When you are raped the authority to make decisions for yourself is removed. Your attacker reduces you to an object to be devoured, a thing discarded in an alley, a body to be left in a nightclub stockroom, a person to be thrown aside on a bedroom floor. More venomously, a woman to be forgotten, inside a place of work, a school, a place of worship, a party, a home. And, while it is done with the best intention to protect you, authorities and wider society can reduce you to a faceless and nameless victim. It can be suffocating. While retaining their anonymity is right for some women, I felt stripped of my identity and agency.
This is why the decision by Chanel Miller, the woman raped by Brock Turner, to reveal her identity this week in an essay was so powerful for me. Like Miller, I too wrote about what happened to me when someone tried to rape me. Miller’s account of the erasure of her identity throughout the legal and medical procedures that followed her rape explains well her choice for revealing herself. She wrote, ‘I was asked to sign papers that said “Rape Victim” and I thought something has really happened… I stood there examining my body beneath the stream of water and decided, I don’t want my body anymore.’
Connection to yourself is replaced by cold metal objects, signed papers, official transcripts. Self-love unravels and a disgust moves in. Miller’s bravery in breaking free from the bureaucracy of being labelled a ‘rape victim’ by the state, alongside grappling with her unwanted proximity to her abuser, is not only beautiful, but refreshing. There is something so incredibly dehumanising about sexual violence, so difficult to express even to yourself. It’s like taking a deep breath and not being able to breathe out.
A pen or keyboard can become a conduit through which all the pain inflicted can flow out. This was the feeling I had, having typed out 5,000 words worth of my own pain onto paper, recounting step by step what happened when a man tried to rape me, once upon a time. It can take survivors years to do this, if indeed at all.
This too is something I can relate to. We condition ourselves, and those who find themselves survivors of rape and assault, as faceless victims. Women’s names are frequently erased to be replaced by numbers – we are the unknown human consequences.
I do not see myself as a victim, or even simply a survivor. Survivors of sexual assault are people first. Yet when sexual violence seizes your identity – and thrusts everything about you to a world that deems you too drunk, too under-dressed, too flirty, too womanly, too you – to be capable to make your own choices about your own body, it doesn’t always feel like you are a person. Telling your own story can offer freedom from constraints that are forced onto you in ways you never asked for.
At the same time, every single survivor is free to choose how he or she reacts or handles their own experience. Speaking out is not for everyone, and that choice is equally valid. The power of Miller’s decision and also her testimony, read out in Turner’s trial under the pseudonym of Emily Doe, lies in the relatability of her story.
A horrifying number of women can relate to Miller. Twenty per cent of British women have experienced sexual assault since the age of 16. Miller’s story reminds us of our sisters, our friends, our mothers. It reminds us of us. And that itself is the power of her ability to reveal herself: she unpeels herself from her trauma and offers us her account of what happened to her, knowing that millions of women will read her story, see her face, and nod in agreement. It hurts.
Owning your sexual trauma is an act of defiance. Assault reduces you to nothing, therefore the act of owning your own experience within yourself, getting to know and love and accept your body and your soul after such a violation does not come easy.
From my own experience, writing, exploring, creating in the face of the explosion of abuse, whether you make it public or not, can be a powerful practice. It helps, it soothes, it takes time, and above all it gave me my body back to myself, one word at a time. And perhaps the more accounts we read, and the more women we know, the less afraid we all may be of revealing our experiences to the wider world.