Voices: It took me a long time to call my assault by the name it merits – rape

·5-min read
‘I haven’t talked about my assault until now, because I felt ashamed’  (Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)
‘I haven’t talked about my assault until now, because I felt ashamed’ (Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s been 16 years since I was raped by a man I trusted, a man I met through my journalism, who I later befriended socially. I have never mentioned his name publicly. But I have replayed the moments that led to the assault. I have found myself asking what I should have done differently, and I have blamed myself.

It took me a long time to call this assault by the name it merits: rape. It took me a long time to accept that despite the fact that I had previously agreed to sex with him, this subsequent – non-consensual – occasion was rape. It took me a long time to piece together my memories of what happened in that man’s apartment.

It also took me a long time to realise that many of the subsequent traumas I experienced personally and professionally stemmed from the decisions I made as I tried to come to terms with what had been done to me.

Today marks the International Day to End Violence Against Women and Girls, or White Ribbon Day, and I know I’m not alone in experiencing the shame and stigma of sexual assault, or in being judged for what I did or didn’t do. I, like so many others, have been told I should modify my behaviours to mitigate someone else’s abusive choices.

During the pandemic, I was fortunate to have remote therapy, and my therapist helped me carefully relive my experiences. By writing them down, I was able to piece together that day and the preceding events. I was able to see that the man who raped me manipulated me from our very first meeting, and I was able to better understand how the culture of the career I love conditioned me to accept certain types of behaviour that I now know are not healthy or acceptable.

For a long time, I didn’t talk about my assault, because I felt ashamed. But now I find myself being able to speak about my experiences and working to support other journalists who have suffered gender-based violence and trauma.

Almost 10 years ago, I co-authored ‘No Woman’s Land – On the Frontlines with Female Journalists’, a collection of stories written by almost 40 female colleagues from around the world – the first book dedicated to the safety of women journalists.

The catalyst for that book was the horrific attack on journalist Lara Logan in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – which opened a new chapter in conversations about women working as journalists on frontlines. I’ve seen discourse descend into victim-blaming; a sense that women were somehow responsible for solving a problem they didn’t create. I’ve seen women treated as a liability if something happened to them.

A decade later and some things have changed – but not enough. Whether it’s online harassment, in newsrooms or in the field, women journalists are still at risk – and often wrongly blamed for the sexual violence they suffer.

As the #MeToo movement gained momentum a few years ago, I found myself chairing panels on gendered violence in the media and writing extensively about it, still not able to share my own story. But there came a stage where I realised that I couldn’t stay silent. I wanted to celebrate the bravery of the women who shared their experiences, and tell them my story – to reveal that I, too, struggled with shame and a sense of isolation.

Around this time, I started to experience symptoms which I know now were a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). My rape fed into a complex web of experiences that left me unable to sleep, or tormented by nightmares and flashbacks. I was irritable, angry, overusing alcohol – and I found it hard to focus.

It was tough for those I loved to understand what I had been through, and how my body and brain were reacting. It still is. For me personally, it was hard to separate the intimacy of love-making with something I associated with pain and power. I still suffer from a loss of libido – but it is such a taboo that I have never before admitted it.

At work, I was able to put on a mask despite my private suffering – an irony that hasn’t been lost on me, since I was running a journalism safety charity.

I remember distinctly the day I considered taking my life, and came close to doing so. I was terrified, desperate to end the pain for me and my family. I haven’t written about this before, but I feel it’s important to tackle the taboos around suicide and suicidal ideation. That was the day I realised I needed to get help, and I finally did, with the support of some of those closest to me: beginning the long, non-linear road to recovery.

I realised I needed to find a different way to work, to channel my expertise and experiences, and to manage my mental health. I began a new career as a media consultant specialising in safety and mental health – and writing part time.

I launched a network to promote more open conversations about mental health in the media. I wrote a memoir about my experiences which has been shortlisted for a major prize. We moved somewhere cheaper so there was less pressure on me to be the breadwinner. I was lucky. I found respite through running, writing and speaking about my experiences, supported by people who loved me – even if they didn’t understand me sometimes.

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I decided to share my story because I want others to know they are not alone – and that recovery is possible with the right help and support. It wasn’t easy; it still isn’t – but through talking, we can support each other.

I’m still not prepared to name the man who raped me, though I know his abuse was entirely wrong. But I am not confident enough in our judicial process – or society at large and on social media – to believe I wouldn’t be questioned, blamed and attacked. I remain unconvinced that naming him would help in any way. I hope there will come a day when this will be different.

For now, I have made a choice for this story to be mine. My history is much more than his story. And he can’t take that away from me.

Hannah Storm is a media consultant, trainer, author and speaker, specialising in journalism safety, online harassment and mental health. She is the founder of Headlines Network, which works to promote more open conversations around mental health in the media

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