A Thorn by Any Other Name….

Trigger Note: This blog discusses sexual assault which some might find triggering.  Please prioritise your own well-being when choosing whether to continue reading – only you know what feels safe for you.

Involved with planning a project on sexual violence has led to numerous discussions with colleagues and friends about the prevalence of it, whether it’s increased over time, and what society is doing, or could do better to affect change.   One friend suggested the possibility that probably every woman has been sexually assaulted at some point in her life.  I stopped and thought about this.  Every woman – could it really be true?  But the statistics say it’s around 1 in 3?….

Prior to that conversation, I acknowledged without a doubt I was sexually assaulted several times as a teenager from 15 to 17 years old, and have spoken openly with friends when the topic has arisen.  Though distressing at the time, I was fortunate to not suffer any lasting trauma from these particular experiences. Perhaps that’s indicative of the normalisation of sexual harm in our society.  I knew all three of the males; one was a boyfriend I dated briefly who was controlling and physically violent; the second was a friend’s older boyfriend who was drunk at the time; the third was a man who ran a cafe with his wife, they gave me a lift to work on Saturdays – he cornered me in the stock cupboard more than once.  In the 80s, these incidents were everyday occurrences which most of my friends also experienced.  It was this ingrained acceptance that those things happened, and were perhaps even to be expected, which rendered them unchallenged.

The legal definition of sexual assault in the UK is:

A person commits sexual assault if they intentionally touch another person, the touching is sexual and the person does not consent.

Still considering the profound possibility that every woman may be sexually assaulted at some point, I spoke with a colleague.  She recounted a situation in her early teens which she now knows was sexual assault.  I recounted a situation with a boyfriend on a summer’s night when I was 20.  Having fallen out with him at a party, I was driving us home on a pitch black, winding, narrow country lane.  Maintaining a frosty silence, I ignored his efforts to talk as I drove.  When gentle attempts to engage me in conversation & lighten the mood failed, he tried Plan B.  Laughing, he unzipped his jeans, grabbed my wrist and tried to force my hand into his pants. I pulled away, angrily. Undeterred, still laughing, he slid his hand under my dress and inside my underwear as I screamed at him in rage that we would be killed in a crash if he didn’t stop.  Trying to fend him off with my free hand while keeping the car under control with the other, I felt furious at his reckless behaviour, putting our lives at risk on as a “joke”.  We got back safely, the argument blew over, and our relationship continued for about a year.  It never occurred to me that he had violated me against my will that night in the car, I never considered it sexual assault.

The title of this blog is from Shakespeare’s “A rose by any other name, would smell as sweet.” The thorn that is sexual violence, by any other name is still a thorn, one that society finds difficult to talk about and get close enough to manage.  Perhaps this is why people use language in attempts to normalise it, as highlighted recently in an article by Laura Bates.  Maybe other women have framed their experiences in a different way, as I did?  Maybe it contributes to a perpetual lean towards diminishing any sexual assault which falls outside the definition of rape? Based on this, perhaps the statistics could indeed be incorrect?

Hope is essential, and seeking hope in every situation is where our energy to keep going and bring about change is restored.  And there is hope in all this:  it has taken courage to share this blog, and my prevailing hope is that talking about sexual violence is the start of ending it. More and more women and men, who feel able to share their stories and talk about sexual violence, defining it for what it is will hopefully help us all to find more ways to challenge it, prevent it and one day end it completely.

**Please remember your well-being matters; if you need someone to talk with, please seek support.

Rape Crisis           Samaritans         Victim Support        Rape Crisis Scotland