Love and connection, after sexual violence – it doesn’t come easily.
I heard it best said in Netflix expose ‘Athlete A’ when a lead journalist commented, “He took away these girl’s ability to love and be loved.“
I remember when I was at the height of my PTSD – and I couldn’t stand physical or emotional intimacy with anyone I cared about. I told the man I loved that I knew he hadn’t done anything to hurt me, but I couldn’t bare the touch of his hand on mine, or gentle hugs, or a kiss on the cheek. Each time he reached out, I recoiled and was flooded with memories that exploded in vivid detail and sensation – I relived the violations over, and over, and over again with every slight touch or hint of intimacy.
These days, with the help and support of a team of people both formally and informally, we’ve navigated our way through the confusing, painful, vulnerable, shameful ‘rollercoaster’ of recovery. It hasn’t been easy.
There have been many times where we were both exhausted, burned out, and wanted to quit and walk away.
But we chose each other, time and time again.
Each time we came back a little stronger, and a little closer.
Eventually I could hold his hand, without the flashbacks.
Then, I could allow a brief hug.
With time, the hugs became longer, and more heartfelt.
We spent many nights together, just holding each other and letting the waves of emotion run through – tears, grief, anger, horror, helplessness.
Now, I hold his hand, kiss his cheek and each day we tell each other that we love each other. It’s taken gruelling hard work, with many long discussions, big questions, soul searching, and support from our friends, family and therapists.
But we’re here.
It’s possible to regain the capacity to love, and be loved in return. It’s not easy even now to allow love in for me, it’s a choice I make every day – and in honesty I sometimes forget that and fall into a slump.
But it’s possible.
You don’t have to go without love.
You ARE loved.
You ARE loveable.
What happened to you, doesn’t change those things.
Sexual violence and it’s prosecution in Australia remain a taboo – so much so, that as a collective society we are ill-equipped to properly prosecute and resource survivors adequately. Part of the reason why sexual crime remains an ‘unspeakable’ topic, is because the nature of sexual offending relies on a heavily imbalanced power dynamic.
At a minimum, this looks like a disparity in physical strength between the survivor and offender. At its most nuanced, it includes the emotional and psychological grooming and manipulation between the offender and survivor (especially if the offender is an adult and survivor a child/minor). For sexual violence to thrive as it does in Australia, it relies on the offender using their power to keep their victims silent – with threats of harm to themselves or their loved ones, or harm to their career. It also relies on grooming the victim to believe that they have not been abused, or violated – that what happened was normal, natural, but still a secret that can’t be shared.
No profession, class, or other demographic is immune from sexual predation because it thrives wherever an imbalance of power exists – and in a deeply patriarchal culture like ours, should we really be so surprised that even a High Court Justice is renown in professional circles for their abhorrent behavior?
No, we should expect this.
In a culture that celebrates the physical strength and prowess of men, and idolizes toxic ideals of manhood, we cannot claim to be shocked or surprised by stories of men in power abusing their position for their own gratification – doing so is to willfully ignore the problem, and by default, marks you as complicit in the power-abuse dynamic of our culture.
We are consistently seeing stories of men in power and authority who abuse their position – from NRL players, singers and politicians, we have seen a constant succession of men behaving violently towards women. Too many for us, the public, to hold a pretense of ignorance and facade of shock.
If we want real change to happen, those in the highest positions of power and authority must be held to account and responsible for their actions, and actively held to a high behavioural code of conduct.
I’m part of many Facebook communities, many are entrepreneurship related.
I see endless posts from alternative healers and wellness practitioners promoting their offerings and one type of post I see every week, is on the topic of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is being peddled to Survivors of abuse as a necessary service we must buy from EFT practitioners, Energy Healers, Coaches, the list goes on. It’s packaged beautifully in a 90-minute single session, or a short series of sessions, designed to “dive deep” and “find forgiveness so you can finally move on with your life.”
I’m here to tell you that if you see these types of posts, and you feel guilty for NOT buying the service with the pretty graphic, or because you did and it didn’t work, this important message:
FORGIVENESS IS NOT A REQUIREMENT OF YOUR HEALING AND RECOVERY.
You don’t have to forgive the perpetrator, the people who should have but did not protect you, law enforcement, mandatory reporters, anyone, or anything that should have stepped in but didn’t.
It’s not a requirement.
It’s not a “goal” to reach on your journey.
It’s not a necessity.
For some of us, forgiveness is important – and that’s ok.
For some of us, not forgiving is important too – and that’s ok.
You CAN heal, recover, and rebuild your life without forgiveness. This is YOUR road to healing and recovery – and it must be done on your terms for it to be effective, not on the preferences of a clever marketing campaign that tugs at deep hurts.
Hey, my name is Ashleigh Rae and I’m an abuse Survivor.
I couldn’t always use the word Survivor. For more than a decade, I was a victim – small, contracted, and crushed by shame.
I wasn’t abused by just one person, either. I was abused by all different kinds of men – white, brown, students, mechanics, hospitality workers. The cycle of abuse started when I was 13, and it continued until I was 20. In that time, I was raped more times than I can count on both hands and feet, I was choked, and threatened with beatings.
I didn’t know that I had been abused, or that I was a victim. My behaviour had up to this point, been about getting through each day and hour, surviving. In 2013, my behaviour spiralled and I suffered a devastating suicidal episode, leading to a diagnosis of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I suffered debilitating and all-consuming panic attacks several times a day, and no matter how much effort I put into regaining control of my body and mind, I failed. I suffered with flashbacks, night terrors, dissociation, panic, hypervigilance and digestive upsets – the intensity of these symptoms did not abate in spite of antidepressants, sedatives, and cognitive behaviour therapy.
This went on, and on, eating away at the edges of me. It wasn’t until one day, when after yet another intense panic attack on my way to work, that I decided I had had enough. I was tired, I was done, and I took myself back to the train station and opened my phone to browse for a podcast to keep me grounded for the ride home. I came across a podcast by Victoria Police titled “Unspeakable”. It was the first time I heard anyone clearly and concisely, speak about sexual violence. I listened intently with tears streaming down my cheeks for the whole forty minute commute back home. I found instead of walking home, my feet carried me from the train to the local Police Station and before I could comprehend what was happening, I heard the words tumble clumsily out of out my mouth: “I want to report a sexual assault.”
This moment was the beginning of transforming from victim, to survivor.
It took two years of specialized, regular therapy with an outstanding therapist for me to understand that what happened to me, was not my fault. This was the first person who sat with me and witnessed my pain, discomfort, deep fear, rage, and horror and she gently, expertly guided me to remembering who I was, restoring my sanity. Slowly, the panic attacks became less frequent, less intense. Night terrors that left me drenched in cold sweats and terrified for my life became less vivid, eventually fading and shifting into the realm of more pleasant dreamscapes. Flashbacks and intrusive thoughts were more quickly picked up and placed respectfully back in the box in the corner of my mind from which they came. Eventually, I was able to hold my partner’s hand, admire its softness, and allow him to embrace me – his arms seemed to be the safest and most comfortable in the whole world.
As therapy progressed, so did the investigation and judicial proceedings – sometimes at a snail pace. Six months would pass with no word, then a quick succession of events would slam together. Building momentum was out of reach, each time I’d gather the stamina to begin pursuing something, another development in the investigation would need my attention and I’d be wiped out for weeks, often months, with resurfacing memories and depression.
As I began to tell people about the investigation, I encountered the social attitudes that assumed I was to blame – some people whom I had thought close, angrily demanded I drop the case and stop ruining this man’s life and reputation. It came unexpectedly, and back then I didn’t have a witty comeback to combat their attitudes, or the strength to attempt education and explanation.
In 2020, we began court proceedings. I was terrified – I had, naturally, watched all the courtroom drama I could get my hands on in the years leading up to this. I don’t remember many of the details of the day, but I do remember after coming to a plea deal, I was sitting in the Magistrates Court with a Social Worker, watching the Judge and hanging on her every word. I remember hearing the Offender in response to the question, “How do you plead?” answer with a clear and concise, “Guilty”.
My world seemed to stop in that moment – it was over. I had done it. I had taken my claim as far as it could go in court, and held at least, one perpetrator to public account. After almost three gruelling years, I had done what is almost impossible: I had taken a perpetrator of sexual violence to court, and I had won.
In that moment when I stood in the courtroom, I couldn’t move. I simply stood, and large waves of relief, anger, and power washed through me all at once. I could almost touch the ripples it seemed so potent. This was the moment when the transformation from victim to Survivor completed itself, and I felt it radiate throughout every cell in my body.
The road to being a Survivor was a rollercoaster of precious joys, and deep dark lows. I learned where our communities and society as a whole is broken, and how easy it is for victims to fall through the cracks and never have a chance at recovery.
This is why I am here, and what I intend to do: to change the outcomes and experiences of victims of sexual violence, and remind the public that we are human, and we are worthy of a full life beyond the violence and wrongs done to us. I’m doing that with the means at my disposal – by writing on the blog and Facebook page speaking, and broadcasting on Recovery: Life Beyond Sexual Violence Podcast.