I was twelve years old when I was sexually assaulted.
I had barely hit puberty and, aside from an embarrassing crush on Daniel Radcliffe, had no interest in the opposite sex.
But on one summer’s evening in less than a minute, I had been swiftly robbed of my adolescent innocence.
Something changed on that day; I was no longer a child excited about the world. I was an affected almost-teenager with a broken view on what it meant to be female.
When I got home, I silently sobbed myself to sleep. I was suffocated by shame. The experience made me believe that I didn’t own my body. Rather, it was only really there for other people to take.
There was only one person I blamed: myself. I was still a child, and didn’t know any other way. If only I hadn’t been in that room at that time. If only I hadn’t gone to that party. If only.
Many years passed before I began to process what had happened. As the dust settled, I challenged myself: why did I feel ashamed?
It didn’t take long to find an answer: society told me I should be. I was at university at the time, and the normalisation of sexual assault was rife.
Take the widely known ‘joke’ amongst peers: “it’s not rape if you shout surprise!”; the student in my block who kept a notebook – complete with rating system – of every sexual conquest; the original UniLad website, pitching itself as the “number one… guide to getting laid” (which featured a story of a man who, during intercourse, smashes a woman’s face into a wall “to knock some sense into her”)…
These are just a few examples of how women’s bodies are there to be judged, used and abused. A rape culture that my well-to-do, redbrick university was flooded with.
It might not be particularly shocking then, that one in three female students at a British university has endured sexual assault or unwanted advances.
I was naive to think these attitudes would cease to exist after graduation.
A few years later, I held an important professional position alongside highly-established colleagues. I was incredibly successful during my time in the role. Yet that didn’t stop a colleague, who I only ever knew in a professional capacity, from demanding I send him naked photos of myself. When I replied saying this was unacceptable, his response contained one word: “sorry”. I’m fairly sure this was a sorry I didn’t comply with his demand, not a sorry that despite my significant professional success, he only saw me as a sexual entity that he was in some way entitled to.
Seeing these examples written down, it’s clear to see how atrociously wrong they are. But when you are surrounded by subtleties on a daily basis, it’s impossible for the message of inequality not to trickle into your psyche.
It is these casual attitudes of peers, colleagues and indeed friends that can have the most dangerous affect on the world.
Disheartened, I searched for positive examples outside my small life experience. Yet, I was greeted by similar messages in the supposedly law-abiding world.
From mothers who blame girls for posting sexy selfies and leading their sons into sin… to support for athletes who are charged with rape and calling their victims career-destroyers… to assuming false sexual assault reports are the norm, when in reality they are only 2-8%.
How could anyone who has been sexually assaulted or raped not feel like it was their fault, when the world tells them otherwise?
Change might not be coming quite yet, but this year’s annual Women’s March hinted that it will come eventually. Attracting an estimated 4.8 million campaigners worldwide, those marching represented not only women’s rights, but anyone who had ever experienced prejudice or injustice: immigrants, the LGBTQ community, ethnic minorities and the ‘lower class’.
On a large scale, there are good people in the world.
But perhaps the danger is closer to home: the raised eyebrow at the girl in the short skirt, the rape ‘joke’ said between friends, the subconscious judgement of a female who was attacked when she got “too drunk”.
These views silently trickle into our sub-conscious, permeating attitudes at an individual level. It’s this we must challenge and keep challenging. This won’t be an overnight epiphany. It will take years of chipping away.
I was surprised to learn that I had to chip away at my own attitude too. It took years for me to stop blaming myself for my own assault.
Indeed, I was surprised to learn that the hardest opinion I had to change was my own.