad you deserve to be. I did that. I thought, “Sure I was fingered against my will but what about women who have penises put inside them? Who are awake? Who are drugged? Who get pregnant? What about men who are raped and have to live with the shame and stigma? What about high profile victims like those allegedly raped by Bill Cosby? I don’t have any right to be sad. I’m just a big fat baby.”
The mind can be a horrible thing; aided and abetted by a culture obsessed with “legitimate rape.” Do not listen to either. There are degrees of rape but we victims are one in our suffering, degradation and anger. We are legion. Every survivor I have ever met has been heartbreakingly empathetic. We all understand. Don’t waste mental energy telling yourself you don’t deserve to feel shit because you do.
6. Having regrets doesn’t mean you’ve failed. I still think things like, “if only I’d worn jeans” or “what if Sarah had sat in the back instead?” I used to hate myself for it but now I don’t. I think it’s natural to recall bad life events and want to change them. It’s why I desperately want to return to my year eight swim class and punch Michael Chinchosi in the balls for calling me “Double D Tits Magee.” You’re allowed to wish you’d done things differently, you’re allowed to have regrets. That’s a human thing not a rape victim thing.
5. You don’t have to martyr yourself. I wanted the boy charged. I wanted him chucked out of the army. I wanted him fired out of a cannon into the sun if possible. Then my doctor told me that the marks inside my body weren’t conclusive proof of sexual assault. For a week I researched rape trials. I read case, after soul-destroying case in which men walked in spite of much greater evidence than what I had. If Brock Turner had not been caught mid-rape by two male bicyclists, would he have been convicted? Even in the face of overwhelming evidence he was given what basically amounts to a slap on the wrist. I had no male witnesses, no medical evidence. The boy was from a rich family and he was in the military, he could hire solicitors to work me over like mafia goons.
Pressing charges meant gambling my reputation, mental health, my job, everything for the microscopic possibility of justice and the near-guarantee of humiliation. I knew it would be my word against the boy’s and I knew, in the eyes of the law, my word meant almost nothing.
I chose not to report. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life but I stand by it. I would never discourage a woman from going to the police but I support those who don’t. Rape victims are not Joan of Arc. We do not have to burn for the sins of others. By and large Society tells men women are their playthings. That they deserve our bodies and if they deem it necessary they can take them by force. This allows perpetrators to claim with laughable ease that it was all just a big misunderstanding. Rape victims have to look at the facts and make the best decisions for ourselves. God knows we’ve suffered enough.
4. Recovery does not mean getting your blinkers back. Watching a movie with rape in it still makes me cry and occasionally spew. I’ll never return to my pre-rape movie experience of saying, “Urgh this is so unnecessary, chuck us the Malteasers will you?”
So I avoid media content I know might be triggering. I figure there are no medals for “Rape Victim Who Can Watch On-Screen Rape and Not Be Filled with Terrible Sadness.”
I made this avoid-rape-content decision after spewing in a cinema toilet after watching Blake Lively get raped in the film Savages. Another girl was puking in the cubicle two down from mine. We emerged, sweaty faced and she asked, “Were you… You know?”
“Yeah I was, were you?”
“Yeah. Fuck this movie hey?”
“Totally. I don’t give a shit how hot Aaron Johnson is, I’m never seeing it again.”
We wiped our hands on our jumpers and smiled at each other. If it wasn’t for the vomiting I’m sure we would have hugged.
3. You don’t want to be defined by what happened. We all know people who wield trauma like rusty hatches. They lash out time and time again shouting, “I’m allowed to be horrible because I was hurt very badly!”
This is not healthy. Using trauma as a get-out-of-jail-free card means it defines you. When my ego decided I was a rape victim first and an ‘everything else’ second I never felt more isolated and angry.
I scared my friends and loved ones, I made my suffering so much worse. Crawling out from that headspace was hard but I needed to manage my feelings in order to move on. If I could speak to my nineteen year old self I would beg her to be proactive about her mental health. “You can feel intense pain about what happened to us without letting it swallow you whole. We are so much more than that night. I love you. I love you so much, it will be okay again.”
2. Recovery is a balance between effort and ease. After I decided not to report my assault I made a pact: move on in three weeks or less. I was going to be fine. Better than fine. Even better than I was before! Even better than anyone who had ever lived! What rape? I don’t know anyone who was raped? I mean obviously I was raped but I’m FINE! BETTER THAN FINE!
Yes I was doing great, according to no one but myself. Unsurprisingly rape recovery isn’t about denial and bullying yourself into happiness. Doing so will only make you cry hot, salty tears and (in my case) develop a paleo-based eating disorder which I now know is called Orthorexia. Now that I’m actually better I can declare the only thing that works is:
a) developing an acute inner awareness of your thoughts.
Boring, huh? And difficult. But for all the boringness and difficulty, by god it works! Here’s what I learned from a lovely psychologist. Whenever you feel low, ask yourself, “do I need more ease or more effort?”
For example; when you run on a treadmill until you throw up you need more ease. When you spend nine hours binge-watching Veronica Mars and eating Monte Carlo biscuits you need more effort. Running and TV, even eating shit-tonnes of biscuits, can be valid choices, the trick is knowing when you’re just living your life and when you’re being destructive.
In the face of trauma depressives tend to lean towards inertia while stress-heads like me tend towards PRODUCTIVITY! (read: mania) but usually you fluctuate between the two. Awareness and time can fix that. Via the ease/effort method I began to notice when I was eating too many chicken breasts and developing shin splints and got a handle on these behaviours before they caused serious damage. Eventually balance became second nature. Real recovery wasn’t as quick (read: instantaneous) as I would have liked but after two years I was okay and now I’m fine. Better than fine. Seriously.
1. You don’t have to feel sorry for me. I know it’s tempting. As a young white cisgendered woman I’m none of the things people struggle with when they’re trying to empathise with rape victims (a sex worker, a person of colour, a transgendered person or a mum) but while I appreciate your sympathy I don’t want it. I want change.
Rape happens. Often. This is in no small part due to the sexist myths that pervade our society, such as “nice boys” don’t rape and nice girls can prevent rape through monitoring their alcohol intake and wearing knee length skirts. This lie, which I grew up believing as fact is about as useful as cow urine.
What would be useful are loud frank discussions about rape and consent. Comprehensive sexual education and a media that report rape without victim blaming. Even a basic nod that this is what is happened would be a start. At nineteen I was forced to acknowledge the painful reality of the rape-filled world we live in. Now I would like everyone to do the same. Quite frankly, this bullshit has gone on long enough.
I was raped. I am a rape victim. Say it, think it, remember it, but please, if you can, also remember that you don’t have to feel sorry for me. Pinkie promise. I have a wonderful life, full of books and laughter and vegemite toasties. I’ve published some novels and my car starts most of the time. I have a loving partner and my brother and sister are the jewels of my life. My friends circle around me like beautiful satellites. I am happy. My narrative is, “smart woman, who among other things is a rape survivor, is doing well thanks.”
*names have been changed.
**when I say rape I mean; ‘any and all sexual encounters forced on an unwilling person’ not just penetrative penis in vagina sex. Some might call me a sexual assault victim rather than a rape victim because there weren’t penises involved but I find that reductive and it’s my essay so deal with it.[share]