EXTRACT | When Secrets Become Stories: 'Maybe it was my fault' - My experience with gender-based violence

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When Secrets Become
When Secrets Become Stories

Please note: The following extract contains content that references rape, gender-based violence and assault.

In the book When Secrets Become Stories - Women Speak Out, women across South Africa wrote essays to share how chillingly common male violence against women is. Edited by Sukoluhle "Sue" Nyathi, the book contains contributions by Lorraine Sithole, Desiree-Anne Martin, UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Shafinaaz Hassim, Cathy Park-Kelly and Olivia Jasriel. In the extract below Robyn Porteous details her experience with gender-based violence. 

Because at the time, I told myself it's not that bad. Because sometimes I still do.

Because by that age, I'd already been told the stories about how you couldn't trust the police to do what they are supposed to. Because by that age, I already knew two girls who'd been assaulted by police officers - the same police officers who'd sworn to serve and protect, not to rape and molest. Because by that age, the one thing I'd never felt in the company of a police officer was safe. Because there were those who would have said, "What else did you expect?"

Those who would have insisted that I was asking for it; those who'd have believed it, by virtue of my being a woman in whatever I was wearing ("A T-shirt and jeans?"). That my proximity to alcohol and people drinking ("Not even a single drink?") would have somehow clouded my judgement.

That I had willingly gone to his house at his invitation ("You'd wanted to see him, though?"). That I had secretly hoped that he might even like me the same way I liked him ("You said you kissed him back the first time he tried?"). That somehow, I had asked for it ("But you didn't fight back; you didn't scream?").

Because at first, I was excited. He was the most popular boy at his school; living, breathing, dreamy proof of why the cliché of the head boy who plays first-team rugby and gets 10 As in matric even exists. Because he did. I felt awkward and dorky and could not believe he'd even noticed me or that he knew my name when he asked for my number on the last day of the advanced extra maths classes we'd both attended in matric.

I waited anxiously for weeks to hear from him. By the time I finally did, I had almost given up hope that I ever would. When he called, my heart nearly exploded at the sound of his voice. When he'd asked if I wanted to see him, I didn't think twice before blurting out a loud and decisive "yes". Because I couldn't believe my luck.

It sounds naïve, but I never thought it would happen to me. My friends and I had talked about it, and other things, during sleepovers at one another's houses. Long conversations that carried well into the night, speculating about all of life's what ifs. I'd said I'd survive whatever came my way, that I'd be fine no matter what the world threw at me - to this day, don't know where that idea came from, or why. Because I flirted with him … a lot.

He was tall and had a smile that flushed my cheeks into hues of crimson and, while everyone around us drank or smoked weed or went off to hook up, we played foosball. Often it was just the two of us, and we were laughing and the music was good and nothing else mattered. Because I was happy just to be near him.

When it eventually came time to leave, I couldn't find my friend and he offered to help me look for her and I shyly said yes. As we walked through the garden, him trailing slightly behind, he took my hand and pulled me back into his arms and we kissed for the first time. And even when I look back on it now, I have to admit that it was the sweetest first kiss I'd ever had, under a starry night sky, and I didn't want it to stop, even when it did.

After a few moments (moments that quite literally took my breath away), I turned my mouth away from his and freed my body from his grip and returned to the search for my friend with a wistful smile on my face and this feeling of disbelief at how perfectly the night had gone. Because so rarely does reality give you what you want. And - as I was soon to learn - the truth is that it almost never does.

With what I now understand to be intent, he followed. After a minute, he drew near and kissed me again, his lips pressing harder against mine, and his body drawing more near, as his hands began to wander here and there; to explore beyond the boundary of where my clothing met my skin. Slightly startled, I pulled away - and I laughed, shrugging myself free from his grip again and telling him that I really needed to find my friend and go. Because I laughed instead of saying no.

When we got back to the house, I told him I was going inside to look for my friend and he hugged me like I was saying goodbye and whispered in my ear about the "sweet sorrow" of parting and I grinned because I'm really that girl who likes those boys who quote Shakespeare. And when I went to search upstairs, our eyes met once more as he stood at the bottom looking up, and my heart skipped a beat at the thought that this was the start of something more.

As I checked each room, I hadn't heard his footsteps on the stairs behind me and the realisation of his presence arrived too late. I felt his fingers tightly grip my shoulders and a sharp pain beneath my collar bone where he'd dug his nails in, as he shoved me onto the bed and the door swung shut behind him. Because I try not to think about the rest.

If you asked me today to tell you just how many times I said no to what took place in that room, I would have to admit that I lost count; and that I still carry doubt whether I said it out loud or simply repeated it over and over in my head. And there are those who like to believe that saying it at the right time in the right tone would make all the difference - that we live in a world where whispering it once is enough. Because we don't. Because it isn't.

Over time, in my fight to survive, my mind chose to recall the posters on the bedroom wall more vividly than the pain or the motion or his grunts in my ear. But if I stop for even a second and really try to recall, it begins to come back again and I don't know what to do with it - even after all these years.

When I got out of that room, my mind was reeling as I frantically drove my friend home. And when she closed the gate behind her, I cried because I hadn't said anything to her. I couldn't. And when I finally got home, I felt a scream start to build in my throat, but I stifled it with my hands held tight against my mouth, painfully aware that my parents and siblings were all sleeping.

Without a moment's thought about the evidence or the case or the crime I'd wash away, I immersed myself in the hottest bath I could handle without blistering my skin. And I told myself over and over again that what had happened hadn't really happened because those things didn't happen, not with Nice Guys like him.

A few weeks later, when I saw him at a street party on campus, I tried to smile when he looked my way. Yet I couldn't breathe because the sight of his face felt like a punch in the gut and I thought I might throw up. Later that night, as I drank myself into a self-destructive stupor and danced into a mindless oblivion with my friends, he came up behind me and picked me up in his arms and I screamed loudly as I struggled free from his embrace. Even the DJ heard me and the music stopped. Only then did he let go, and I ran as far and fast as I could, and threw up in the alley.

I'm still ashamed to admit it, but it took me four years to finally find the words to say what I needed to say and, when I finally did, my body and my mind completely shut down. And after two weeks of my parents peeping their heads around the door to check in on me as I slept for 20 hours a day, and lay in bed for the other four, they decided to take me to a psychologist who confirmed: "This is all completely normal", for an 18-year-old who has been raped and is suffering from PTSD. Because none of this should ever be called normal.

Even though I know they meant well, when I told my parents, one of the first things they asked was why I hadn't fought harder. Why had it taken me so long to tell them? And when I told my brother, words failed him and he turned around and walked away, right out of the room, as I stared after him, desperate, drowning, suffocating in the silence that had taken four years to break. We still haven't spoken about it since. Because when your child tells you she was raped, are there such things as the right words to say?

Their reaction, without their intending it, made me feel like maybe it wasn't that bad. That maybe it really was my fault, and that maybe, just maybe, I had been overreacting all this time. That maybe I was forcing myself to feel too much pain for far too long. But - but if it wasn't that bad, why had every minute ever since felt like I was dying inside? 

- This is an extract of When Secrets Become Stories - Women Speak Out, edited by Sukoluhle "Sue" Nyathi and published by Jonathan Ball Publishers. 

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