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First Person

One of the Russell Brand allegations involves stealthing. The same thing happened to me

A specific allegation against the stand-up comedian and actor resurfaced old memories for Olivia Petter, who says it’s time to start talking about one of the most complicated forms of sexual violence

Thursday 21 September 2023 06:30 BST
‘I can only imagine how Alice, and Brand’s other alleged victims, must feel now that their stories are out there in the open’
‘I can only imagine how Alice, and Brand’s other alleged victims, must feel now that their stories are out there in the open’ (Getty)

There is a lot to be horrified by when it comes to the allegations facing Russell Brand. As part of a lengthy investigation by The Times, The Sunday Times, and Channel 4’s Dispatches, there are detailed accounts of sexual assault, emotional abuse, and controlling behaviour. There are claims he exploited his position as a public figure to exert power over younger, more junior colleagues, alongside suggestions of grooming and coercion. It is harrowing, to say the least. (Brand vehemently denied the allegations in a video released on Friday, saying that his relationships have been “absolutely always consensual”.)

Published last weekend, the allegations have prompted a surge in online discourse around sexual violence. There is talk of further criminality, culpability of his employers, and a culture of silence that meant Brand and his reputation were, for a long time, professionally impenetrable. But there is one thing very few people are discussing – and it’s something I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. That’s because it happened to me.

It involves Alice, the woman who says she entered into a relationship with Brand at the age of 16 in 2006. He was 30; she had never had sex before. In her account, Alice makes several allegations against him, including grooming, forced oral sex, and nonconsensual condom removal. Known as stealthing, the latter is something I’ve written about before. And several years later, it’s still not really acknowledged as a serious offence, let alone rape. This is despite the fact that stealthing is classified as such under English and Welsh law, which means that anyone who carries it out can be prosecuted for rape and face a life sentence.

Falling under something known legally as “conditional consent”, it is one of the most complicated forms of sexual violence, given the common thesis among survivors that it doesn’t necessarily “count” as rape. Perhaps the fact that very few media outlets have picked up on this particular allegation endorses that narrative.

When it happened to me in 2018, I brushed it off as an uncomfortable sexual experience. It wasn’t until I revisited the incident in my writing years later that I realised the gravity of what had happened, and how deeply it had affected me. The details are incredibly difficult to recount. Not because I can’t remember them but because, to this day, I have trouble accepting that what happened to me was rape. That I was raped.

The perpetrator was someone I’d been casually dating. It wasn’t my first sexual encounter, but it was early on enough for me to write off what had happened as the result of my own inexperience and naivety. When he told me he’d taken the condom off and I should probably take the morning after pill, I wasn’t angry or outraged. I was humiliated. More so when, despite immediately rushing out to buy emergency contraception, I found out I was pregnant and ultimately had an abortion.

The problem is that we perceive sexual violence on a scale, with those on one end encouraged to belittle their own experience, creating a culture of shame around what they went through

It’s a series of events that to this day causes me an immense amount of trauma, sexually and emotionally. It’s the reason why I often have a panic attack after sleeping with someone new. It’s the reason why, when I was sexually assaulted by someone else the following year, I entered into a period of intense depression. And it’s the reason why my body is shaking as I revisit all this now. Despite everything, there is still a sense that I have no right to have such a visceral reaction to any of this. That I should just be able to move on, and put it down to a bad sexual encounter with a reckless partner. Because in the grand scheme of sexual violence, this doesn’t seem that bad. But it’s not that simple. Regardless of the act, the psychological ramifications of sexual violence often operate around the same singular principle: that your body has been violated. That the most intimate part of you has been abused.

When I wrote about what happened for The Sunday Times Style in 2021, I was shocked by how many women got in touch with similar stories of their own, explaining how, like me, they hadn’t realised non-consensual condom removal was rape. Had it not been dramatised in a storyline in Michaela Coel’s BBC drama I May Destroy You in 2020, I’m not sure I would’ve ever had the validation I needed in order to fully realise it myself. To recognise that it did count – and that I was allowed to feel traumatised by it.

The problem is that we perceive sexual violence on a scale, with those on one end encouraged to belittle their own experience, creating a culture of shame around what they went through. This is what can discourage them from seeking professional help, let alone support from their friends and family, or reporting it to the police.

Non-consensual condom removal played an important role in Michaela Coel’s award-winning BBC/HBO series ‘I May Destroy You’ (BBC/HBO)

Reading Alice’s story is devastating for so many reasons, not least because of how young she was when it allegedly happened. Having your early sexual experiences shaped by such brazen-yet-tacit violation causes deep-rooted psychological and physiological scars that can last a lifetime.

When it comes to sexual assault, there is always a power dynamic at play. But that dynamic is almost hyperbolic when the perpetrator is someone in the public eye. I can only imagine how Alice, and Brand’s other alleged victims, must feel now that their stories are out there in the open, being picked and prodded at like a nasty scab by those rushing to the comedian’s defence and undermining their testimonies.

Everything Brand has been accused of is abominable. But it’s also an opportunity to raise awareness of the nuances that surround sexual trauma, and to take stock of how we discuss these issues among friends and peers. To remember that sexual violence can take many forms. And to acknowledge that every experience counts, no matter how insignificant you’ve been conditioned or manipulated into thinking it may be.

Rape Crisis offers support for those affected by rape and sexual abuse. You can call them on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, and 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland, or visit their website at www.rapecrisis.org.uk.

If you are in the US, you can call Rainn on 800-656-HOPE (4673)

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