As part of our week with Bristol Speak Out, Priyanka Poddar discusses the pressure she feels to be a ‘good rape victim’.
On the night of the elections, I saw him. I didn’t really see him, I know he would never care enough about student politics to turn up at the union, but I caught a triangle of someone’s curly hair, framed between shoulders and laughter, and that was enough. Suddenly he was there and I was there with him, this person with big eyes and small hands who I still feel on me sometimes. I am learning myself. I am learning that when my heart starts to beat faster and the sounds get very big (the voices were tearing my hair out) and the colours start to swim (the yellow was starting to stab) it is time to retire to a warm safe place, sleep to live another day. I left quietly. I tried to soothe myself with the blankness of the sky. The starless skies are strange colours here – navy blue school skirts and hazy stained purple and sometimes even red but never really black. Polluted waters that remind me of home. From here, I do not remember. I know I made it as far as the triangle. I know I could not go on any further. My legs stopped moving, my chest caved in and now he was everywhere, every figure had his curly hair and every pavement I could see was heavy with our ghosts. I remember a woman stopping to ask “Are you okay?” I remember floating away from my body. I remember curling up in a ball at the crossing because what was the fucking point anymore, my limbs were so heavy and I only wanted to stop for a while, and then some time later, a sedative slipped into me, prescribed for these “low moods”, they called it, and then the heaviness bludgeoned me to sleep and I was safe again, in every world but my own.
I joke a lot that when things go wrong, I like to tell myself it’s an art performance. Shout out to that time I got my period in the Medical Sciences library and had to walk home with a big red stain on my lace white dress all the way down Park Street but I didn’t care. I told myself it was a Feminist Art Performance about my Body In Society. Somewhere out there, some white chick who thinks ‘intersectional’ means briefly acknowledging non whiteness is probably doing the very same for a profit.
I’ve been thinking a lot about performance lately. I’ve been trying to write an article about being raped for months now. That beginning paragraph came easy to me; it was only about the aftermath. But when it comes to writing the rest, or more like the actual details, my fingers fumble. I haven’t been able to do much more than backspace. The pressure to write a nice neat chronological account to justify and prove that he is The Rapist and I am The Victim at every turn is overwhelming. I feel like every time I talk about being raped, I have to explain sexism, and victim blaming, and the mechanisms of manipulation and abuse, and what love really is, and oppression feeds abuse, and every every every every every flickering painful detail of every time he abused me, so that I cover all my bases. So no one can have the minute’s respite to think what I know some people inevitably will think – that it wasn’t really rape.
People demand such a clear delineation of good and bad when it comes to rape. We would rather entertain ourselves with this exaggerated, inaccurate understanding of what rape is (stranger, alley, muffled screaming, thrusting with sufficient DNA evidence left over) than admit that abuse is widespread and we do not know enough about love and consent. Sexual violence is rarely physically violent. It is more insidious than that. Abusers put a lot of time and effort into grooming their victims into believing that sexual abuse is normal, and what they deserve. This is reinforced by the kyriarchy – oppression lays the groundwork for abuse. But there is no acknowledgement of this emotional violence, this slow erosion of selfhood. Perhaps we are scared to admit it has happened to us. Or that we could be culpable. We readily swallow so many myths about what rape ‘really’ is and how victims ‘really’ behave that being a victim is essentially a performance, always making sure your audience doesn’t turn on you.
There’s a great article by Johanna Hevda called Sick Woman Theory which we should all read if we want to do more than pay lip service to disabled people in our activism. Essentially, much of social activism is inherently ableist. It demands performance. The social activism that seems to count is the one done in public – marches, protests, conferences, panel discussions, and the more subtle one, adopting the persona of a social activist through social media. These are all privileges. (The word ‘privilege’ has lost so much of its meaning but we’ll stick with it for now.) The privileges of physical and mental ability, education, access to the internet, time, energy and money. The privileges of not having children or others to care for. The freedom to leave work or education without fear of losing pay, being harassed, being suspended, being sacked, or suffering police brutality. The freedom to out oneself as a survivor of abuse or as someone with radical views. Freedom full stop. When we only acknowledge public acts of protest as powerful, we dismiss so many lives as apolitical. We need to start validating the simple fact of existence of marginalised people as the revolutionary act that it is. The personal is political.
I feel this immense pressure to be a good rape victim – someone who kicked and screamed throughout, someone who knew it was wrong throughout, someone who never loved her rapist, someone who called it rape from the very beginning. And I feel an even greater pressure to be a good rape survivor – someone who doesn’t get sad about it anymore. Someone who’s allowed to be angry as long as it’s a public performance wrapped up in the neat bows of inspiration and education.
But I am not a good rape victim. I said yes to my rapist many times. I did not fight my rapist. I did not leave him. I called him one of my best friends and gave him blowjobs instead. And I am not a good rape survivor. For a long time after I was raped I called it bad sex and joked about it soberly and only cried about it drunkenly. My (good) friends called it rape long before I did. It took me many months and many suicide attempts to move from “bad sex” to “wrong sex” to “manipulation” to “sexually abusive” before I could call it what it was. It has taken even more self education. Sometimes I still question myself. There are so many protests and panel discussions I cannot attend because loud places and bright lights and green carpets and curly hair make me think of him. There are so many words I want to write and ideas I want to spread about consent but cannot because I use most of my energy on sleeping, eating and showering these days.
But it is enough for me to survive in my own ways. I do not need to prove my rape with performance. Maybe I’ll finish that original article one day. It certainly won’t be the ‘true’ version. Not because it is untruthful, but because I do not need to wrestle the painful details from myself into one flawless, unquestionable account to justify being raped. And for now, I will not tear myself apart trying to teach people about abuse and oppression and consent. Those words are still shapeless in my mouth and I do not have to crack them open if they are not ready.
My private existence is a political act and I am a survivor of rape, whether I find the words to express it publicly or not. I am enough.
Illustrations by Priyanka Poddar
Things that have helped me a lot:
Excellent new friends. Silence isn’t support.
The Survivor’s Network. A new peer to peer support group at Bristol University, for survivors of sexual violence of all genders. We have fortnightly meetings, with cake and tea and arts and chats. Come as you are, if you want to talk, meet people, or simply be. My favourite thing about it is that I feel understood there. No need to perform. Email The.Survivors.Network1@gmail.com to find out about the place, date and time!
This amazing article.
This beautiful comic.
All photos by Chloë Maughan.