Australia has long been at the forefront of cutting edge research into the prevention of sexual violence. Indeed, the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children (2010 – 2022) has set a global benchmark for many nations grappling for an appropriate response to rising rates of violence. And you only need to glance at the database of publications collated by ANROWS – Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety – to understand why Australia is viewed as a global leader in this space. Nevertheless, the violence just seems to be getting worse. At the 2014 Launch of ANROWS National Research Agenda, the Minister for Women, Senator Michaelia Cash, gave an impassioned address in which she reminded us all of the horrific rates of violence against women, including deaths – there had been four women killed by intimate partners in the week leading up to Anzac Day that year. The figures so often quoted almost sound like a mantra: “1 in 3 women will experience violence in their lifetime, and 1 in 5 will experience sexual violence”. This following blog is written by that unlucky 1.
To meet ‘Jill’ at a BBQ, or perhaps to sit next to her at conference, you would see a healthy, happy, bright young woman, with a twinkle in her eye and a quirky sense of humour. No doubt, like me, you’d warm to her straight away. What you’d never know is how deeply burdened she is, as a result of a rape that occurred in her teens. Here at BroadAgenda we felt it was time to shine a light on this issue, as a reminder that all of us know a Jill – in our workplace, or sports club, or perhaps sitting across the dinner table. We just don’t know her name.
A few years ago, one drunken Christmas eve, I decided to forgive my rapist. I walked up to him and told him I forgave him. I can’t even remember his reaction and I don’t care. I felt like I was doing it for me, not him.
Yet the next day, I was full of regret. I hadn’t forgiven him. Being raped at the age of 15 had substantial and negative impacts on my life, effects that linger still, 15 years later. I think about it nearly every day. And I haven’t forgiven him for it.
So why did I tell him I had? Honestly, I don’t even know myself. I was drunk. Perhaps I felt like it was the gracious, morally superior thing to do. Perhaps ultimately I thought that if I said it, it would become true and I would have closure. I want closure, so much. On my 30th birthday, I realised that this happened half my lifetime ago. And I thought, when will this stop affecting me? Will I still be thinking about that night when I’m 60 years old?
I have wanted to talk about this for a long, long time, but have been unable to. Something stops me. I can’t put my finger on it; it’s like a paralysis that stops me from speaking out. I watch documentaries about survivors of sexual assault and rape, and I am overwhelmed by respect for survivors that speak out so publically. Women and girls much younger than myself, and often in more vulnerable positions, that put themselves in the spotlight because they know how important it is to do so. I know how important it is. I am hugely grateful for their courage. Because I can’t do it. I just can’t. And with that incapacity comes the guilt. I never reported it. I have never spoken publically about it. And because of that, I live with the knowledge that others may have suffered – that he might have done it again.
Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger have written a book together. Tom raped Thordis, who was his girlfriend at the time, when he was 18 and she was 16. They recently delivered a joint TED talk on their journey which has received millions of views and drawn both support and criticism. On the one hand, their experience highlights the reality of rape: most victims know their rapists, and those rapists are surprisingly ordinary, and we need to deal with that reality. Tom looks like a regular guy, not a monster. And he’s a rapist. One the other hand, it risks giving rapists a platform, and as one commentator points out, “he now has an international platform from which he is lauded and praised”.
Thordis’ experience and her decision to seek forgiveness and closure by reaching out to her rapist hit me like a punch to the stomach. The words she speaks in their joint TED talk could have come from my own mouth. That it was for her sanity, not his. That she was desperate for closure. And perhaps that is why I decided to tell my rapist I forgave him. Unlike Thordis, I will not put myself or my rapist in the public eye. But I can recognise my own story in aspects of theirs. Because my rapist is human as well. In the 15 years that have passed – half my lifetime – we have spoken perhaps a handful of times. And on some of those occasions, beyond the forced politeness of limited interaction amongst mutual friends, he has told me that he’s sorry for what he did. He knows what he did. And that is extremely important to me. Why? Because when you’ve been raped, you feel like it’s your fault. At various points in the years since – especially the early years when I was still a teenager – I felt that I deserved it somehow, or that I was asking for it, or even that perhaps it wasn’t even rape. Maybe I misremembered. Maybe I didn’t say no after all. So the fact that he knows what he did and knows it was wrong validates my experience and my pain. And I know it might sound ridiculous that I needed validation from my own rapist about what happened, but I did need that at some points of my life.
It also gives me some comfort to know that he felt bad about it. That this may have nearly ruined my life, but that it also had some negative impact on him. Let me be clear – I absolutely refuse to apportion his pain and trauma anything like the same value as my own. I was the victim here, he remains the perpetrator. The impact this had and continues to have on my life is significant and I will never compare the two. But I do take some small amount of solace in his acceptance of guilt.
This is the first and last time I will write or speak publically about my own experience. I will continue to applaud and be awed by the courage of those who are able to do otherwise, and that includes Thordis Elva – whatever I may think of her approach. At the same time, I know that for every survivor who shares their story, there are countless others like me who will remain silent – an estimated 70 per cent of sexual assaults remain unreported. And as important as it is to speak out, not everybody is able to do that.
(Ed: If you, or someone you know may need help as a result of sexual assault, please reach out to one of the many services ready to support you: 1800Respect; LIfeline 13 11 14; or the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre 02 6247-2525)