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'Rape can happen to anyone - we need to listen to people's stories'

A new documentary sees four women talking openly about their rapes and sexual assaults.

Source: ThinkMidas/YouTube

WINNIE M LI WAS on a visit to Belfast in 2008 when she was raped by a 15-year-old in a park.

Now she and three other women are taking part in a TV3 documentary where they speak openly about their experiences – and the shame and stigma that society can put on people who have been raped or sexually assaulted.

Li, who is American, was 29 when she visited Belfast, having been invited there as a George Mitchell Scholar to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

While hiking in the Colin Glen Forest Park, she was approached by a 15-year-old, who engaged her in conversation before attacking and then raping her. The teen, Edward Connors, was subsequently jailed for the offence.

“I think it’s important that people realise how prevalent sexual assault and rape is and how there tends to be shame and silence around the issue,” Li tells TheJournal.ie.

“Rape is one of those things you hear about and as a woman you fear having happen to you, but you oftentimes don’t think it’s going to happen to you.”

The incident had a massive impact on her, leading to post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

“At the time of the assault I had no idea how long it would take me to recover but I knew straight away I was a different person and I couldn’t do the things I did before my assault,” says Li. People often don’t realise the huge impact and recovery time after a rape or sexual assault, she says.

Participating in the documentary was her way of bringing her story to people, to “make people realise the human side” to rape and sexual assault, but also to make something that would connect other survivors.

“It was important they show the diversity of experiences,” she says of the other women’s stories in the documentary. They include Niamh Ni Dhomnaill, whose ex-boyfriend was found guilty of raping her while she was asleep.

Sexual assault and rape is something that can happen in different circumstances. Mine was the classic stranger rape – maybe that was one reason why it was all over the news. But we know that nine out of ten victims are attacked by someone they know.

After her attack, Li found herself frustrated that people didn’t look beyond the details of what happened. “I was frustrated about [how the] media outlets were so quick to jump on the sensational details but not to explore the longer-term impact of it,” she says now.

“No one is looking at how those crimes affect the victim or the longer-term aspects of it. The longer-term aspects are what make it so much harder to put your life back together and feel welcome in society again.”

Li was very open right away about what happened to her – but she understands why others would keep a rape or sexual assault private.

For some, she says it’s because they don’t want to be judged. “It’s wrong that society should be judging victims,” says Li. “The very definition of [rape] is these are incidents that took place without your consent – you have nothing to be ashamed of.”

She feels that a lot of things have changed thanks to social media, with rape survivors having a wider platform to discuss the issue. “In some ways rapes and assaults are still happening as they have before but because of social media we are reaching a point where more of these stories can be shared from a survivor’s personal point of view,” she says.

“It is the larger culture that is encouraging or enabling crimes like rape to take place and by not holding the perpetrator accountable,” she says.

unnamed (17) Winnie M Li at the location in Belfast where she was raped. Source: Midas Productions

Returning to Belfast

During the documentary, Winnie Li returned to the location in the park where she was attacked. While the idea came from the filmmakers, Li said she took some time to think about doing this.

Li had been back to Belfast a number of times during research for her novel, Dark Chapter – which was inspired by her experiences – but had not returned to the park. “Returning to Belfast] no longer really upset me but the thought of having to go back to that particular part, that was definitely something new and not something I would have tried to do on my own,” she says.

Though there was no onus on her to go, she says the storyteller in her wanted to return to the park. “I knew that that would be an interesting thing to explore. And the part of me that is a survivor and activist is always trying to move towards some form of resolution,” she says.

It was a difficult return for her, but Li says she is a “fairly bold person”. “On the way to going to Belfast I broke down twice at the thought of having to go there – it was quite distressing. When I was actually there it wasn’t that bad,” she says, putting some of this down to the fact it was a different time of year, and that she wasn’t alone.

The trip also showed her that “the anticipated fear” is actually more” than going through the experience of confrontation and recovery.

Li says that being a survivor of rape or sexual assault means that afterwards you are not sure you can go back to doing things you used to do before. It took a number of years before she could return to hiking, which was “a great joy” of hers.

Reaching out

After her rape, Li sought solace in reading books about the experience of other rape survivors, such as Lucky by Alice Sebold. “Reading those helped me feel that I was not alone,” she says.

“I think one of the worst things about being a victim of this kind of crime is you do feel really lonely and no one else knows what you’re going through,” she says. “That’s the value of having an online community and also the value of seeing another work of art – documentaries or books – where you see other survivors and see what you are going through is not unusual for other survivors.”

Li describes in the documentary how, when she was hospitalised after the attack, the medical staff skirted around the topic of her rape. For her, that was a symptom of a larger societal reluctance in being open about the issue.

“I think there is a tendency, especially in the public realm, for people to look the other way or gloss things over,” she says. For example, she notes that people are more likely to say ‘sexual assault’ than ‘rape’.

“There are reasons for doing this but at the same time it diminishes the horror of what actually happened,” she says, acknowledging that there are different types of sexual assault.

“I was raped in a park. I don’t expect other survivors to automatically use that word. I can see why other survivors use ‘sexual assault’ because there is this shame and fear of saying ‘I was raped’.”

“In some ways as a victim it feels very insulting for people to know that happened to you and not even address it,” she says. “It is almost like they are ignoring the enormity of what happened to you.”

Some people may not know what to do, or how to say the right thing, says Li. “For me I find the silence is insulting – other victims might find it differently,” she says.

Why do we have this fear about what actually happened and this lack of knowledge about how to deal with the victim?

“In some ways it can make it harder for the victims to disclose the truth of what happened to them because they are afraid people will act weirdly,” adds Li. “Until people start speaking up and speaking openly without shame about what happened to them I think it’s always going to perpetuate this fear about discussing rape.”

unnamed (19) Niamh Ní Dhomhnaill

Li says that it was easy to tell her story – she was sober, it was the middle of the day, it involved a stranger. “There is no way that somebody could have said I was to blame,” she says.

“I’ve had interesting conversations with people, and they have tended to be older men, who said ‘yours was a real rape, but in cases of girls who drink too much [it's different]‘. But that’s rape also,” she says.

Fine, she was out there and she was drinking and having fun – but we all should have the opportunity to do that without having to be worried about being raped. Should I say I should never go hiking again in my life? That is not fair.

The onus shouldn’t be placed on “the victim to go somewhere to not be raped”, says Li – it should be on “potential perpetrators who should be watching their behaviour”.

“Unfortunately we live in a society that is patriarchal. These patriarchal views might say girls shouldn’t behave like that, people need to look after their daughters as we’ve seen with this case,” she adds. “The onus shouldn’t have to be on women to not be drinking, to be making sure they’re always going into safe spaces to avoid being raped. The onus should be on potential perpetrators to not rape or should be on society to raise people to not be rapists.”

Addressing the issue

Li says she believes change is happening, and George Hook’s suspension from Newstalk after his comments on a rape case is an example of that.

“It’s interesting for me as an American living and working in the UK and also spending a lot of time in Ireland, there are cultural differences in the willingness to talk about this issue,” she says.

I think change is definitely happening – it’s gradual though and it’s ultimately going to rely on big changes in policy in terms of how the criminal justice system operates, to really square this circle.

“I think we need more women in policy-making positions and more women in the media portraying this issue to really start challenging things,” says Li, adding that parents need to engage with their children on the issue.

Rape can happen to anyone, says Li. And because of this, it’s important that people can discuss it openly – and that people are willing to listen to people’s stories.

She’s heard from friends who bought her book but told her they couldn’t bring themselves to read it, and was also told that at a recent talk she was giving that some of the male attendees said they couldn’t attend after hearing about the subject matter.

“We really have to shift that unwillingness people have to address the issue,” says Li.

Unbreakable will be broadcast on TV3 at tonight at 10pm, and Thursday 28 September at 10pm.

Read: ‘I am truly sorry’: Hook issues ‘unreserved’ apology after uproar over rape comments>

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