Sarah Redrup, Bristol University’s Student Living Officer, discusses her own experiences as a survivor of rape and her new website The Living Project that aims to help survivors
TW: Rape and sexual assault
Two weeks before I started my AS levels, I was raped. Afterwards I took a very long and very emotional shower, I washed his smell out of my hair and brushed my teeth about five times. As soon as I stepped out onto the bathmat and stared at my face in the bathroom mirror, I stopped crying. I didn’t cry again for several months. Soon after that I began getting the best grades that I had ever achieved, I scored 100% in my Psychology January exam and scored nothing less than an A in everything I did. At college I was confident and focused, judging by my energy anyone would have thought that I really did have everything going for me.
Before coming to university the only times that I heard anyone talk about rape or sexual assault was either when they were making a joke, when it was being discussed in the news or if it formed part of a plotline on TV. Rapists were these mysterious predators, not a guy that you had GCSE History with. Survivors weren’t survivors, they were victims. They were curled up on hospital beds, or hugging their knees in a dark room like they were in some terrible stock photo on the top of a Guardian article.
Yes, I experienced serious emotional trauma and sometimes I did curl up on my bed crying, but the vast majority of the time I didn’t look like that at all. It was no wonder that I didn’t think anyone would believe me. Even now, there are very few people in the media and in the public conscious that are obvious examples of survivors rather than victims. Being a survivor of sexual violence is so much more than the initial act, the day after and the trial (if you manage to get one). It is often something you feel like you are for years. So, why don’t we see more about living after rape? Where are those stories?
What continues to amaze me is that there are just so many survivors of sexual violence but yet we seem to hardly ever interact with one another. Sometimes I wish that we walked around with massive signs so I can find you all and strike up a conversation. Up until this year my entire experience of dealing with that rape – and several other instances of sexual violence – has been characterised by clinical and secretive meetings with professionals.
One conversation with a man from Time to Change completely changed all that. He said that while he understands why it is often difficult for people to be open about their mental health, the stigma around mental health difficulties wouldn’t go away until it becomes normal to talk about it. To make that happen we need more people to talk about their experiences as if it was already normal. That really stuck with me. I realised that was exactly what I wanted from other people back during my A Levels, I wanted see someone talk about it without all the sensationalism and mystery.
So, I decided to start doing that. I told my friends, I wrote it all down on my blog and shared it widely on social media. If I was asked questions, I would answer them honestly and fully. Then I found that the more I spoke about it, the more that people I knew came forward and told me that they had experienced something similar. So far, the number has reached 13. For so long I had been so lonely, thinking that I didn’t know anyone else who would understand. Now it’s completely different, I can freely chat with survivors that I know about the everyday problems that inevitably crop up. We share tips and support one another, and the best thing is – it’s not weird at all.
There is so much that I’ve wanted to talk about for so long. I want to talk about how I still don’t know why I agreed to give him a hug the morning after. How Zelda logos, grey wool hats, long nails, the smell of cider and empty microwave dinner packets make me feel physically sick. How I regularly look at his Facebook page and wonder if he ever thinks about me. How despite it all I still love myself and nothing will change that.
This was my thinking behind setting up a blog called the The Living Project. I wanted a space where we as survivors can come together and talk about what it is like to live after sexual violence. One of the first submissions was from a woman who had never told anyone about her experiences. After she sent me her story, I replied to thank her for writing it as much of what she had said perfectly articulated my own thoughts. She was so grateful to hear that she wasn’t alone in feeling that way.
The act of sharing our story is an extremely powerful one. I’m inviting you all to share yours too.
The Living Project is a blog started by myself and my best friend. You can submit post to us either anonymously or with your name. www.thelivingprojectblog.wordpress.com
Illustration by Kate Dickinson