Dear Oxford 14-year-old,
I’ll call you Sarah. I don't know who you are, but if Jeremy Vine can write to a 15-year-old from Romford attacked by a group of teenagers to offer his support then you deserve no less. I want you to know that, for me, you are not yet another faceless “victim”. You are a precious young woman to whom these acts of wickedness should never have happened. Sadly, you join the ranks of 1 in 5 women who will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes.
Although I dare not read the details, because I will feel too much and that is not useful to you, I want you to know that I am holding you in my thoughts. I am utterly appalled at what you have been through, which is why I am waiving my legal rights to anonymity to "come out" as a rape survivor. "Coming out" as a lesbian was never this hard, even during the worst of Section 28.
Sarah, I have some insight as to how it may be for you now, and of the possible ordeals yet to come, because I am a rape survivor. Some people stick to the legal definition “victim”, but I have never used that term at any time since the assault in 1984. I know it made all the difference to my recovery so I want you to have it available to you too.
It would be very reasonable for you to feel a “victim”. Or right now you may just feel elated to be alive, like I did. For me and others, the word “survivor” was a promise to myself in the months and years that followed, as I experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress in a very "disordered" world. It helped me to realise it need not always be like this; that there can be an “after”.
But I want you to know that if you are angry, you are right to be angry. I am angry. I am angry that we live in a society that continues to confuse the difference between “rape” and “sex”. I am angry that so little has been learned since my life-threatening sexual assault in 1984. I am angry that young women like you are being subjected sexual violence even in schools and universities.
For years after my attack I had to avoid coverage of sexual violence, especially those ghastly tabloid headlines sensationalising and trivialising rape and sexual assault. It is OK for you to decide to avoid things that cause you distress. It’s the way in which our brains protect us; it can help us heal – and take it from one who knows: post-traumatic stress can be chaotic.
I had better care after my assault 32 years ago than many women receive today. I was at Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp surrounded by women who showed their concern and support. I am a teacher now, and, as any teacher knows, young people need good role models. I found role models in other women, who came to me and said, "Me too." And I realised there could be an "after". I am writing because I want you to have what I had: at least one role model; an "after". In this women's community, I was not subjected to what I call the “social rape” of being blamed or doubted. I can even say of that day that I was lucky. I would wish for you and every woman or girl the exceptionally good care I received.
It can help to connect with others who have had a similar ordeal, and who are familiar with the symptoms, the nightmares, the flashbacks, the severe and not so severe adrenal events ("panic attack” doesn't begin to do them justice). I remember once shaking so hard that I couldn’t get the key into the lock to open my front door to get me to the safety I was desperate for.
This year, 32 years later, I finally reported my assault to the police and I discovered it wasn't the Thames Valley Police who were responsible for investigating; I had, in fact been 200 metres into Hampshire. The Hampshire Police were fantastic; I hope TVP are better than fantastic for you.
I wish I could do something to make this un-happen for you. I remember coming round and, in my shock, saying to myself, “It is OK as long as it never happens again.” That kept me going for a while, until I realised that, somewhere in the world, other women and girls were facing the same pain. I wonder if I should have spoken out sooner, wonder if it might have made any difference to what happened to you. What I know is that now it has happened to you, I can no longer remain silent.
In so many ways what has happened to you is worse than what happened to me. You are likely to feel alienated from your body – I certainly did. Even the everyday bodily functions such as going to the loo and periods made me feel things I didn’t want to feel. I hated touching myself. Like me, and for too many young women, this may have been your first sexual encounter – and yes, there is a process involved in reclaiming that, but that can and does happen too (just in case you were wondering and didn’t know how to ask).
I was little more than a child, 18 when it happened to me. I was almost an adult but because I was a lesbian (which I didn’t understand at the time, in those homophobic days), the one thing I was doing was repressing my "sexuality". But I was clear about the one thing I did not want and, if nothing else, that made things clear.
Go very gently with yourself. Take sleeping medication if you need to. Give yourself a chance to heal. Your body and brain and moods are probably going to surprise you for a long time to come. I would not be alive but for the women of the Rape Crisis movement, I called the Oxford OSARC Helpline plenty, don’t be afraid to phone them.
I wish there was anything I could say or do to make the next part of your ordeal easier. I wish I knew what that would be. I don’t. But I can tell you that, down the line, there will come a moment when it is not your only thought, even for a fraction of second. That time will come. The next time will be longer – maybe even a second – and those moments will get longer until the balance turns the other way and you think of it less than you think about anything else.
What I can also tell you is that our Prime Minister, Theresa May, has listened to survivors, as well as self-described "victims". There is someone in 10 Downing Street who has listened very carefully. But sadly many in the media are not listening to her.
You are, for the time being, a “victim”. Perhaps “veteran” is a better term – of a savage war of sexual terror conducted up and down the UK, and around the world. It was not your fault, it was an act of random wickedness, of male sexual violence against women. I hate that this has happened to you. I hate that so little has been learned since 1984.
You are on my mind and in my heart. I honour you for what has happened to you and I honour the courage you have already shown and will continue to show.
It is also OK not to feel courageous at all – it is very reasonable to feel scared and angry – but there are plenty of women and men but also many survivors who probably won’t write like me but who are willing you on.
And as the weeks and months unfold, I will be thinking of you and, as we Quakers say “holding you in the Light”. I will be thinking of you in the after, too. Probably I will be thinking of you for my whole life, hoping you are doing OK. I sincerely hope that this letter lends you some support.
Clare B Dimyon MBE (Human Rights)
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