Survivors of Sexual Violence, You Are Not Alone
A painful and powerful account of the experience of violent sexual assault and its consequences
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article contains discussion of violent sexual assault which some readers may find distressing.
I first thought I might be in danger when the famous man grabbed my throat. No, that’s when I first thought I might die. I first thought I might be in danger when he pushed me backwards over the arm of one of the huge, plush sofas in his massive house and I lost my footing and fell.
I was 19. I had been doing some acting and, although I still lived at home with my Mum in a small town a far cry from London, I loved going to the Big Smoke for parties with the new grown-up friends I was meeting. (I tried to fight a Red Riding Hood analogy as I wrote this but, as the attack felt like being ripped apart by wolves, it seems to work).
One day, one of the grown-ups invited me to a barbeque at her house in west London. Afterwards, some of us went to a pub and then a few of us went back to the famous man’s house. The grown-up who had agreed to chaperone me fled (I later found out it was because the man had sexually assaulted her – I don’t know why she left me there). That is how I ended up alone in the famous man’s house with just him and two of his friends on the night that would change the course of my life.
I asked them to call me a taxi (I didn’t yet have a phone of my own). The famous man offered me his mobile. I extended my arm to take it, but he hid it behind his back. The three men laughed.
The famous man took a step towards me. I took a step back. My throat tightened with tears. I asked for a taxi again. The famous man again offered his phone. I again tried to take it. He again pulled it away. This time no one laughed. This time things got tense.
The wolves were on alert, sensing prey, ready to pounce. The famous man took a step closer to me. I took a step back. He knew I would soon hit the arm of his sofa and have nowhere else to go. I was only just realising how far into the deep, dark wood I had accidentally skipped.
I was so violently sexually assaulted by the famous man and his friends in the moments that followed that walking was painful the next day – as was standing, sitting, peeing. Everything hurt. I had to bite my fist while having a wee in the train toilets on the way home. I don’t know why I should remember that so clearly but do. Perhaps it’s because that’s also where I first properly looked in the mirror. It’s where I first noticed his finger marks on my neck. Worried they looked like hickies, I took my hair down from its ponytail to hide them.
It was fear that stopped me going straight to the police. Fear and, I think, a deep kind of shock. I didn’t want this to have happened to me. I didn’t want to believe that it had. And I had promised the famous man that, if he’d let me go, I wouldn’t tell anyone.
When the attack was happening, whenever I could catch a breath, I whispered to him that, if they’d let me go, I’d keep quiet. If they just let me go I wouldn’t tell. I was pleading. I was crying. I was fighting. Every time I lost my breath and his fingers tightened on my neck, I thought they might kill me by mistake.
It was clear I wanted them to let me go. I was saying no. But they didn’t let me go until the famous man got bored. He suddenly pushed me away and the wolf pack jumped backwards, breathless and sweating, as the famous man said he was bored and was going to bed. The wolf pack sat down on the huge, plush sofas and talked about football. I crawled around the floor, sobbing, trying to gather my things and do up my clothes. One of the wolves called the taxi I had wanted, without looking at me.
The mini cab driver told me his name was Ken. He told me he thought I had been raped. He asked me to let him take me to the police. I looked at my mascara-streaked face in the wing mirror of his car, lipstick spread around my chin like a burn. I asked him for a cigarette.
Ken told me his name, again. He said he thought I had been raped. He asked me to let him take me to a police station. I tried to knock the ash from my cigarette, but the window was only open an inch and I was shaking so much I knocked the end off and it flew back into the car.
Ken pulled over. He asked me if I could stand. He told me we had to get out of the car to look for the burning tobacco. He got out of his side and opened the passenger door. He asked if he could touch me and pulled me to my feet. He found the tobacco and asked if I needed help to get back into the car.
Ken told me his name. He said he thought I had been raped. He asked me to let him take me to the police.
I told Ken I hadn’t been raped.
I moved into the bottom of a well and I stayed there for a long time.
It is dark and lonely at the bottom of a well, but most people don’t know that’s where you live. You can drink and smoke and take drugs too much, you can avoid human contact almost entirely and develop eating issues and give up all your ambitions. You can splash around in a cold pit of fear of the world and loathing of yourself and the high walls of the well protect you from having to engage with anything the f*ck at all.
I was in the well for around five years. I came back to the real world bit by bit – bought some new clothes, applied for a training course, made some new friends. I found a semblance of safety and normality and I even tried a relationship with a grown-up, though I wasn’t very good at believing I was worthy of it.
And then one evening a new friend walked into our student bar holding a newspaper and turned my life on its head once more. The headline screaming out at me said that the famous man had been accused of raping someone else. My friend was laughing, then he wasn’t. He has since told me my face had gone so pale it looked green.
I had thought I got myself into a dangerous situation; that the attack on me was opportune. Suddenly I saw in technicolour that the famous man and his friends must be serially violent. Suddenly I realised that not reporting my attack may have meant that other teenagers had been lured to his house; that other women had been hurt while I was hiding.
I found my way to the nearest police station and told them I wanted to report an assault.
The first thing that happens when you utter those no-going-back words at a police station front desk is that you are taken into a side room and asked to wait. A senior officer then comes to meet you, in my case with a notepad, and asks you to tell them everything you can.
I had a woman who was kind and patient and who, once I stopped talking, told me she believed me. I asked if anyone else had come forward to report the famous man yet because ‘I’d like to add my name to the list, if you have a list’. The officer said she would get back to me, that someone would call in the next few days.
In fact, someone called the next day, asking me to meet some different officers at a different station and to go through my allegations in more detail. I agreed.
There is a myth, for reasons I don’t fully understand, that women invent rape and assault claims. The thing that the myth takes no account of is how difficult it is to make them at all. If I had invented my allegations against the famous man and his friends, I would have had to remember exactly what I had said to the first officer, the previous day, in an interview that must have lasted two hours, because the first thing they do once they have interviewed you a second time is compare notes to see if there are discrepancies in your account.
When you have been through it a second time, in a filmed interview that lasts about four hours, a team of trained detectives go away and look into every single thing you’ve said to see if there is verifiable proof for it. If you have been lying, at this point, you’re pretty f*cked.
The process can take months. They interview everyone you know. Everyone you ever told about what happened to you. They try and track down the other people who were at the pub that night; the chaperone who left you alone at the house; Ken; the friend you showed the bruises to when you got home – your Mum. I had downplayed it all to my Mum. She didn’t really know. How do you tell the person who has tried to protect you all your life that in the end she could not?
Once the investigators have gathered all the evidence, they then have to submit that to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which evaluates it based on the guidelines it is working with at that time, which are determined by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) – you get used to learning the acronyms. If they think you have more than a 50% chance of winning in court, they come back to you and offer to press charges.
I’ll say it again. If you have been lying and all those professional investigators and prosecutors don’t find you out – which must surely be nigh on impossible – you’ve got to have balls of steel to then agree to press charges against someone you know to be innocent and face the horror that is a criminal trial, when a second set of investigators, this time in the form of a hostile legal team intent on painting you as a liar, will once again interrogate your story, inch by inch, and seek to summarily discredit you, in public.
Who would put themselves through that? How would it even get that far?
We know that rape and assault cases are barely getting to court at the moment – one in 70 make it that far, so currently the DPP sets the bar very high. They only send cases to court that they 100% believe in and think can be proven to be true. Why juries then reject all that evidence, more often than not, is an absolute mystery to me. It doesn’t make any sense that anyone would lie about this, ever. It is a life-blitzing thing to do.
Following the police investigation into my allegations, the famous man was charged. I failed to pick the wolf pack out in a line up, so they were not. No one else who reported the famous man to the police got their allegations past the CPS, as it apparently didn’t seem likely that they would win. So I faced with taking him on on my own, on behalf of everyone else.
A further 28 women went to the tabloid press, apparently, to talk of assaults by the famous man. Only four of us went to the police. He has since made a lot of noise about being mistreated. He seems to love to play the victim. He has taken full advantage of his public platform and spoken out, many times, in defence of himself. His supporters claim that the tabloids whipped up the allegations against him out of nowhere, that there was a ‘bandwagon’, that the women reporting him were all just in it for money or fame.
I declined all tabloid offers because, for me, it had to be about stopping a dangerous man and his friends. I could never be accused of doing it for money. Plus, even though I wasn’t named, details of my allegations were printed in a prominent newspaper four days after I reported them. The tabloids continued to print details of what had happened to me over subsequent weeks and months.
Because the newspapers seemed to have access to my secrets and I didn’t know how, I didn’t know who I could trust. I thought my house might be bugged. I wasn’t sure if I could trust the police. It’s hard to explain how vulnerable that makes you feel, particularly when whether you are a liar or not is a matter of national debate. I heard people discussing it in pubs, in coffee shops, in bus stops. I once stepped off a train into a stag do of men wearing masks of the famous man’s face.
When a friend found a letter I had written to her just after the assault, which mentioned it – years before I reported it or before any mythical bandwagon formed – it seemed like incredible evidence. I called my police team in high spirits – this was really going to help!
When I gave them the letter, however, their expectant faces fell. Expressions became pained. They looked at me with sorrow. The police liaison officer asked me to explain what the rest of the letter was about. I agreed to a second filmed interview.
In the second interview, the senior investigating officer asked me why I’d never mentioned the contents of this letter before. I told him, honestly, that I didn’t think it was relevant. He asked me if I remembered being asked if anything similar to the famous man’s attack had happened to me before. I did not. But I said I did because I could tell they wanted me to. A transcript of the first filmed interview shows that they did not ask me that.
The officer asked me to talk him through the letter. I refused. The letter was the soul-searching type, written to a ‘grown-up’ friend when I was 19 or 20, asking why I’d been taken advantage of by men, to varying degrees of seriousness, multiple times over my life.
Because of the police leaks, because every secret I had so far told them had turned up in the tabloid press, I decided I couldn’t risk talking about any more of my past. So I stopped talking. That was the end.
It apparently gave the CPS no option but to drop the charges, or ‘offer no evidence’ against the famous man, who ever since has taken every opportunity available to him to claim that all allegations against him were untrue. I guess you would, but he has to know the truth.
At times, these allegations have found their way to court. He has been found ‘not guilty’ every time. I should point out that ‘not guilty’ means unproven – not that he has been ‘proven innocent’ as he often claims. To prove something ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ – as is required by our criminal justice system – is incredibly hard, especially when it is an historic crime and it is essentially one person’s word against another’s. Juries must acquit if they have even a sliver of doubt.
I don’t know why anyone would make a sexual assault up, there is literally nothing in it for them, and there are a lot of checks and balances in place in the system to ensure that, if they are lying, they will be found out. But, ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, is almost impossible to prove, I guess.
Immediately after the charges were dropped, the senior investigating officer organised for me to receive Criminal Injury Compensation, for the damage to my body inflicted by the wolves. He wanted me to know that he still believed me.
I initially turned it down but, when I realised that studying journalism myself might be the only way I would find out how the tabloids operate, how they knew so much, whether they had behaved illegally, I took it and used it to pay my fees.
I have looked into getting my case against re-opened. The more he plays the victim, the more he repeats that he has never sexually assaulted anyone, the more determined I have been to try. But too many years have passed, I am told. And even if that could be gotten around, and even if I was prepared to talk about the letter now when I am less frightened by the prospect of police leaks and tabloid illegality, the rule of Double Jeopardy applies. He can’t be charged with the same crime twice.
Writing this article might be the only means I ever have of explaining what really happened to me; of trying to get people to see that assault charges can be dropped be for a myriad of reasons unconnected to ‘innocence’ or ‘guilt’; and to urge people to try and remember that ‘not guilty’ means unproven.
If you are a survivor of sexual violence and your case didn’t make it to court, or it wasn’t able to be proved beyond a sliver of doubt, or if you haven’t reported it yet, or even if you never plan to; if you are frightened or ashamed, if you are still living down the well or if you have found your fight and found some light – whichever stage of recovery you are at, please remember that you are not alone. That there are thousands of us out there, that you have already lived through the most serious crime it is possible to survive and that that makes you a warrior. You are strong, you are powerful, you have incredible worth and you are so f*cking beautiful, no matter how your attacker/s made you feel.
Ultimately, even though sometimes life seems very dark when you have survived violence, which is so confusing and inexplicable, I want you to remember that we are all here, an army of us, stretching our invisible arms around you, willing you to be okay.
You will be. And you are.
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