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Being a rape survivor affects every aspect of my life, but I won't let the trauma control who I am

I am still myself, my personhood matters and I have the power to choose what defines my future. I have survived.

Fletch Williams

First published – 5pm

I WAS RAPED at the age of 18. It was November 2007, a night that has changed my life in so many ways. But what I was never prepared for was the everyday challenges of being a rape victim and (later) survivor.

First, let’s make one thing clear – I do not represent all rape survivors. What happened to me is deeply personal – how I experienced rape and day-to-day life afterwards is dependent on my personality and perspectives. But I hope that what I have to say provides some insight into the impact of sexual assault.

Why is consent so important?

For a long time afterwards, I grappled with the question, “Why is my consent so important?” Like most other people, what I understood of rape came from newspapers. If it had happened to anyone I knew, I was blissfully ignorant.

Questioning the philosophical validity of my own trauma, which I know sounds like a strange thing to do, was how I tried to come to terms with what happened to me.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that consent mattered because your body is the tool through which you interact in the world and act out your choices.

Without that kind of self-expression, your body becomes a tool for someone else. It’s as if all you are is a thing to be used and the fact that you can think is meaningless. And feeling that way is downright dehumanising.

Before this realisation, I completely underestimated how valuable this concept could be. When you are questioning who you are, and you feel numb, and your mind is disconnected from your body, it is surprisingly difficult to justify why this usually intuitive idea might be true.

Everyday impact

So how did being raped affect my everyday life? Haircuts for one. I had long hair at the time of the attack. Within three months, I had cut it short and dyed it.

It’s only now, eight years later, that I can even think about growing it long again and I’m not even sure how I will feel once it gets to the same length it was back then.

My hair is a symbol of who I was and what happened changed that. I got more ear piercings and my nose pierced too. At the time, I thought I just wanted them.

In hindsight, I realise they were an attempt to physically change my body so it was something new.

After being raped, I barely considered myself the same person. I started to reconsider everything and tried to change aspects of my personality. “It’s like I died and I’m a different mind inside the same body with all the memories of the person I was before,” I once said to a friend, trying to explain what it felt like.

Reconciling two different versions of myself

Reconciling those two people has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I was depressed, erratic, vulnerable. I self-harmed, but I didn’t want to tell people why.

It sometimes feels like getting through that set me four years behind everyone else. I watched my friends all graduate, move away, meet new partners and get high-flying jobs.

I just wasn’t ready for it, but I felt left behind, like I hadn’t “gotten over it”. It felt at times like I was battling against him and what he did, and he had won.

So, this is the identity challenge that I face. On the one hand I don’t want being a rape survivor to define me, on the other hand it changed me forever and there’s not very much I can do about that.

Refusing to let him control me

The idea that it defines me means that he defines me by what he did. No way does he get that control over me. When I change my choices due to what happened, though, I realise he kind of does.

So how I’ve dealt with it is to try and use my experiences and personal knowledge for the better. I work for an organisation that advocates for gender equality, I studied rape in war during my master’s and I fundraise for a local rape crisis centre.

A few years ago, I was having a conversation with my ex about what I would do once I had left college. I spoke about wanting to do more in this area, to study, write and campaign on it. His response was “you’ve gotten through it, you don’t need it to take over your life”.

And in many ways he was right. I didn’t shy away from speaking to Asian men anymore (the man who raped me was of Asian decent), I could watch movie scenes of violence against women without having a bit of a freak out and so on.

But what happened changed the direction of my life. Of course, lots of things happen in life that change its direction, though maybe not as forcefully and dramatically as rape.

Importantly to me, I have learned to use what happened to me against rape itself. I find a huge amount of solace in that. Perhaps that’s what he didn’t understand.

Relationship challenges

As for relationships, I know that I was not easy to be with for a long time after it happened. Part of me wants to apologise to the people I was with for being so difficult. I don’t think they will ever know how important they were to helping me transition from victim to survivor.

But I still don’t find it easy to be physical with someone in a relationship. Physical intimacy is meant to show how you feel about a partner and so it’s hard to explain that to a significant other sometimes. Yes, that cliché of crying during sex has happened, but only once or twice.

And because I know that all this can affect someone else, I face the dilemma then of deciding whether or not to tell them. It becomes easier every time I own up to it and I now tend to mention it sooner rather than later.

Since coming out as a rape survivor, I no longer have this internal voice worrying about others finding out. This is the voice I lived with for years.

Before it happened, I didn’t notice how much violence against women was represented in the media. But then I noticed it all the time, even if it was only implied. I’d worry that how I reacted would give me away.

I avoided watching films or reading books – I still haven’t seen or read Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It was a huge life-changing secret.

Reclaiming my identity

Later, years after it happened, I felt like it didn’t need to be a secret anymore, that there was value in sharing what happened to me, so others could understand and possibly realise they weren’t alone.

What has been most empowering and liberating about coming out as a survivor is the number of people who say, “I know this is important, and I’m so sorry it happened to you, but it doesn’t change who you are to me.”

To me, what these simple words mean is that, no matter how much I struggle with how I relate my rape to my identity, I am still myself, my personhood matters and I have the power to choose what defines my future. However it has affected me, I survived.

Fletch Williams is from Cambridge. She studied in Ireland and now works for an international advocacy organisation.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact the Rape Crisis Centre on its 24-hour helpline 1800 77 88 88.

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Fletch Williams

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