I am scared.
I can fell my heartbeat every time I walk down the gloomy street back to my house at night. My hands get sweaty if I have to stand too close to anyone of the opposite sex on the bus. Sometimes, I am even anxious when someone walks up to me at a bar.
I wonder if there will be a time when dark remote streets do not urge my feet to run and my head to replay that evening on the streets of a foreign country.
It happened one and a half years ago. I was walking down a dark, deserted road, taking a shortcut to a bus I needed to catch. Behind me, I could hear steps. Coming closer. A voice: “Sorry, sorry, madam, sorry.” Then, a face, getting closer to mine. His hand trying to catch me. His body pressed against mine, I tried to keep walking. Finally, the feeling of his hand between my legs – a violent, fast, determined grasp. I do not recall if I made the decision to scream, but I hear my own voice. A motorbike is coming closer. I feel how he is detaching himself from me. And then – I don’t feel anything anymore. I run. I scream. Tears are running down my face. I run and I can’t stop, until the motor bike driver stops to talk to me. He tells me to go to the police, but I do not hear him. He offers me a cigarette. I don’t smoke, usually. He waits for the bus with me. We smoke. I do not remember how I get home.
You might say that this was a while ago, that this occurred in a big city and that worse things could have happened. But this is not what I am talking about.
In our society, we tend to wait for the extremes. You were sexually assaulted? Well, you weren’t raped. You suffer from anxiety? Well, at least you are not depressed. Although these differentiations might have some truth to them, it is the comparison itself that is wrong. Mental health is not about the objective severity of the experience and its relative standing compared to others, but about the subjective, personal and extremely individual harm and suffering.
It took me two weeks to press charges against the stranger who assaulted me. I could hardly remember his face, let alone any details. When the police finally found someone capable of interrogating me in English, one of the first questions I was asked concerned the time that had passed since the incident: “Why did you not come earlier?” The answer to this question can be summed up simply –I didn’t have the strength.
I remember the days afterwards all as if they were yesterday. I remember rubbing his dirt off my body, even the parts he hadn’t touched, trying so hard I hurt myself. The twitching of my entire organism every time a man stood next to me on the bus. The feeling of disgust at myself and sexuality in general. His visits in my dreams. How my flatmates held both of my hands when we went out a couple of days later.
I started talking, and I realized I was not alone. It didn’t help fill the hole inside me, but it helped me feel powerful again. Active.
Things need to change.
The predominant perception of sexual assault as something the victim can be blamed for must be addressed. “You shouldn’t have walked alone in a dark street.” “You shouldn’t have worn that skirt.” “You asked for it.” This victim blaming is deeply insulting, biased and unbearable. It distorts the vast number of crimes happening every day, scaring women for life. It ignores the real perpetrators, and how we need to raise awareness in our society – for sexual assault, rather than “adequate” dresses.
We who experience sexual assault need to speak up, even though it’s hard. Everything we do not talk about slowly becomes a part of us. We shouldn’t give those who assaulted us the power to dominate our well-being. We can’t reverse what has happened to us, be we can reduce the pain felt by other victims.
St. Andrews seems to be a safe space. According to The Telegraph, however, 1 out of 3 female university students in the UK has dealt with sexual assault or unwanted advances. The STAnd Together initiative, which is a collaborative campaign between the University and the Student Association, aims to raise awareness about welfare issues, and was founded at the beginning of this semester, is a good start. Their first campaign, “Got Consent”, is aimed at raising awareness of sexual consent and bystander intervention. As long as we do not intervene, things cannot change.
Let’s work on this together. Please keep your eyes open. Keep on talking. And never, ever blame yourself.
Featured image from Flickr.