The first time he raped me, I was just sixteen years old.
We were six months into what would become a three-year relationship, and I thought I was in love. My story is much the same as many others: afterwards, he begged for forgiveness and told me he’d never do it again. He blamed his actions on his ADHD, on the fact he hadn’t taken his medication that day, on his father and stepfather, both of whom were abusive. And even though I was the one who’d been attacked, I ended up comforting him.
I didn’t realise then that something in me had changed irrevocably in that moment. That, just as the brutality he’d suffered had shaped him, what Tom* had done to me would shape me too. It would seep into my future relationship and thunder through my day-to-day life, seizing me at seemingly mundane moments.
The problem with police
I didn’t go to the police. Didn’t even entertain it. I loved Tom, and I believed it wouldn’t happen again. But it did. I convinced him he needed help, so we went to his mother for guidance. She was a survivor of rape too and had been with two abusive partners. If anyone knew what to do, it would be her.
Shock rolled through me as she told us what Tom had done didn’t count because we were in a relationship. If I told anyone, she said, I would ruin not only his life, but mine too. I came away from that conversation feeling ferociously alone. Powerless. Trapped. Where I’d sought help and compassion from an older woman whose own experiences aligned with mine, I encountered a roadblock. A mother determined only to protect her son, no matter the cost.
Her words served to reinforce Tom’s behaviour. He raped me again and again. Eventually, I stopped saying “no” when he sought out sex, because he would take what he wanted when he wanted it regardless, and his mother had told him that was okay. My protests didn’t count.
The rape bled into every waking moment and every sleepless night. Desperate to avoid the nightmares which left me tangled in sweat-stained sheets, I started taking Tom’s ADHD medication to stay awake. When it all became too much, I turned to my best friend, who encouraged me to report the rapes to the police. This terrified me. I didn’t want to be one of those girls who was crucified during a nasty, reputation-destroying trial. I didn’t want to be branded a liar.
Googling the experiences of other women and girls, I discovered that only 6.5 per cent of rapes reported from 2007 to 2008 resulted in a conviction – a figure that has since fallen, with just 1.4 per cent of reported rapes even making it to court in the year to March 2020. Why would I be any different? I’d chosen to stay with Tom after the rapes, I had no evidence, I’d waited so long to disclose what had happened and I thought the courts would take pity on him when examining his family history and his mental health. So, I kept quiet, just as Tom’s mother had insisted.
Boys will be boys
In 2009, freshly 18 and on a night out with a friend, I stood in a queue at a fast-food restaurant when a man reeking of cheap vodka and breathing through a bloodied nose turned to me and said, “Can I borrow your lipstick?”. If I hadn’t been aware of the Clearasil advert at the time where a boy approached a girl, asked her the same question then grabbed and kissed her, I’d have been baffled. Instead, suspecting this stranger’s motives, I told him to leave me alone.
Ditching the script completely, he lunged. Pinning me against the glass counter, he shoved his tongue, slug-like, into my mouth. None of the three men working stepped in, nor did anyone else in the queue. Where my friend was outraged, I felt numb. After all, Tom had done worse. Still, she approached two police officers on the street and before I knew what was happening, I was in the back of a car giving a statement.
When I was finished, we were told nothing could be done, that we were “attractive girls on a night out. It’s just what happens. It’s just what men do.” I felt Thumbelina-tall for complaining. Idiotic. In that moment, I was relieved I hadn’t gone to the police about Tom – if I’d been met with the same dismissive attitude when reporting the rapes, it would’ve destroyed me.
Fortunately, a few months later, Tom and I broke up and I escaped to university. I was going to start over. Move on. Forget.
Over time, I met new people, explored a new city, fell in love again. But being 184 miles away didn’t erase the rape or lessen its effect on me; I struggled with physical intimacy, I lost my trust in men and suffered flashbacks. Gradually, I also formed new bonds and, after years away from Tom, I opened up to someone whose opinion I held in exceptional regard. Immediately, she asked whether I’d feel responsible if he raped someone else because I’d failed to report it. I’d never considered that I was somehow responsible for his future actions. What had happened felt contained, as though it took place in a bubble. Perhaps naively, I never wondered whether I would be his only victim.
Despite my friend’s judgment coming from a place of privilege – she’d never experienced sexual assault and had no idea the intense, complex emotions that came with it – I couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d said. I was overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility and guilt.
Her question triggered a year-long spate of obsessively looking Tom up online, scrolling through photographs and reading his posts, trying to glean whether he was abusing someone else. Which was futile, of course. If you scrolled through my social media during the years we were together, you’d never know.
My friends told me I was torturing myself every time I typed his name into the search bar. But it was no longer just reconnaissance, it had become a barometer of pain. How “over it” was I? Would panic always close around my throat when I saw his face? Would I always spin back to his bedroom, to that thorny dark place whenever he flashed up on my screen? If I could look at him without feeling anything, I was fixed.
A quest for closure
Determined to get to that point, I even reached out to him and struck up a conversation. It wasn’t long before we were talking about the abuse, the violence, the rape. I had an admission. In writing. The evidence I needed to go to the police. But all my previous reasons for not doing so, with the exception of loving him, still stood. On top of that, only a small circle of people knew, my family not included. A trial would mean exposing my story to everyone. And with rape convictions still hovering around six per cent, the odds weren’t in my favour.
I could dredge it all up, I knew, only to be faced with the same casual indifference from the police as I had before, or perhaps even further judgment from loved ones for staying with Tom and not coming forward sooner. I was in a privileged position; there must be thousands of rape survivors who wish they had something to prove the truth, but I still didn’t feel brave enough or confident enough in our justice system to trust in it. For me, the trauma of a trial wasn’t worth the potential outcome; if I was in the lucky few to secure a conviction, he might only serve a six-month sentence. He would still have dealt me a life-long one.
I am one person in a sea of people who have been assaulted and lived to tell the tale. And though every experience is different, we are bound by the fact that the words to explain it will jam in our throats, shred like broken glass on their way up.
My most positive experience of telling a person what happened to me was with Mark*, my first partner after Tom. I worried that I was damaged goods, just as Tom had claimed, that knowing about the rape would make me less worthy of love. It didn’t. Mark was incredibly supportive and kind, listened with an open mind and didn’t judge. He taught me what safe feels like. Eleven years later, and we are happy and engaged.
I often wonder whether, if the conversation with Tom’s mother had been different, if my encounter with the police had gone another way or if my friend hadn’t been so quick to judge, it would have changed my decision to forgo reporting the rapes to the authorities. I guess I will never know.
But what I do know is this. If anyone ever discloses an assault to you, do not tell them to keep silent. Do not shame them for not going to the police. Do not insist that it’s just what men do. Listen. Ask what you can do to help. Tell them it is never their fault. Tell them that they are not responsible for their attacker’s actions before, during or after the event.
Because the thing about words is, once they’re out there, they’re no longer just yours. They hang in the quiet until, plucked like cherries from a tree, bitter or sweet, they’re devoured. Be careful in those moments after a person has chosen to confide in you. Because what you say can be just as damaging and its effects just as long-lasting as the assault itself.
*Names have been changed upon author’s request to protect anonymity.
Help and support
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual abuse, violence or rape, the following organisations may be able to provide help and support