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August 05, 2016

39 Years Later: I Can Finally Say the Word

1977

The year I was assaulted, I would have described rape as an unexpected violent sexual attack by a stranger, in the dark, using a weapon or brute force, that left the victim bloody and bruised with torn clothes. Someone close to me had experienced that scenario, and even then had a hard time convincing the courts that she had not somehow allowed it to happen.

So how to feel about what happened to me? I had no scratches, no bruises, no skin under my fingernails from fighting back. My assailant was my new boyfriend, who told me he loved me, and I had willingly gone to his house after school to make out, for a second time.

The first time, he told me I was a “beautiful lady” and he wanted to “make love” to me. I was 14 and literally fresh from the farm. I told him that I was still a virgin and not nearly ready to go that far. He said it was fine, that he would wait patiently until I was ready.

The second time, we were on his couch after school, and again he tried to convince me. I had let him take my top off, but refused to remove my jeans. He promised he would stop anytime I wanted, so eventually I agreed to remove the jeans, but by then I was really uncomfortable and just wanted an excuse to leave. I said it was time for me to get home for dinner. I said I really didn’t want to have sex yet. I said I wasn’t ready. I pushed up on his chest to get him off of me, but when he refused to get off and started pulling off my panties, I knew he wasn’t going to let me go until he was done.

He knew I didn’t want to have sex. But he no longer cared.

I’ve always been afraid of making people angry, so when he continued to force himself on me, my reaction was to “go possum”, to become completely inert. I stopped speaking, I stopped moving. I remember lying still, hands clenched at my side, face turned to the wall, tears of anger and pain popping in my eyes.

As soon as he was done I got up and left. I didn’t tell my family when I got home; I felt shame and confusion that I hadn’t fought back. Later that night, I secretly buried my panties in the trash... I never wanted to wear them again. And the next day I had a friend break up with him for me. I didn’t want to ever see or speak to him again either. I don’t recall that he ever asked why. But of course, he knew.

That was long ago, and throughout the years I've rarely spoken of it, telling only a few trusted people in my life. And even then I struggled to use the word “rape”. I still burned with the injustice, with the anger and hurt, but couldn’t get past the shame that I had not fought like a tiger. The feeling that maybe I somehow allowed it to happen.

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2016

Until recently I had effectively pushed that memory away and got on with my life. I'm one of the lucky ones who has a good life filled with fiercely supportive family and friends, a partner who loves and respects me, and kids I'm prouder of every day.

Four years ago I joined Tugboat Group as a senior designer and my favourite client from that moment on has been Surrey Women's Centre. I immediately felt passionate and connected to the people and the work they're doing, and their core philosophy that women are not "victims" (a label that's all too hard to shake), but rather "survivors", who could use some support and options to make good choices for themselves to move forward. To be heard. To heal.

I never questioned why their work was so important to me. I thought it was because I was excited about the unique challenges of the small budgets, the design and messaging critical to their projects. Or because I am a woman, and many women I know have been assaulted, or abused, or harassed, or made to feel unsafe in countless daily ways. Or that I was raised by my parents to be a strong person who feels good about helping others.

But it wasn’t until after photographing the portraits for this year’s Faces of Courage campaign that I ever felt we were talking about “me”, and not “them”.

These stories were not all about dangerous strangers or abusive partners. These stories did not all have overt physical violence. One story, Anna's, was about her boyfriend, and the shame and confusion she felt about how she reacted to her rape. Suddenly, Surrey Women's Centre was about my own, purposely forgotten, experience.

I began to think back to my 14 year old self, and how I felt, and what I could do to help other young people struggling with the "legitimacy" of their own experience. I wanted to tell them that there is no gray. Sex without consent is rape. Period.

I decided to make a personal post on my social media, where (because I am a local fashion photographer) I'm followed by quite a few teenagers and young people. I felt it was important for me to tell them "only yes is yes". And in doing so, I also found a great deal of support for my own experience, which I realized still had the ability to make me cry, and feel shame, and the need to understand and explain why I didn't fight back all those years ago. Once again I agonized over what I could have done differently, how I could have stopped it.

In the end, I wish I could tell my 14 year old self she isn't the one who did something wrong. She was raped. And it wasn’t her fault.

It took someone else sharing their story for me to truly understand that.

I’d like to give a big #shoutout to my boss, Steve, at Tugboat Group, for being such a strong supporter of Surrey Women’s Centre, and for enabling all the work we do for them to be our very best - even when it goes well beyond the budget and brief. And also for his personal support of me in sharing my story with our client, and you, dear reader.

And finally, a #shoutout to Surrey Women’s Centre, and especially Anna and Melanie, for sharing their stories, and helping me to not just say the words, but feel the words “sex without consent is rape”.

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