As part of our #Breakfree From Shame Week, we spoke to Sara* about her experiences of reporting sexual assault...
'Moving to London is supposed to be an exciting experience. It’s supposed to be the kind of thing that makes you glance at your reflection in a shop window – with your Starbucks in one hand, and your Bag Of Important Stuff in the other – and secretly want to high five yourself. It’s supposed to be your chance at Making It Big. Or at least, at Making It Work. Being happy, that is.
I moved to London in 2012 to do an MA in philosophy at Birkbeck university. It wasn’t my first time at university – I’d studied, and worked before. But my marriage hadn’t worked out, and after a lot of upheaval and soul searching, I left my husband and moved to the city. The last time I’d felt really happy, I’d been in London, so moving back made sense. I poured my savings into tuition fees – leaving just enough to rent a small flat in Hackney, above a popular East London pub. It was meant to be a fresh start.
The flat was basic, and there were a lot of problems with it, but it was mine. I didn’t have much money to decorate it, but I went to IKEA, and I bought myself a mug to drink coffee out of. For me, that’s what it takes to feel settled. Forget the heart – home is where my mug of coffee is. At night, I’d study while listening to the beat of the music downstairs, as crowds of people spilled out of the pub and into the street. Their laughter was my laughter. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
My flat was owned by the same people who ran the pub downstairs, so there was one guy who did all the odd jobs across the property .If the plumbing broke in my kitchen, I’d call him. If the electricity went, he’d come and fix it. I didn’t really know him, but I was told that he’d been working at the pub for a long time. One morning, I woke up and realised he was working on the terrace outside, without anybody warning me. The boiler had just broken, so I called him into the flat to fix the hot water. Then I realised I was running late for class, so I nipped into the shower, shutting the door behind me.
I can still remember the sound the door made as it was opened from the outside. I can still remember standing there, covered in soap suds and shampoo, when he approached me. I can still remember standing there, as he assaulted me. And I can still remember standing there as he turned and left. But I can’t remember if there were tears. The water from the shower made it hard to tell.
I do know that I didn’t scream. I said no, and asked him to stop, but I didn’t scream – I still think about that today. Then, when he left, I put on my clothes, and went to class. I think I thought that if I didn’t talk about it, I could pretend it didn’t happen.
Then, after my lecture, it hit me. ‘No way, this isn’t happening to me,’ I thought. I was suddenly so, so angry. I called the police, and they came to take a statement. But when I got home, he was still hanging around my flat.
I spoke to the landlady at the pub. ‘He’s dangerous,’ I told her. ‘You employ so many girls behind the bar.’ ‘If he was dangerous, then why didn’t he go after them?’ she replied. ‘They’re much prettier than you.’ She accused me of making the whole thing up to get out of paying rent. I’d already paid for that month, I said. She told me I was a liar.
The next day, the police took him in. But over the next month, they interrogated me. Why hadn’t I locked the door? Why hadn’t I run away? A few days after giving my statement, they rang me. Did I definitely want to press charges, they asked? ‘You see, he has a wife, and six children. The youngest one has just been born.’ It felt like they were implying that since he was clearly having sex with his wife, there was no need for him to be touching me. A few weeks later, they told me there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute him. It was just my word against his.
My studies suffered, and I fell into depression. I moved into Student Halls, but I had nothing. I’d left all of my furniture behind, and I was broke. My friends knew what had happened to me, but I couldn’t ask them for money.
I turned to my university GP for help. As a student, you’re entitled to free counselling, and within a week, I was referred to a therapist on campus. I thought emotional support would help me to move on. But the blame was still placed on me. ‘I’m just surprised you went for a shower while a strange man was in your flat,’ the counsellor said, looking confused. ‘I’d never do that.’ I looked at her – this educated, qualified woman, just like me. But I couldn’t find the words to tell her that she wasn’t being fair. That even if someone is naked, on a bed, in front of a man, he has no right to touch her without her permission.
Instead, I just left her office feeling ashamed. I felt ashamed that people didn’t think I was pretty enough to be assaulted. I felt ashamed that I hadn’t screamed, or called the police sooner. I felt ashamed of letting him into the flat in the first place. Looking back, it makes me angry – it’s always seen as the woman’s responsibility to cover her body, to protect herself from men, and that isn’t right – but at the time, I just felt embarrassed. It took me a week to build up the confidence to complain to my GP.
I’ve learned a lot over the last three years. I’ve learned that the world will try to break you down, but you can fight back. I’ve learned that you need to keep asking for help until you get it. And I’ve learned that somewhere out there, there is always somebody who will listen to you. It’s unfair that women have to seek it out, but it’s important to know it exists. For me, it was only when my GP gave me the phone number for Solace Women’s Aid that I felt like I was making any progress. They listened to me. They didn’t question me. They just listened. And then they supported me in moving house, in finding work, and in moving forward.
But the first thing Solace did, when I went to them for help, was to give me a mug.’
This piece is running as part of Marie Claire's #BREAKFREE from Shame campaign - get involved by tweeting us @marieclaireuk, and tell us what you want to #BREAKFREE from.
If you've been affected by this story, and want to contact Solace Women's Aid, you can visit their website or call 0808 802 556.