A few months ago, my friend told me she had been raped. She thought I wouldn’t believe her.
Her boyfriend was liked by her friends, he got her a job, he told her he loved her – and then the next bit of the narrative didn’t fit – he raped her. She had said no. He had put a condom on and had sex with her anyway. Her body froze, she wasn’t really sure what was going on.
Then it was over. No one said anything.
She couldn’t forget it, and she didn’t know why. But it kept replaying in her head over and over again.
Over the months, as I listened to her, I realised that her own experience had been far more difficult than mine.
Initially, it may not seem that way. Mine was incredibly violent, it left me with scarring, flashbacks, and physical damage. Hers didn’t, but instead she was labelled a liar, she felt “a fraud”, and there was no evidence.
For Bella, there was no validation. “It wasn’t gory, there was no blood, there was nothing,” she told me. People asked her – did it really happen? Was she sure?
“It didn’t look like rape, we looked like a happy couple, even afterwards. I was really confused and a little bit scared of him, but people would tell me we looked perfect together. It didn’t look like a rape scene. It was my bedroom. I was the one who turned the light off. But I didn’t want that.”
That’s why I decided to interview her. Because, bizarrely, my violent rape gave me a voice – no body could deny my experience. But for Bella, the lack of violence took her voice away – was she really telling the truth?
“I’m jealous of that physical proof,” she said. “Which sounds like a really terrible thing to say, but there were no accusations that you had hysterically made anything up. You can look in the mirror and check, and say ‘Yes, I was raped.’
Physically, maybe I had it worse. Mentally, I think she did. That’s just my opinion. Bella struggled, in her head, in a way I didn’t have to.
“I became obsessive about analysing it. I would play it in my head dozens of times every day, because I thought I might figure it out.”
Bella told no one, she went to work in the morning. But the following day she wrote about it in her diary. Part of the diary entry read: “I’m so confused. I feel so messed up. What the hell?”
A few days after that she saw him again.
“He told me he wanted to break up with me, because he didn’t want to be with someone who didn’t want to have sex with him. He said having sex with me, had been like having sex with a dog, because I was just lying there.
“Now, speaking about it, I can see that it was like having sex with a dog, precisely because a dog wouldn’t want it. I thought I was in love with him, I didn’t want him to break up with me, because before that I had become dependent on him. So, I was the one who begged him not to break up with me.
“My confidence was really low at the time because for months before he had kept saying that I wasn’t a typically attractive woman that anyone would want to be with. Afterwards, I was desperate for him not to break up with me, I was so dependent. So we had consexual sex after that conversation, because I felt like I had to.
“Then I thought: ‘He can’t have raped me, because what sort of woman begs her rapist to stay with her and then has sex with him again?’
This happened in April last year. She knows she needs support, but says she could not turn to a Rape Crisis Centre because it would feel like she was “taking up space.”
There are 39 Rape Crisis Centres in England and Wales, with four in London. They offer individual counselling, group support, and a freephone helpline that runs every day of the week. The centres make clear that they work with all women and girls who have experienced any form of sexual violence – regardless of the level of obvious violence involved.
“I’d feel guilty, I’d feel like I was taking away from women like you. I feel like the counsellors might chuck me out and say ‘This is for women who have really been raped, you are so deluded if you think you need our services.’
But, that level of confusion, the doubts – I didn’t have to deal with any of that.
At least, I knew I had been raped.
Bella said: “I would be scared of group therapy, in case all the other women there had violent experiences. They’d think I was a wimp.”
Ironically, I remember holding details back because I thought all the other women in my group would have less violent experiences. I was scared of triggering anybody into feeling worse, or traumatising them further.
We were both scared of talking about it, but for different reasons. For Bella, she was worried it wasn’t dramatic enough to talk about. Whereas, I remember wanting to protect others from the details, in case it added to their pain.
It’s worth noting that during group therapy I recall many women not wanting to give details, because it wasn’t necessary for them to move forward. They simply spoke about their feelings. When I finally opened up, I didn’t traumatise anybody like I feared. In fact the outpouring of support held me so strongly, it kept me moving forward.
“I feel like a fraud, a failure,” Bella said. “Because in some people’s eyes it’s not the perfect rape. It’ll never be real rape. There was no dark alleyway, no stranger, no weapon, no blood, no damage to my body.”
I told her I felt a fraud too, because in some people’s eyes physical damage means I’ll never be a real woman again.
We can’t win.