My Pursuit of Justice After Sexual Abuse
Warning: This article contains sensitive content regarding sexual abuse and assault that may be triggering for some readers.
Since I was a little girl, I hated hospitals. That sterile smell of rubbing alcohol and those cold laminated floors made me want to scream. This day was no different. Lying on a hospital bed, rolled out paper crinkling beneath my naked body, I felt like a piece of raw meat on parchment waiting to be inspected. “Are you ready?” The nurse asked from behind the curtain. Ready for what? I thought. Why the hell am I here? I want to go home. Muzzling my frustration, I answered as plainly as I could. “Yup.” Just loud enough to deliver an affirmative, but apathetic enough to avoid another gnawing probe of ‘How are you feeling?’ What ensued was a series of invasive pokes and swabs, a strangers’ niceties and warnings about tool temperature and pressure, and a disparaging strobe of camera flashes – stark and incriminating. Like mug shots capturing all that was guilty and shameful. I was completely exposed with a rape kit underway. I had absolutely every justifiable reason to feel uncomfortable, to kick and scream if I wanted. But, I laid still, mostly embarrassed that I hadn’t shaved my legs.
Not long after midnight on April 17th, 2015, I called the Brighton Police Station at the insistence of my then girlfriend to report that I had been sexually assaulted the night before. I had been in England for nearly a year at the time of the incident working toward my Masters in Gender and International Development. It was a program that demanded great sensitivity to global women’s issues from extreme poverty to honor killings and gang rape. I was outraged by the atrocities I learned and zealous in my advocacy. Yet, the enduring irony of it all was that when it came to me and standing up for my rights, I just as soon disappear into a dark hole than acknowledge my victimhood. When I reported, I felt like a flagrant imposter and cheat – wasting valuable time and resources better spent on real victims — all to sheepishly avoid a breakup. After all, it was my decision to stay out late and overindulge; to get so drunk that I became an easy target…and cheater. Right?
In the months that followed, I invested myself in the case, in part, as a disassociated person doing what I was told I needed to do. I was a willing participant insofar as I told the truth about everything I remembered from that night and I really challenged myself to remember more. I even spent my evenings trying to retrace my steps from his apartment. But my pursuit of justice never really felt genuine, like anything would ever actually come of my efforts. I never considered how that all might change if a suspect was actually identified and questioned.
“We Found Him”
Then, one sunny day, everything I thought I had shoved so safely to the back of my mind came rushing forward. “We found him,” the detective told me. Everything suddenly began to feel real. Validated. Possible. “See? He does exist!” I wanted to scream. But just as quickly as I began to see things differently, the rug was jerked out from under me with two words. “Totally consensual.” That’s what the man was claiming. Two words. That’s all he needed to say to exonerate himself from taking advantage of a woman who couldn’t stand. Two words to return the heat lamps on me and scrutinize my character and credibility. And most heart-breaking of all, it took two words to break my spirit and reinforce the cultural script in my mind that I let it happen.
It was my word against his and I was painted as the nameless, belligerent and flirty woman that clearly sent the invitation. It wasn’t long until I believed that, too. It took me back where I started thinking that my coming forward and reporting was just a desperate, shameful attempt to somehow rectify my bad behavior. By the time the detective shot back with the final decision of whether or not the case was strong enough to be tried, I didn’t have an ounce of fight in me. “It comes down to this…” He told me. “…You appear on the cctv to be talking to other men at the bar, and flirting, which is in contrast to your claim that you are gay and in a relationship. For these reasons, you do not appear credible. No case.” And with that, I felt oddly relieved. As if somehow pardoned from the painstaking experience of proving my victimhood — something I didn’t even entirely believe myself.
My heart breaks looking back at my 24-year-old self trying to claw her way through a cacophony of a rape investigation, so encumbered with shame and denial. It would take that young woman several months to realize she did nothing wrong that night, three years to acknowledge she was also blameless as a child, almost four years to say aloud, “I was raped”, and four years, nine months and ten days to tell her story — finally believing that she is worth the pursuit of justice.
For years, I battled cause and effect in my mind, interrogating myself about what had happened. The wolf on one shoulder would snarl, “If you were innocent, why were you so quick to shower afterwards? And why did you wait the whole day to report?” And much softer on my other shoulder, the other wolf would whisper: “Michaela, it’s painful, but you do remember.” And for one short illusory moment, I would suddenly be in that dark room again asking myself all the questions. Where am I? How did I get here? …Who the hell is this? I would be sent back to a moment where I have no memory of the night before. But what an intoxicated mind may forget, a woman’s body remembers. And from the pain I felt and where I felt it — I would have never consented to that, ever. I scramble to find my jeans unusually pulled inside-out and leave as quickly as possible. I knew what had happened to me, but just as the story goes, the wolf that wins is the one you feed. And so, I came out of my battle dirty and bruised and guilty every time…that is, until now.
It wasn’t alcohol that lurked in the corners of that busy night club preying on me for over two hours, as caught on camera. It wasn’t alcohol that decided to pounce once I was alone and stumbling toward the door. It wasn’t alcohol that maliciously took me to some apartment when I should have been taken home. Alcohol didn’t pull off my jeans when I was unconscious. Alcohol didn’t rape me.
Enough is Enough
I’ve heard people scoff and roll their eyes at the mention of #MeToo, as if nauseated by how its usage has become commonplace. A joke in the workplace, a humorous quip or bookend in social settings. “Hashtag Me Too, am I right?” They’ll joke and everyone will laugh. What a world we live in to see this complete proliferation of rape culture so joyously supported. And yet, I wonder. Would things change if more people knew the details of the victims’ experience? Of someone close to them? It’s simple math, really. Look around and start counting. More than one in three women and nearly one in four men have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives. More jarring is the fact that a woman is forcibly raped every second in America.
All too often, these victims are hidden bodies in a world where very few consider, let alone understand, their compulsions or fears of coming forward. Walking around in grave clothes, carrying all the residual effects of trauma and its relentless grip on selfhood, autonomy, and hope.
I know, too well, the struggle of trying to find justice and of seeing it slip away. My abusers have never apologized to me, nor have they served any restitution. It’s a hole that was never filled, and something I have carried around for years. Justice looks different for every survivor and I deeply respect and honor that. In the absence of my own personal experience of justice — acknowledgement and apology — I hold onto my work. I hold onto the fact that I am privileged everyday to work toward creating possibilities for others to find justice and healing.
For me, healing has come through the opportunity, with support around me, to speak my truth to power. In writing my story, something has shifted. In sharing, I can take back the power that was stolen from me all those years ago.
I have worked for eight years in pursuit of transforming our society’s response to gender issues around the world, including sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse — the past year dedicated to understanding my own struggle and also making a slight and deliberate turn in my career toward victim assistance. I know that this dogged pursuit goes all the way back to my five-year-old self witnessing my mother being abused and then gradually normalizing it. I also see a nine-year-old girl being egregiously robbed of her innocence by a trusted adult, a plight that would go on to shape her thinking patterns and judgement about men and sex for years, making her particularly protective over her right to love whoever she wants despite the abuse. I see that little girl so vividly — bright, full of promise, a light not to be extinguished. And I think about the very real possibility that there have been so many others as well.
For All Who Are Silenced
I hold close all those who are physically, emotionally, verbally or sexually abused or assaulted every day by someone they know, love or trust, or at the hands of total strangers. This story is for all of you. So that you may relate, so that you may feel emboldened to seek your own justice and healing. While we may be wounded, we are not broken. They did not ruin us. We cannot undo what has been done to us and to millions of others in this country, but we can change it for future generations. We can lift the shame and stigma that survivors are so undeservingly burdened with. We can hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes rather than making excuses for their actions. We can create opportunities for survivors to heal and reclaim their sexualities, their bodies, and their lives. This, I know in my heart.
We needed to start believing victims yesterday.
Believing is not simply the absence of doubt, but about taking a proactive stand against sexual violence and injustice, and working to repair the harm. To educate ourselves and to nurture compassion. For too long, we have relied on those who have experienced violence to be the brave ones to speak out, stand up and fire back. It’s time now for the rest of our society to become the torch bearers – to sustain the fire – and to keep firing on all cylinders. Changing the culture requires fearlessness. Tenacity. And you.
SIGN THE PETITION
Click here to sign a petition to improve rape investigation conduct and victim assistance programs in Brighton, UK with the goal of improving these issues globally. We must start by aiming at the eye of the sparrow. Thank you for your continued support and love to make gender-based violence UNACCEPTABLE.
Michaela Partridge is a feminist campaigner, writer and creative consultant working to advance gender equality by combining her life-long passions – human rights and visual arts. She has a Bachelor’s in Art and Religion from Syracuse University in New York and a Master’s in Gender and Development from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. To view her latest projects, click here.