Dedication: To my amazing husband
Trigger warning: Before reading this post, please be aware that it includes descriptions of rape and sexual assault.
I wonder how many people are tired of the Harvey Weinstein stories in the press? I wonder how many victims of abuse are not tired; who are silently hoping that the tide will rise and the voices of victims will finally be heard, not just in the US but worldwide? Are we being listened to and really being heard though? I think not. You only need to listen to the many victim blaming statements that spill from the mouths of people who have no idea what abuse feels like. From celebrities and newsreaders on television and in the press. From the general public who comment ridiculous, ignorant statements under news stories in social media – things that people will never understand unless they have been there. Social media can be a means for some victims to finally have a voice but it is also a vicious platform for bullying by those with little or no understanding.
I am writing this open letter because I want people to understand what abuse feels like, from my point of view anyway. I want people to know that you can’t “Just tell someone” I told and I want to make you aware that it doesn’t make it all better. In fact, for me and many other victims, it made things 100 times worse.
I am a married, middle aged woman. I worked for many years in a male dominated industry. I have never considered myself a feminist. In fact, I was quite happy to be “One of the boys”. I was the young woman who smiled and blushed when I was wolf whistled while passing a building site. I was never offended – society told me I should take it as a sign of appreciation, a compliment – and I did. This is the conditioning little girls of my generation grew up with. Look nice and smile and if the boys show you good attention you are doing it right. Make the best of your looks; don’t get too over weight, have nice hair and clothes and smell nice and you will be successful. You will be appreciated.
I married young and was blissfully happy. I managed to get through life passing off unwanted sexual advances with a joke or a cheeky retort. Most blokes took the hint and left it when they realised I was not interested. My problems began in 2011 when one didn’t take the hint. I started a new job and was happily introduced to “The Team”. They seemed a nice bunch and I fitted in well. I enjoyed the work and I was good at my job. I appeared to be well liked and my appraisals all reflected this. My children had grown up, I was still happily married and my career was going well. I thought I had it all. This one man at work however singled me out for special attention. He told me how good I was at my job and how well I looked for a woman with grown up children. I was flattered. He was decent, had nice manners, lived in a nice area, wore a suit and opened doors for ladies. Just a general good guy who was well thought of. Imagine my surprise 6 weeks into the job when he sent me a text on his work’s mobile asking me to sleep with him. I was shocked at how blunt and out of the blue the text was. I confronted him and told him I was happily married and not interested. He too was married and naively I asked him why he would send me this when he had a wife at home. He said it added excitement to his relationship and I should try it. I politely declined his offer and thought that was an end to the matter. Despite that incident I liked this guy and worked well with him, so I let it pass, after all I had dealt with it… right? It wasn’t an issue for me as I was not interested in being unfaithful to my husband and was certainly not remotely attracted to this man. I continued to work with him and I enjoyed the compliments. We got on well and he continued to compliment me. We had a laugh and we joked about things – just anything, life in general. He became my friend. I had no idea he was grooming me for abuse. His comments became more personal, more sexual, more directed at what he would like to do to me. Because I thought he was my friend I laughed them off and told him to dream on and it wasn’t ever going to happen. When he got really explicit I told him to back off and said he had no respect for me. I asked him how he would feel if someone spoke to his wife like that. He backed off a bit and I thought he’d got the message. We continued to work together and his behaviour was usually good. His messages continued to be rude but I just accepted that was part of who he was. I mentioned to my boss and some colleagues about how inappropriate some of his behaviour was but I thought I had it under control. I thought I could handle the situation. I loved my job and didn’t want anything to spoil it.
A couple of years into the job I was working alone with him. I was chatting to him and when I noticed he wasn’t replying I turned around to see what he was doing. He had his trousers open and he was exposing his privates. I gasped and said “Whoa, that’s out of order” He walked towards me with a piercing stare and said “Touch it”. I was mortified. I said “No – I’m leaving”. He quickly sorted his trousers and apologised. I was angry and told him so. He said sorry and once again, I thought I had dealt with it. I didn’t report him. He was my friend and I didn’t want to get him sacked over a misunderstanding. That’s all it was – right? Afterwards he was nice again. It was confusing. We continued to work together and we chatted lots. He came to my house and had dinner with my family. He gave my husband a bottle of whisky. It was normal – I thought. He just had a problem with his boundaries some times. There were a few more inappropriate incidents and I always told him to stop it. I tried to laugh them off but he always looked serious and then sorry. He told me he couldn’t stop thinking about me and that he had fallen in love with me. I told him I loved my husband and could only be his friend.
After 3 and a half years of working with him we were sent on a conference. He came to my room with a bottle of wine. It’s okay to have a drink with a friend I thought.. We had drank together before with my husband. Except this time, it wasn’t okay. I turned around and he was standing there in his boxer shorts. I laughed I was so shocked. He wasn’t laughing. That piercing stare was there again and he wasn’t my friend any more. He grabbed me and pressed his mouth over mine. Inside my head my silent voice screamed for help but my mouth wouldn’t let a single sound out. Something shocked my soul straight out of my body and it hovered at the bottom of the bed as I watched him abuse my body. When he was finished he stood up and said “Are you okay?” I nodded, unable to speak as tears run down my cheeks. He left and I immediately run a bath and began to scrub my body. I was numb and shocked and I couldn’t get clean. Tears rolled down my cheeks and my thoughts turned to “This is what people on television do when they have been raped” My brain was arguing with me though as I was thinking “It can’t be rape as you didn’t stop him”. I turned on the shower and stood up, desperate to get out of the dirty, contaminated bath water. The bath emptied and I immediately filled it again, desperate to sit in the water as the shower couldn’t reach the bits I needed to cleanse. I felt so dirty, so ashamed. How could I have let myself get into that situation? No one would ever know what he had done. It was my shame to carry.
My head went into autopilot as I had to meet our colleagues for dinner and I needed to look “Normal”. I sat with my colleagues, 3 other men and HIM and ate dinner like nothing had happened. The only way to get over this was to pretend it didn’t happen. It was the only way I could survive. After dinner I made my excuses and returned to my room. I began to undress for bed. There was a knock at the door so I put on a robe and opened the door. He was back and he was smiling. He pushed past me and the door closed behind him. He pulled off my robe. I didn’t stop him. It didn’t matter I was already dirty and violated. He left straight afterwards and inside I felt dead. That night he murdered my soul. Somehow, I did the whole scrubbing thing again and ended up in my bed with a towel around my wet hair and the sheets sticking to my damp body. I’m not sure if I slept or where my head was but soon it was morning and time to get ready for day 2 of the conference. I acted normal because the alternative was people would know. I could never let anyone know. I would rather die.
I returned home later that day. I felt like I had a neon sign above my head and everyone would know. I desperately didn’t want my husband to touch me in case he would sense the change in me. I thought he would immediately know I was dirty now. I opened a bottle of wine, poured a glass and gulped it like a marathon runner who needed the hydration. My husband wanted to know why I was guzzling the wine. I snapped at him and told him I was tired after the long drive. I just needed to drink and forget about the previous night. I needed to silence the demons and I think it was an elixir for them as it appeared to numb them for a while.
For the next 3 months I followed the same routine. Go to work, keep busy, come home, get drunk, go to bed and silently sob into my pillow hoping no one would hear. I felt like the filth was coursing through my body, infecting me like some inner virus that eventually was going to be so obvious that everyone would see it. My colleague was no longer my friend. He had achieved his goal and was now suddenly too busy to talk to me. I was hurt and confused. I needed answers. When he did talk to me it was to tell me that his wife was stalking me. She was obsessed by me and was going to contact my husband and tell him about my “affair”. Desperate for the dirty secret to stay hidden I emailed her and tried to explain that there was no affair and I was not and never had been attracted to her husband. No one could ever know about the abuse. I’d rather die.
Then fate stepped in and I suffered a bad house fire. I burst into tears and the floodgates opened. At that point, even Noah couldn’t have kept me afloat. My husband wanted to know why I was so upset over a house. Material things had never been that important to us and he was confused. At last though I had something to blame for the tears and I didn’t have to hide them for a while. I had a reason to cry. I repeated it like a mantra “It’s the stress of the fire”. Some people even looked like they believed me but it gave me no comfort. I kept drinking to make the thoughts go away and if I drank enough it would knock me out so that I could sleep for a couple of hours. I was exhausted and I began to look ill as the weight fell off me. I went to the doctor to be signed off work due to the house fire. I sobbed and sobbed and begged to be STI tested. I needed to know that the contamination coursing through me wasn’t going to infect my husband. My tests were clear but I still felt dead inside.
I drank every night to get to sleep and then woke a couple of hours later as the anaesthetic effects wore off. My head replayed that night over and over like a badly made porn video with no sound. Each night I tried to answer my questions about why I didn’t fight. Like wakening early from a dream and wanting to add an ending to it to tie up the loose ends, I desperately wanted to change the way I reacted that night. I wanted to scream and shout and fight and do everything that I always thought I would have done “Should that ever happen to me”. I hated myself for being so weak. I couldn’t bear to look at my husband; the man I adored, because I felt like I had cheated on him. I had allowed another man to use my body. I should have been able to stop him. I was so ashamed.
Eventually my husband rolled over in bed, when I thought I was crying silently. He said “I hear you crying every night. I can tell by your breathing. You need to tell me what’s wrong- and don’t blame the house fire”. I couldn’t hide the crying any more as I sobbed “I can’t tell you. I can’t”. The last thing I wanted was for him to see the filthy me. He insisted I tell and as I unburdened the worst secret of my life I felt like a weight was being released from my body. Unfortunately, I watched his face crumble as his life imploded and my heavy, filthy secret began to crush his soul instead. Hurting him so badly tore my heart out and I immediately wished I could snatch the secret back, but it was too big, too heavy and too free now.
He was broken as I begged him to believe me that I didn’t want him to do it to me. He shouted at me “If you didn’t want it – that’s rape”. I cried “It was my fault I didn’t stop him”. He repeated “If you didn’t want it – that’s rape”. I had been blaming myself for so long I was confused. I called Rape Crisis as I needed answers. As soon as the woman answered the phone I cried and cried and sobbed out the whole story; the sexual harassment, the friendship, the exposure, the confusion and the shame…… She listened and told me that I had no reason to feel guilty as I had been raped. It didn’t make sense. I’d seen rape on Crimewatch. It was carried out by strangers with knives not friends who tell you they adore you. He said it was my fault for looking so sexy that he couldn’t resist. I was still confused but felt that I needed to report him to the police for the abuse. He had sent me a photograph of his erection and I knew that was illegal.
The police arrived at my house a couple of hours later. I wasn’t prepared. I was in shock as I had only just said it out loud to myself. I was still confused. I still thought it was my fault.
The policewoman was a SOLO – a sexual offenses liaison officer. She questioned me for 10 hours solid. I cried and I kept repeating “It was my fault as I didn’t stop him”. The day turned to night and darkness. My house had no electricity after the house fire and she used her torch to light up her notebook as she took my statement. I hadn’t eaten anything for 24 hours and I had no support. I was confused and desperately wanted my husband. I needed to know he was coping with this news. I knew I wasn’t. Eventually at 11.30pm the SOLO left with my 35 page statement, which I had signed without reading as I just wanted her to go.
Seven weeks later he was detained and gave a “No comment” interview. They released him without charge. The police told me there was insufficient evidence to charge him. When I protested the SOLO told me not to tell her how to do her job and said “It’s not nice for someone who has never been in trouble with the police before to be detained.”
I thought now that I had told, everything would be okay. That’s what people tell you isn’t it? That’s what the media tell you. “No matter how long ago it happened. You will be listened to. You will be believed.”
Someone told me “The truth is like a lion, set it free and it will defend itself” So I set the beast free.
It didn’t defend itself. It ruined my life. You see our society can’t cope with the truth, so people find it easier to call you a liar and demand you prove your abuse.
I reported him to my employer for sexual harassment. I gave specific details of his abuse and they called me a liar. I had been telling my boss and my colleagues about his behaviour for 3 years but we were friends so they said I consented to his abuse. He admitted sending me the indecent image but said I sent him indecent images too. I knew I didn’t so I asked to see them. They said he had deleted them now. He reported me for harassing his wife because I had emailed her while he was threatening me she was going to tell my husband. They upheld his complaint.
He said we’d been having an affair for 3 years and I was a jilted lover. They said he was the victim and I was vindictive and vexatious. My employer told me I should have said NO more than once. They said I agreed to a wine with my colleague so therefore they believed the sex was consensual. I wanted to die. I was telling the truth and no one would listen. I was suffering panic attacks and flashbacks. I didn’t want to leave the house. I felt constantly afraid and constantly sick. I couldn’t trust my own judgement anymore. My health hit rock bottom. I was diagnosed with PTSD and prescribed antidepressants and sleeping pills. I began to feel like it was easier when I told no one – denial didn’t hurt as much as being called a liar.
My employer dragged my grievance out for almost a year then sacked me. At each stage they tried to bully me into silence. I fought back because I knew I was telling the truth. The union funded my legal representation and at last I felt like I had someone on my side. The company dragged the legal fight out for more than 2 years. I was unable to work. A date was set for the employment tribunal and the solicitors started to negotiate. 3 weeks before the tribunal my solicitor said the company had agreed to settle out of court and would pay me a little over one year’s wages. I told them I didn’t want to settle as I wanted justice, not money. They said if I didn’t accept this “Reasonable offer” the union would be minded to withdraw my legal funding. How could less than 2 years wages be reasonable after losing, a job I loved, my career, my company car, my reputation and my mental health. They supported a rapist and blamed me repeatedly for over 3 years. They drove me to attempt suicide and put my family through hell. I spent hours at a time curled up in a corner on the kitchen floor desperate to feel safe.
Not accepting the offer would lose me the settlement and the chance to repay the 30k debts I had accumulated while being unemployed. It would also mean I would have to pay 20k+ to find new legal representation and the company also threatened if I took this to court and was awarded less than what they had offered I would be burdened with their legal costs too for forcing it to tribunal. If you accuse a large company of not protecting your human rights – they can pay their way out of the legal system. Make a “reasonable offer” and the victim is deemed to be unreasonable for not wanting money. All I wanted was to be listened to, to be believed and safeguarded. All I wanted was to go to work and earn a living. Once again, I was bullied into silence. Eventually I couldn’t risk losing the family home. My family had suffered enough. I agreed to accept the settlement and an apology because I couldn’t afford not to. I refused point blank to sign any confidentiality and vowed that I would tell everyone what had been done to me.
Our society isn’t geared up at all to support victims of sexual harassment. No wonder victims don’t report. So, the next time you want to point the finger at someone who won’t report sexual harassment without support from other victims, consider this and let my story be a warning to those who think reporting is easy. If I had not reported I would be financially better off and still have a job. The legal system tells me you should let men abuse you and stay quiet because even if you “Win” your case, (and there is about as much chance of that as there is of getting a rape conviction) you will be broken, damaged and financially penalised.
Photo credit: Image courtesy of storyteller.