I was recently contacted by a woman who asked if I would be open to giving her space on my blog to share the following piece of writing. I firmly believe that the truth does set us free. Speaking out about things that many can only think about takes tremendous courage. Sometimes the desire to inform and educate outweighs the risk in putting it all out there and being vulnerable while standing firmly in your truth. This is one survivor’s truth and I encourage you to take the time to read it. Yes, it may make you uncomfortable but I don’t think that is a bad thing. ~Julie Keon
****TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains details that some readers might find disturbing and triggering.
Whenever sexual assault is in the news, it’s hard for me to sleep. Everyone weighs in with their opinions, statistics and arguments but I don’t see much on social media that is written by survivors. Some survivors naturally try to avoid it altogether because it can bring up a lot of pain. When Rehtaeh Parsons’ tragic suicide after sexual assault was in the news about 3 years ago, it opened the floodgates for me and brought up a lot of suppressed memory, emotions, and PTSD symptoms. The positive part of that public dialogue was that I finally started to talk about and truly process what had happened to me as a young woman. The Ghomeshi trial has been similarly intense. This time I’ve decided I need to write. It has helped me process my thoughts, my anger, and my experience with the whole concept of “justice.”
Many have been calling for new thinking about the justice system and how we handle sexual assault because of the overall picture due to the abysmally low reporting/ conviction rates and the difficulties with ‘evidence.’ I think it’s time to think outside the legal ‘box’ and look for a system that is designed to uncover the truth of both parties testimony. The behaviour of the witnesses is on trial and the accused’s version of events is not cross examined. There is no genuine search to uncover the truth in this adversarial system. A shadow of doubt is easy to come up with when we throw in sexist questions like “What were you wearing?” We must come up with a better, perhaps even separate, system for sexual assault cases.
My rapists got away with it because I was too afraid and ashamed to report them, and because I knew my experience did not match up with what the justice system considers ‘real rape.’
Calls for change predictably bring the alarmist response (‘but the accused won’t get a fair trial!’). I want to make it clear that the accused must have a fair trial and we need to be concerned about wrongful conviction. We also need to be concerned about making the wrong decision and letting sex offenders go free. I believe we can find ways to bring more balance and some current science into the process.
Science and research have to replace outdated, often sexist beliefs, about what makes a victim’s story ‘credible’. In my city, 40% of reported sexual assaults never even make it to trial because the police can decide whether or not the victim is credible and if not credible, then charges are not laid. The reasons may include, agreeing to go on a date with the accused or having had a drink or two the night of the incident. If the Crown thinks a case will be too difficult to prosecute, they just don’t. That strikes me as a problem.
During High School, my law class attended court to sit in on a sexual assault trial. I watched the young woman on the stand, who was also a high school student, be brutally cross-examined (‘whacked’). She was badgered to tears about details like how many buttons were on your shirt?
“You said there were four, now you say there were six?
I watched her extreme discomfort about having to give testimony in front of a class of high school students in her own city and she had to be the one to ask the judge for our class to leave. It was terrifying and I was discouraged from reporting what had recently happened to me. That was in the 80’s and it shocks me that nothing has changed in 30 years.
When I was raped at the young age of 15, by a man many years older than me, I didn’t know anything about the justice system. I was still drawing rainbows and unicorns on my schoolbooks until he ripped my childhood from me on that terrible night. I didn’t know what kind of ‘evidence’ I would need and in the shock of the aftermath I certainly was not thinking about memorizing details or preserving the ‘crime scene’ on my body for forensics.
From what I’ve seen, if I had reported and assuming charges were even laid, my case wouldn’t have held up in court. I know what happened to me but our justice system would not have protected me from my rapist. He preyed on vulnerable teens and he got into their heads. I was bullied by my peers, which made me a target for predators because I was isolated and because I had low self-esteem. Looking through the lens of the justice system, my case would not have succeeded. I wasn’t a ‘perfect victim’ with a ‘credible story’ and I would have been called a liar. I’m going to share part of my story in the hope that you will understand a little of what is going on in the mind of a traumatized person, and why our evidence is seldom if ever perfect enough for proof beyond a shadow of doubt.
First flaw in my story: I agreed to go on a date with him. Incredibly, this alone seems to be enough to discredit a victim. The police often ‘unfound’ a case; will not press charges, based on this. Yet, statistically we know that the largest percent of sexual assaults is carried out by people known and trusted by the victim. This makes it deeply complicated. We know that most abusers are not green eyed monsters lurking in alleys. They are our friends, relatives, neighbors, fellow students, football stars, professionals, co-workers or our teen ‘crush’. As a society we have a hard time imagining putting them behind bars. It’s no wonder then, that victims also have a hard time seeing their perpetrators as monsters and often stay in contact or want to continue the relationship. Often we don’t want to call the police on someone we may still care about even though they hurt us. That doesn’t mean they didn’t hurt us. It’s confusing when you are betrayed and violated by someone who also has a ‘good side.’ Date rape and intimate partner violence are very real problems and we don’t seem to have the tools to prosecute.
Second flaw in my story: I didn’t call the police. I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t tell anyone. My memory went very blank. I went to school and acted like nothing had happened. This is called dissociation and it’s one tool the brain uses to survive trauma. This led people to say things like ‘it couldn’t have been that bad then. ’ This idea is entrenched in public attitudes and the justice system. But we have research that shows many different responses to trauma, such as shock, numbing, minimizing to cope and memory problems. Dissociation got me through high school. Sadly, I have known a number of women who dropped out of school because the aftermath of sexual violence was too much to cope with. Sexual violence is another obstacle to success for women.
Third flaw in my story: My memory is fragmented. Because I dissociated, it was as if my brain stored different parts of the memory in different places. For years, I could recall the event but there was no emotion attached. Anxiety and depression plagued me but seemed separate from what happened. The emotional and physical parts of the memory only came back recently. Some details have never returned, such as what happened afterwards. I remember him pulling me by the arm out of the back room he had put me in, through the party and out to his car (and no, I don’t remember the colour of his car). I assume he drove me home but I can’t remember anything about how I felt or what I did afterwards, not that night or the next day or the next week.
I remember exactly what happened to me before he grabbed my arm to exit the party; in vivid details that still wake me at night, shaking, smelling him, years later. But I couldn’t describe the room or what he was wearing. What I do remember, during the assault, was the confusion, the shock, that things were changing so quickly and violently, he was changing from the person I thought he was, into something else that made no sense. Date rape is always seen as a ‘lesser’ crime somehow. Merely unwanted or less enjoyable sex, not ‘real’ trauma, not violence.
The reality of date rape is that not only is it violent, it’s a major mind fuck. He had been someone I liked and I had wanted him to like me. I had been so excited and flattered when he asked me out on a date…but out of nowhere, everything changed, the whole thing felt wrong and too fast and confusing. My brain could not adapt to his transformation from ‘guy I have a crush on’ to ‘monster from hell’ and one moment I was paralyzed with fear and ….then it was nothing. I was blank. It was as if my brain could not make sense of it. It shattered my sense of reality, so the brain, in an act of self-preservation, simply shut itself off. Telling anyone was psychologically impossible in the aftermath, because I was just shut off. Talking about it remains incredibly difficult. To this day I have no sense of safety, because I know, as trauma survivors do, that my whole world could be shattered in an instant.
Fourth flaw in my story: I drank alcohol that night at a party with him. I remember him pouring more vodka into my drink repeatedly. I drank it. That doesn’t mean I asked to be raped.
Fifth flaw in my story: I agreed, impossibly, to go on a second date with him, a week later, and for the life of me I don’t know what possessed me to do that. I can’t remember a single thing between events. I know that it doesn’t mean that I wasn’t raped the first time or that I ‘wanted it.’ It was horrific. So I can’t explain why I went out with him again. I can only speculate. He said he’d take me to a movie. Maybe I thought that he was going to take me to a movie and that would somehow make things okay again. Maybe I thought it would repair the fabric of reality and things would make sense. I could re-write history a different way. Perhaps then I could comprehend, fix things, construct a narrative that would allow my mind to survive.
I’ve read that our subconscious, when traumatized, tries to recreate the scenario, like our brain wants a do-over. I’ve read about soldiers re-enacting scenarios that reflect their trauma on the anniversary of a bad experience. So again, we need to look at the research and try to understand, not use ‘post-incident contact’ as a weapon against a victim’s story.
As you can probably guess he didn’t take me to a movie on that ‘second date’.
If my case even made it to court, based on the outdated beliefs that underlie how we evaluate credibility, my story would be difficult to prosecute. I likely would have been called a liar and accused of trying to ruin the life of a ‘decent man.’ The fact that despite considerable effort to heal and move on I still suffer with PTSD, anxiety, chronic pain and depression is probably not considered evidence.
How can cases like this get prosecuted? I know for a fact I was not his only victim and this guy is still out there. It seems incredible that the onus would have been on a 15 year old traumatized kid to be able to prove guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt (keep in mind the age of consent back then was 14). Statistics show that the most likely age for a woman to be sexually assaulted is between 15 and 24.
There are thousands of cases like this every year and an extremely low conviction rate. This is a serious problem. The tendency is to blame the victim for not doing a good enough job. She should have reported immediately. She shouldn’t have gone on a date with him (apparently?) She shouldn’t have had a drink. She should have put her clothing into paper, not plastic bags which damage the evidence. She shouldn’t have had contact with him after the assault. If she was really raped she would remember it. She would have told someone.
When you are in the middle of being raped, trust me, you are really not thinking about how you can be the perfect witness by memorizing details. You are not thinking about running straight to the police so you can be interrogated. You are not making certain you remember every single sordid detail because if you forget something it is called ‘changing the story’. You likely don’t even know that you shouldn’t take a shower or brush your teeth because then you won’t have any ‘evidence’ for the examination by a doctor with a speculum. (by the way a rape kit exam takes between 2-4 hours and involves photographing, as well as extensive physical examination) Right.
Then there is the fact that even if you have all this ‘evidence’, the police can decide not to press charges regardless, as we saw recently in a story reported in Ottawa news.
I didn’t report any of my rapes. Yes, it happened several times (in a small town, word gets around between predators but that’s another story). My decision was mainly out of fear: fear of the ruthlessness of lawyers, fear that I would be publicly dragged through the mud and called a liar, fear of my rapists, of what they might do if I ‘made them’ angry. I already knew what they were capable of.
Silence is painful. It meant I had no support in healing. Initially, the silence was due to shock and dissociation. Later on, it was about shame. Now, silence is a tool by which I retain control over my story and my reputation. I tell only those I trust. Even so I’ve been minimized and invalidated by people I thought were friends.
There is another factor that maybe people who haven’t been raped just don’t get. From a survivor`s perspective, when you look at the abysmally low conviction rates, there is actually considerable personal risk in reporting. Even if you manage to psychologically survive the trial, if your rapist walks free, you have to face the consequences of a system that has not protected your safety and will not protect you if he decides on revenge. You will spend the rest of your life literally looking over your shoulder. Thirty years of PTSD and silence, has been the life sentence I have served for his crimes.