So picture it: I’m sitting watching the telly, and find myself tightly holding a cushion and biting my lip. It’s yet another drama depicting a rape scene. There do seem to be an awful lot of them, either showing women being sexually abused or laid out on the coroner’s slab. And it rings a difficult bell for me every time.
Sexual abuse is, of course, a hot topic at the moment, what with film producers, film stars, politicians and celebrities being accused left, right and centre. So, are they all totally guilty? Just a little bit guilty? Or not at all? Some people may feel that what happened to Maisie or Beryl twenty years ago, has little bearing on their life now. The ‘Get over it’ attitude. Maybe it all depends on your perspective and experience.
Mine is based on my first sexual experiences nearly sixty years ago. These were brutal, without any tenderness or love, starting when I was 13 years old, and an older boy held me against a wall and masturbated over me. I was so naïve that I thought his shaking was due to him having a fit, until my friend told me what that stain was on my school skirt.
At 14 years old, my crush on Barry resulted in him asking to walk me home. Having sex with him for the first time was painful and thankfully quick. Then his friend appeared from nowhere. More pain.
Worse was to come before that year was out. I was gang raped by an unknown number of young men. I never knew their names. I lost count of how many of them ruthlessly abused me over and over again.
I told no-one. As well as being shocked by these events, I felt dirty, ashamed, guilty. I now know that these feelings are common amongst girls and women who are raped or otherwise molested. I had also read those reports in the News of the World newspaper of court cases, where the victim was implied to be lying, a willing participant, seductive, a prostitute or a good time girl. I was terrified of being that girl on the witness stand, accused of such behaviour.
And for the next 35 years I had flashbacks, which usually happened in that time when one is almost asleep, drifting off, but then being brought back to wakefulness as the unwelcome memories pulled me back into consciousness. I would feel frightened at these times, but also incandescent with rage, plotting my revenge, awake for hours. When I did sleep, I frequently had nightmares about being violently exploited.
I finally talked to my doctor, and she immediately diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She referred me to a counsellor, who was wonderful. I cried throughout the whole fifty minutes of that first session, telling my story through tears and snot. And never had a flash back again. Counselling works.
But that is not to say that the memories have gone. The five stages of grief, identified by Elizabeth Kubler Ross, seem to me to also apply to the experience of rape. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. Maybe they may also have a resonance with women and girls who have been abused. The ‘acceptance’ stage only means that we come to terms with those terrible experiences of being misused. Not that we forget it. Ever.
So, can rape and abuse ever be a subject for televised drama? Is it entertainment? Is it exploitative? Voyeuristic? Well, yes, probably. At the same time, let us not shy away from showing the world that this is real. Or that it damages and hurts us. Show it, not as a sensationalised soft (or hard) porn for the audience to slaver over, but as a real act of violence by some men and boys.
And notice that I’ve said ‘some’ men and boys. I don’t believe that all men are capable of sexual abuse. I do believe though that some men have no sense of women being people just like them, with hearts, souls, brains and emotions. These men seem to have so internalised the attitude that females are simply there to be playthings for them, that it just doesn’t matter if they are patted on the bottom, have their breasts grabbed, have penetration forced upon them. Unless, of course, that female is their wife, girlfriend, daughter, mother.
Women and girls have rights. We are living, sentient beings. It’s time for a change of attitude, and the brave women (and men) who are currently breaking the silence deserve to be applauded. Don’t ‘Get over it’. Get even.