This is Kirstin Whalen’s story.
[Trigger Warning: Rape]
The reason that the following is more confession than affirmation is, allegedly, common sense. Let me clarify: I was raped. I didn’t talk about it. I was drunk. I was wearing a short skirt. And I was horribly, horribly ashamed.
The last couple of weeks have seen a media (or at least social media) storm about comments regarding sexual assault. It seems to have originated from the publicity of the Maryville rape case. Mamamia founder Mia Freedman added her voice, saying she would chose to inform her teenage daughter ‘that there is a crystal clear connection between alcohol and sexual assault, both for the victim and the perpetrator’. The despicable Bob Jones, who writes, inexplicably, for the New Zealand Herald (a paper I now refuse to read because they publish his work), claims ‘rape is a risk for those who don’t act sensibly’.
These statements are not merely untrue: they are part of the problem. Women are most likely to be raped by someone they know (80–90 percent of rape is by someone trusted by the victim, such as a friend, family member or partner). It is by telling young woman that their ‘risky’ behaviour leads to rape that we create a culture in which rape is acceptable. It’s called victim blaming.
It’s not a new concept. Yet this week one of my Facebook ‘friends’ used his status to liken a father telling a woman to cover up at night to a father telling a son not to leave his keys unguarded in the ignition of his car. Three people ‘liked’ that.
When I was a teenager, I partied. I was young and prone to experimentation. I was having a rough time at home and wanted to escape. RTDs tasted really good. I was at a party one night where I had been taken by a boy I liked. I didn’t really know the people, and I quickly realised that a lot more than drinking was going on.
I was scared, but I believed I was rebellious. And I wanted to prove to this guy that I could run with his pack. So I drank. And I drank. To the point that I was dancing against a wall with some other guy pressed up against me. I didn’t care. I was having fun, harmless fun, and I felt beautiful because boys were looking at me.
When the police hammered on the door, someone turned the lights off. I still don’t really know why but I think it was to give people a chance to run away, to sweep their lines of coke from the coffee table. I remember laughing, and then everything going dark.
Someone grabbed my arm, and pulled. I stumbled with them. When they tried to push me into their car, I struggled and yelled, but everyone was scattering in different directions, trying to avoid the cops. No one heard me. Not even the police. Another man came and put a hand across my mouth and the two of them bundled me into the backseat of the car. They jumped in the front seat and drove away. I put my seatbelt on because they were driving dangerously.
After about half an hour we stopped in an empty car park. I still don’t know where it was. I have driven around looking for where it could have been, believing that going back to the place where it happened might be healing in some way.
They told me what they were going to do. They said I would love it. I screamed and screamed and begged them not to. They told me if I didn’t stop complaining, they would hurt me. I believed them. They put the child lock on the doors. The first climbed into the back seat and unzipped his jeans. He peeled my skirt away slowly and told me that he didn’t want to rip it, because my parents might ask questions. I remember being thankful. As they took it in turns to rape me, I closed my eyes and tried not to cry too hard. My crying seemed to spur them on.
I don’t remember their faces. They’re blurry in my memory and look a lot more like the roof of the car, the fabric of which was unstitched, shedding tiny pieces of foam some of which I found in my teeth the next morning. I remember that an Eminem song came on the radio, to which the driver rapped as he waited his turn.
I tried to focus on the small details I could find, anything but their eyes. It sounds clichéd when I write it down. The whole thing does – probably because I am in no way alone in this story. We’ve heard it all before because it happens again and again.
When they were done with me, they asked me where I lived. They wanted to drop me home. I was sober by then. I gave an address two streets from my house, which I knew had a long driveway where I could hide until they drove away. I needn’t have worried. They parked beside the curb, unlocked the doors and didn’t say a word as I climbed out onto the pavement. I remember almost thanking them for the lift.
They sped away quickly and I fell onto the grass verge and vomited until there was only bile left in my stomach. I went home, put on my pyjamas and got into bed. Thankfully I fell straight to sleep.
It never even crossed my mind to tell someone. I believed wholeheartedly that it was my fault, that I was asking for it. I got drunk. I danced provocatively. I would have let him kiss me, if he had tried. I had allowed myself to get into a dangerous situation, so it was my fault, right?
Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. I know that now. The only people to blame were the two men who used me like a blow up-doll. I did not give my consent. Not once.
I still blamed myself.
Since understanding what happened to me, I have always said that the damaging attitudes that lead to victim-blaming have a large role to play in the huge number of unreported cases of sexual assault. But it is so much more than that. We live in a culture that believes that women are guilty if they are assaulted. If we say that a woman could do something differently, and thus avoid assault, then we are saying that she bears responsibility. This leads to women who drink or wear minimal clothing or express their sexuality as being seen as ‘asking for it.’
I am in no way the first to say this. The message is ringing out, loud and clear. I just don’t understand why no one is listening.
The second time I was sexually assaulted was minor but still horrible. A taxi driver stuck his hand between my legs while assisting me in buckling a strap on the wheelchair of my client, with whom I was travelling. She has a disability, and was unaware of what was happening and so unable to testify. I thought it was an accident. When we arrived at our destination, he got into the back of the maxi cab, locked the doors (in a manner eerily similar to my first assault) and grabbed my bottom. I knew, then, that he knew what he was doing.
I raced inside with my client to where my colleagues were waiting to start a group physio session, and collapsed into tears. I told them what had happened. The police became involved but, although he was arrested and lost his job, no charges were laid due to lack of evidence. The driver claimed what happened was an accident.
I remember waiting for someone from work to come and take over my shift. I was shivering and pulled continuously at the neckline of my dress, wondering if it was too low, and if people would tell me it was my fault for dressing nicely for work that day. I would have agreed with them.
While travelling in India, I was pinched, grabbed and touched often. In the middle of the Goa post office, a man walked up behind me, pushed his arms under mine, and grabbed my breasts with both his hands. The surrounding men laughed.
When I returned to New Zealand from my India travels, I was walking down Karangahape Road in central Auckland with my brother and his girlfriend, at around four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. We stopped to help some tourists with directions, and I felt a hand slide down my backside and pinch me on the bottom. I still feel sick when I remember that slithering touch.
I yelled ‘Hey!’ and turned to my brother and said, ‘that guy just grabbed me.’ My face went bright red and, when he pulled out his phone to call the police, I dissolved into tears. I was ashamed.
Educated as I am about these issues, I still wonder, in my bad moments, what it is that I’m doing wrong. For a while, I harboured a theory that I was the ‘attainable’ version of pretty: sufficiently good-looking to be wanted in a small way but not beautiful enough to be intimidating or to be worth the hard work of getting to know before assaulting. I hate that I thought this about myself. I hate that there are some sexual acts I still cannot face, even with a trusted partner, because they reminds me of that first, horrific time. I hate that I have become afraid of ever losing control. I hate the guilt I feel for dressing nicely and getting male attention. I never allow myself to feel flattered because some small part of me still says that’s asking for it.
It is no wonder. The media is brimming with people holding up their hands and claiming to be blameless, simply speaking as they see it. In the midst of the backlash against her alcohol comments Freedman of Mamamia tweeted that the people responding most vehemently were those in their mid-twenties who wanted to deny the fact that binge-drinking leads to rape.
Rapists lead to rape. By saying anything different we only affirm that it is okay to rape a woman if she isn’t doing as she is told.
The truth is, I would prefer not to talk about the assault. I have left it behind and I am okay now. My brutal honesty about the way I view myself does not mean that the feeling is constant or that I suffer in some way. But I can no longer read these articles without responding. My anger is with a society that encourages rape culture through controversial media, uneducated statements, and legislative and legal structures that continue to let women down.
And, if speaking up gives others the strength to write to the people making these ignorant statements, then we can continue the fight. It’s important. It’s not something that happens everywhere else. It happens to us. It happened to me. The one thing I know is that it wasn’t my fault.
We need to stop talking like it was.
This piece was originally published in Overland Literary Journal and has been republished with the permission of the author.