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Opinion: It took me years to realise I'd been raped - I had never been taught about consent

Ashley Westpheling says she compartmentalised the experience of sexual assault, only realising years later that what had happened was wrong.

Ashley Westpheling

Updated Nov 2nd 2021, 12:20 PM

IT TOOK ME nearly 10 years to realise I had been raped.

I knew something was wrong when it happened, yet I was unable to pinpoint just how wrong because nothing I experienced resembled what I thought rape would look like.

It wasn’t a dramatic incident – there was no violence that would resemble the Law and Order SVU episodes that defined my adolescent understanding of sexual assault.

I was 20 and eager to present myself as a “cool girl” with a no-drama attitude about sex, but I was not equipped with the terminology or life experience to be able to classify the situation as rape.

Despite my uneasiness after the incident, I decided the best thing to do would be to not make a fuss. So, I buried the memory; told nobody and mentally put it into a box labelled ‘unpleasant sexual experiences’ that I hoped to never open again.

Trauma, hidden

Almost a decade later I was reading an article that included the legal definition of rape. I read it once, and then again. Something about reading it in plain, unembellished text forced me to unpack things and the sudden realisation that I had been raped dawned on me.

I felt sick. And confused. How did I not see this before? Somehow, even through years of earnestly discussing #MeToo and hearing friends recount incidents of sexual assault my memories remained compartmentalised, but now Pandora’s box was well and truly open.

Years of anxiety, guilt, and shame came tumbling out. The worst depression I’ve ever experienced that came after the assault, along with the nightmares and panic attacks, suddenly had an explanation.

It isn’t exactly a mystery why I didn’t realise I had been raped. As someone from the American Deep South, my abstinence-only sex education resembled the scene from Mean Girls where the gym teacher gets roped into teaching something he is woefully unqualified for, offering up the sage words of wisdom:

Don’t have sex because you will get pregnant and die.

I have no memory of even hearing the word ‘consent’ at my school, and all my knowledge about sex came from surreptitious Google searches and slightly more experienced friends.

I recently began therapy with the South Leinster Rape Crisis Centre and this has played a huge role in helping me to process what happened and has brought me to a place where I want to share my story to help others.

As I came to terms with my past trauma, I was comforted by the idea that what happened to me was lifetimes ago when considering all the cultural shifts the world has been through recently.

Not to mention that Ireland is quickly becoming a far more progressive country than my homeland. We’ve had a societal reckoning when it comes to gender-based violence, Ireland repealed the 8th, Weinstein is in jail!

Certainly, things are different for young people in Ireland today… right?

Maybe not.

Understanding consent

I work with Plan International and in our recent KnoWhere To Go report we surveyed over 500 people aged 15-24 on their experience of sexual health education in Ireland.

While most young people consider themselves to be fairly well informed, the sources where they get their information are worrying – 67% said they learned most of their information about consent in sexual relationships from social media or other internet sources while a measly 16% cited school.

When asked “Have you ever learned something about consent and then later discovered you had been misinformed or wrong? 40% said yes, with one in five citing school in general as the source of misinformation.

A staggering amount of young people commented that like me, they didn’t realise they had been assaulted until years after the fact because of their misunderstanding about what constitutes consent.

The research confirms what most teachers and parents are already instinctively aware of – when young people don’t have the answers to their questions, they look for that information online.

So, if my education on consent was lacking in the US, from what I can see, up until the internet arrived Ireland’s education on consent resembled something out of Derry Girls – more grounded in shame and taboo than necessary facts.

The problem now is that so much information is readily available for young people online, but it’s not always the right information. In 2019 the Oireachtas released a report reviewing the Relationship and Sexuality Education curriculum in schools.

They found: “The programme [SPHE and RSE] does not deal sufficiently with consent… The programme does not explicitly acknowledge sexism and inequality. The programme does not deal with the role of the Internet, social media, mobile phones or pornography. The programme does not start with young people’s lived experiences.”

Misinformation

The reality is that poor sexual and reproductive health education and misinformation on sexual health disproportionately impact girls and young women in Ireland and across the world. That is why released our KnoWhere To Go report to mark International Day of the Girl this year.

We know comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education is one of the best tools we have in the fight against gender-based violence. We know the internet is rife with misinformation that leads to confusion around sexual health and insidious actors that seek to indoctrinate young people and legitimise misogyny, homophobia, and violence.

Plan International works across more than 77 countries, including in some of the poorest and most marginalised parts of the world. When sexual health education is poor or absent, girls and young women risk child and early marriage, adolescent pregnancy, sexual and gender-based violence, STIs and, ultimately, the curtailing of their potential and future.

As young people are learning about consent online, I sincerely hope those who commented that they were newly aware they were victims of sexual assault didn’t come across the misogyny-laden posts that social media algorithms fed me – “funny” memes spreading misinformation about how 90% of sexual assault claims are fabricated by women looking for attention.

There are some posts that suggest women who make up accusations about rape deserve harsher sentences than those who actually commit rape. And posts stating that it’s “biologically impossible” for men to be victims of sexual assault.

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For those of us who never had consent education, the need for it might seem superfluous. After all, isn’t it black and white, a yes or no issue? But as a result of the #MeToo movement, we now understand that rape often isn’t committed in a dark alley by a stranger.

Young people need a safe space to discuss the nuances around consent – topics such as consent if drink is involved, the need for verbal consent versus physical indications, or what to do if someone changes their mind.

I often wonder that if I had been through consent education in my teens would my experience be different? Would I have had the understanding and confidence to go to the police? Would I have confided in friends straight away?

I lost so much time in the fog of not knowing what had happened to me had been wrong, had traumatised me. I don’t want this to be someone else’s story, too.

We can’t let young people ‘self-educate’ about things as important as consent, contraception, or LGBTI+ identities any longer. We don’t have years to waste.

Ashley Westpheling is Development Education Officer at Plan International Ireland. Ashley hails from the USA and has been living in Ireland for four years. The 24-hour helpline run by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre can be contacted on 1800 778 888, or you can find your closest centre here.

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Ashley Westpheling

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