By Megan Baker
It’s not something you actually think will happen to you. You live your day to day life in the comfort that it won’t happen to you. Someone else, but not you. And if it did happen to you, you would know what to do right? You’ve got enough information to know that you either fight, run or scream and in doing so, remove yourself successfully from the situation. Because that’s what we’re taught aren’t we? All of us, men and women alike.
And then it happens to you. And in those seconds, minutes and in my case hours, everything you have ever learnt, ever believed falls beneath you and fails you. I did fight, I did scream and I did try to run but it wasn’t enough.
Rape. The heaviness of this word when spoken makes most people feel uncomfortable and instantaneously on edge, and rightly so. It’s a vile, poisonous word. A very fitting description then for a vile and poisonous crime, one that is carried out every second of every day.
So what happens then, when it happens to you?
I, or what society would now call me a ‘survivor’ or ‘victim’, had to learn to navigate in this world with a new identity. Something so profound had happened to me, how could I be like I was before? How could I look at life, at people in the same way? It was through my frustration and in a lot of ways denial that I tried desperately to reclaim back who I was, undeterred, and unchanged by the violence I had suffered. And it worked, some of the time at least. Although the assault was the defining factor of my new identity, it was also the social pressure of my environment that contributed to this change. I was to be withdrawn, down cast, anxious, fearful and ashamed which of course, I did feel immensely at times. So it confused me when, at times I didn’t feel these things. I just felt like me. Because I was still me, only now something disgusting and evil had happened to me. But I was still my own person.
For a while, I tried to be all the things people wanted me to be, to live into their expectation of a ‘victim’ and to ease their guilt around the whole issue of sexual violence. But, as is trauma, it was exhausting. I wanted to speak openly, honestly and sometimes frankly about what had happened to me. I yearned for conversations that gave me space to speak about it which, from the overwhelming love and support of friends and family, I was given. But I wanted to take it further. I want to speak with other women who had experienced the same trauma (and please note, no rape or sexual assault is the same) to listen to their stories and I guess, upon reflection, share their pain.
I became obsessed with stories of rape, trying to find some clue within the stories that indicated the person’s recovery and coping mechanism. Late nights spent on my own, scrolling the internet, looking for answers, trying to measure my pain against others but ultimately looking for solidarity. Looking for validation that what I was feeling, which often was a feeling of being okay was in its own sense, okay.
It wasn’t until I met with other survivors that I had a moment of clarity. I joined a ten week peer support programme that brought other women together to share their experiences in a safe and confidential space. Yes, there were things that I didn’t necessarily rate about the group (not the people may I add more the format) but if you strip it back to its bare concept, it was a space for women to talk, to be, to feel and to listen. And honestly, there aren’t enough of these spaces in the world.
I found being around other women who I shared common ground with in relation to my assault incredibly powerful. I found that through supporting them, through acknowledging their pain, their emotions, validating their stories gave me a sense of empowerment far beyond anything I had felt before. Through supporting other women, I in turn was supporting myself. Telling other women that everything they were feeling was completely justified and valid, was reinforcing that message to myself.
It unleashed something that I decided to take further. I couldn’t shake this idea of creating a space for other women, women who might not be accessing professional support. With statistics showing that 85,000 women are raped every year in the UK and with a significant rise in cases being reported within Bristol in 2016, now more than ever we need more safe spaces for women to seek support. Spaces where women can talk honestly about their experiences of being a woman and their survival, with the focus that the space is led by themselves. So from this idea, Safe Space was formed. Alongside my friend Adibah, also a survivor but more importantly a woman looking for a space to call her own, we threw ourselves into finding a place, putting the word out there and in doing so, try to build a community of strong, empowered women, unapologetically taking up space.
It is early days but I am hopeful for the future of Safe Space. We are still figuring out where we fit in and how we carve a name for ourselves within the Bristol community but ultimately our focus is to provide women with an alternative outlet to heal after sexual violence and in doing so, empower themselves and others. We are living in delicate times and it is now more than ever we need to come together and recognise our strength.