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Features

An irregular scar

Jane Christmas

Every year, an epidemic of rape goes unpunished in the UK. After coming to terms with her own traumatic rape, Jane Christmas believes it's time for the church to lead the way in changing culture and breaking a taboo that demeans us all.

In 1983, I had a job in the music business as manager of publicity. On the surface it looked like an entrée into the glittering arena of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, but drugs were never my scene, ditto for sexual promiscuity (I was married). I did, however, (and still do) like rock. Funny thing, the rock gods had the reputation for being sexual predators but it was, in fact, the suits in the music industry's offices who were the real wolves.

That year, the music industry's annual awards presentation was being held at a downtown Toronto hotel. Our company splashed out on rooms so that those of us in the marketing department could stay overnight at the hotel and reduce our risk of staggering home, or worse, driving home impaired after the celebrations. The company also shelled out for a glitzy post-awards reception in a hospitality suite. Around midnight, my mingling duties complete, I made my escape. The cocktail chatter was leveling off, and with the canapés out of the way it meant that the next course up would be a smorgasbord of drugs. Not wanting to be around for that, I slipped undetected from the party and made a bee-line for my hotel room. I got changed, packed my things for an early departure the next morning, and crawled into bed.

A few hours later, I was awakened by someone pounding on my door. It was a senior executive in our company, saying that he had to see me right away. As head of the company's publicity department my job was to put out media fires. Given the potential for drugfuelled shenanigans by my coworkers and our clients I wondered what catastrophe had occurred. Had someone overdosed? Had someone been busted? I flew to the door of my room, guided by the strip of light seeping from the hotel corridor beneath the door. As I inched open the door, the executive barged in, closed it quickly and engaged the lock. Without a word, he pushed me onto the bed, and raped me.

 

TRAUMA UNLEASHED

It was like being murdered: his heavy, sweaty body on top of me crushing my bones, my face turning from one side to the other to avoid his stale breath. I was too scared to scream; too overpowered to fight back. When it was finally over, when he had left the room, I staggered into the bathroom, ran the tub, and scrubbed myself like I was eradicating a disease.

At work the next day, I confronted the brute privately, but he callously shrugged it off, barely lifting his eyes from the paperwork in front of him.

I never told anyone about the rape. The work culture back then was anti women, and a complaint would have cost me my job and possibly landed me in the headlines. Memories of this repressive period resurfaced recently when stories came to light of the countless girls and women who feared blowing the whistle on the predatory rape-with-impunity attitude adopted by Jimmy Savile and others in the British entertainment business. Back then I didn't dare tell my parents, my then-husband, my friends, or the police: At the back of my mind I wondered whether people would have thought I had been asking for it.

 

REPRESSING PAIN

Over the ensuing decades, the memory of the rape stuck to my mind like a discarded wad of chewed gum. Therapy wasn't helpful. Nor was binge drinking or binge eating. Occasionally, the memory would rise up unexpectedly, and I would be forced to relive it over and over again. I sedated the shame, revulsion and tears by drinking wine until I passed out. A coping mechanism that proved more effective than the alcohol was that I absolutely refused to refer to myself, even privately, as a 'victim of rape' or a 'rape victim'. Once you label yourself a victim - of anything - your power starts to drain.

Gradually, I did what almost everyone with a shocking trauma does: I repressed it and hoped that if I could shove it just a bit further into my brain cavity it would (nearly) cease to affect me. It worked - for the most part. I raised three children, had interesting jobs in journalism and public relations, and presented myself as a happy, well-adjusted human being. The rape memory, meanwhile, simmered like a volcano beneath the surface of my emotions, sending up its sulphurous fumes from time to time as a reminder of what I was concealing.

 

BIBLE BASHED

When it comes to rape the Bible is not particularly helpful except in acknowledging that rape deserves punishment. Deuteronomy 22: 23-24, frequently cited as an indication of the utter hopelessness of Scripture, advocates stoning to death both the rapist (for violating his neighbour's betrothed or his wife) and the woman he raped (for not crying out for help). A few stanzas later, it asserts that the rapist marry the woman he raped, though it never says that a woman must agree to this union. Many did, of course: once a woman was defiled it was tough to find a man to marry her. The only other options available to her were prostitution and slavery. So we have women like Tamar (2 Samuel 13: 13-16), who chooses to marry her rapist, Amnon, to avoid social ostracism.

Society has shifted since then, thank goodness, and yet some things remain intractably unchanged. Social ostracism, for a start. When I wrote about my rape in And Then There Were Nuns1, it was the first time many of my family and closest friends became aware of it. Most were sympathetic, but a few struck me off their social list. Yes, it hurt, but it has made me wonder whether my experience inadvertently struck a traumatic nerve in those wrestling to keep their own abuse memories under wraps. It took me close to 30 years to speak up about my experience; some people are left mute forever, trapped in the trauma of rape.

 

VOCATIONAL HELP

My own road to recovery took an unusual route. A few years ago, I was living at a convent while discerning a religious vocation. A long way from the music business, but in hindsight perhaps that is what I was subconsciously seeking.

One day, during an exercise in the Ignatius method of prayer with my fellow wannabe nuns, the memory of the rape sprang up like a wild animal. It took me by complete surprise and left me red-faced with shame and a level of rage I hope never to experience again. The irony was not lost on me that while attempting to pass myself off as a clean and holy specimen to the nuns I was simultaneously smacking down a part of me that was dirty and damaged.

It took a few days to cool off, but when I did I fessed up to a couple of the nuns. They took me in their arms and confided to me their own stories of having been raped or suffering domestic abuse before they entered religious life. They gave me a safe place to cry and to talk about my pain, and then they gently re-launched me on my convent crawl.

Not that it was smooth sailing from then on; in fact, it was bloody uncomfortable. Staring down a trauma always is. What's more, my rape memory decided it wasn't going back into hibernation, it had decided to come along for the ride. It hijacked my discernment period until the difficult question wasn't whether I was going to become a nun but how to put to rest an episode that was still tormenting me after 30 years.

 

UNEASY SILENCE

At another convent, with a new set of nuns, I sat in uneasy silence for a long time. I tend to be a chatty type, especially when I am nervous about something, but these nuns weren't chatty. Their gift instead was absolute silence. Taking their cue, I grew into the silence and learned to wait patiently for the Voice Within. Since God's a bit of a low-talker, I also learned to listen, as St. Benedict advised, with the ear of my heart. In time, I mustered the courage to ask God how I could get to the root of the shame that festered inside me. The Voice Within told me to start with forgiveness.

It was a response that I hadn't expected, and it immediately put me on the defensive. With a head fullof righteous indignation I blurted: 'No way will I forgive that brute!' I dived into a rant to God about how the act of forgiveness doesn't always work in the real world - but He elbowed his way through my rage and said quietly: 'No, not him. Forgive yourself.' It was a startling revelation. My claws retracted, and I sat there, humbled and wide-eyed as a current of understanding passed through me: I had been gnawing on my own arm. I had been harsh with myself - but, curiously, not with my attacker - blaming myself for answering the hotel door, for not having the guts to go to the police, for being a mousy, timid fool. This new perspective, this contemplative forgiveness, slid into position, and sent the baggage I had carried for decades careening into the sidelines.

 

SCAR TISSUE

I won't ever call that moment 'healing'. 'Healing' is shorthand for 'get over it'. You don't heal from rape; you don't heal from any sort of trauma. Like a red-ridged, irregular scar, it fades in intensity, metamorphosing until it is simply one of many marks on your skin, distinct and yet indistinguishable from the other wounds your body has sustained. But if you have faith and you can turn off your own brain chatter long enough to be still and silent, then trauma can be transformed into lightness that makes the trauma bearable. The impact of self-forgiveness cannot be overstated.

Rape continues to be a taboo in every society. If it were spoken about with more punch and with more political and religious clout then it could be less a taboo and more a social monster that needs to be hacked once and for all. It would certainly help if the discourse around rape were not so rife with clichés and misinformation.

Several weeks back, a column in the Sunday Times left me feeling as if I had been dropped through a crack in the space-time continuum. The columnist was in a lather concerning the reaction to a women's issues commentator whose advice to young women was that they should not get drunk or wear skimpy clothing around men if they wanted to avoid getting raped. The columnist, who echoed these sentiments, admonished the great unwashed for rejecting the commentator's Pleistocene advice.

 

AVOIDANCE CULTURE

Comments or innuendo that suggest a woman who was raped was 'probably asking for it' cause a spine of anger to position itself in me, not because it is trite, but because it is wrong: the majority of women who are raped are not drunk or stoned, they don't wear skimpy clothing, and they don't walk the streets alone at midnight. That does not suggest for a moment, by the way, that women who are drunk, stoned, dressed skimpily, or are walking alone at midnight deserve to be raped.

By finger-wagging at women about dubious fashion sense and drinking habits, society makes the sexual urges of men the responsibility of women, handing men a free pass rather than teaching them that, yes, myriad urges bubble up in human beings but civilized humans learn to control those urges.

Our hypocrisy about rape is similarly displayed in the moral outrage we feel and express when we hear of horrific gang rapes in India or the rape of women and girls in African towns and villages by rebel armies; or the use of rape as punishment against a child in Afghanistan, or China, or wherever. We can afford to get angry about these stories when they happen far away, but when these stories come from our own country, indeed, literally from our own backyards, we become as silent as those who have been attacked.

In 2006, more than 85,000 women were raped in England and Wales - that's 230 rapes per day. That same year only 800 convictions were made, less than 1 per cent of every 100 rapes2. In 2011-2012, rapes in Scotland rose by a shocking 19 per cent3, and last year, Police Scotland reported that there were more rapes than robberies4. With more than 75 per cent of rapes being committed by acquaintances and family members, it is little wonder women are reluctant to speak up. Who has the courage to squeal on a family member or a work colleague? And yet, our silence about rape has caused an epidemic of neglect, which makes us just as guilty as the rapists.

 

CHANGING ATTITUDES

What to do? Well, two things need to happen.

The first is awareness and education using the strongest possible language and images; the sort that virtually changes the brain chemistry of the viewer. It needs to begin in the school system, and be reinforced vociferously in churches and in businesses. A tough, in-your-face advertising campaign has to be directed at boys and men, and the focus has to be on them alone. A survey by The Havens, a rape crisis centre, revealed that almost half of UK men between the age of 18 and 25 do not consider it rape to force a woman who has changed her mind to continue sex. Almost 1 in 4 men claimed that it wasn't rape even if a woman had said 'no' at the start. A further 1 in 4 would try to have sex with someone they knew was unwilling5.

With attitudes like this among young men, support services are swamped. 'Around 60 percent of the women and girls we're currently working with came to us about an incident that took place three or more years ago,' says Katie Russell of Rape Crisis England & Wales. 'Most of our member organizations receive some core funding through the Ministry of Justice but by no means enough to run a full Rape Crisis service and meet the level of need among women and girls.'

It is time for men to 'man up' and take responsibility for controlling themselves. Each day another sickening rape story bubbles up from the headlines to remind us that 'civilized society' remains a theory rather than a practice. It will remain so if our attitude toward rape is simply to hope the problem solves itself.

And so blunt, pervasive ads need to be placed outside and inside buses and in bus shelters, in print media, in men's magazines, in movie trailers, in TV commercial breaks, at sporting events, all of it driving home the message that rape is barbaric, unacceptable, and that it carries a heavy jail sentence. Such ads need to change the thinking on rape so that the focus isn't on the clothes that a woman wears but on the crime that a man commits. It has to be backed up with dedicated political clout augmented by a vigilant, transparent system to monitor and report results. You have to get serious about this and tackle it with military-like force if you are to achieve lasting results.

 

ENTER THE FRAY

Secondly, the Church has to enter the fray with all the passion it can muster. When I say 'the Church' I mean every faith and every denomination.

Churches have been barking on about social justicefor years but have tip-toed around rape. Rape is messy for the Church: convents, monasteries and churches are no strangers to sexual exploitation. And yet, what a humbling exercise for the Church to take up; not just for the broader social and moral implications, but as a demonstration of its atonement for the horrendous rapes and abuses of power and discrimination its own clergy have committed over the years. Churches are where the broken people are drawn, and that lot includes priests, nuns, and monks.

As mentioned earlier, the Bible also makes rape messy for the Church. I confess that I ignore the way rape is handled in the Bible in the same way that I ignore other odious sections of it. I take Augustine of Hippo's advice that people should not read Genesis literally and extend it to include large swaths of the Bible. It doesn't in any way diminish my respect and love for God or for Jesus. Most priests today are sensitive about certain Biblical passages and remind their flock that much of the Bible is very much of its time.

That said, the Church has been a disappointment to people who have been raped by not proactively reaching out to them, and offering spiritual sanctuary. Many priests are tremendously gifted in offering comfort to the bereaved, but their gifts are underutilized. (Nuns and monks, by the way, are extraordinary gifted in the art of compassionate listening, and they are another underutilized and underappreciated source of support.) By joining the campaign to end rape - not the rape that happens in other countries but the rape that happens right here in the UK - the Church can extend its reach in local communities and start restoring and rebuilding its reputation. If it feels too squeamish about taking on rape as a social justice issue then it might as well sign its own declaration of irrelevance.

This month, a summit aimed at preventing sexual violence in wars will have the celebrity-studded backing of William Hague and Angelina Jolie to raise the plight of men who have been raped in war. It will undoubtedly receive a ton of media coverage about problems 'over there', once more conveniently, deftly deflecting attention away from the rape wreckage on our own turf - the 85,000 lives that are shattered each year in a peaceful land.

 

NOTES

1 Christmas, J: And Then There Were Nuns (2014, Lion Hudson)

2 http://www.rapecrisis.org.uk/Statistics2.php

3 http://www.rapecrisisscotland.org.uk/news/newscottish- government-statistics-on-sexual-crimes/

4 http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/crime-courts/ reports-of-rape-have-become-more-common-thanrobbery- say-police-scotland.1381391552

5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_statistics