November 25, 2021 – It’s been 16 years since I was raped by a man I trusted, a man I met through my journalism, who I later befriended socially. I have never mentioned his name publicly. But I have replayed the moments that led to the assault. I have found myself asking what I should have done differently, and I have blamed myself.
It took me a long time to call this assault by the name it merits: rape. It took me a long time to accept that despite the fact that I had previously agreed to sex with him, this subsequent – non-consensual – occasion was rape. It took me a long time to piece together my memories of what happened in that man’s apartment.
It also took me a long time to realise that many of the subsequent traumas I experienced personally and professionally stemmed from the decisions I made as I tried to come to terms with what had been done to me.
Today marks the International Day to End Violence Against Women and Girls, or White Ribbon Day, and I know I’m not alone in experiencing the shame and stigma of sexual assault, or in being judged for what I did or didn’t do. I, like so many others, have been told I should modify my behaviours to mitigate someone else’s abusive choices.
During the pandemic, I was fortunate to have remote therapy, and my therapist helped me carefully relive my experiences. By writing them down, I was able to piece together that day and the preceding events. I was able to see that the man who raped me manipulated me from our very first meeting, and I was able to better understand how the culture of the career I love conditioned me to accept certain types of behaviour that I now know are not healthy or acceptable.
For a long time, I didn’t talk about my assault, because I felt ashamed. But now I find myself being able to speak about my experiences and working to support other journalists who have suffered gender-based violence and trauma.
Almost 10 years ago, I co-authored ‘No Woman’s Land – On the Frontlines with Female Journalists’, a collection of stories written by almost 40 female colleagues from around the world – the first book dedicated to the safety of women journalists.
The catalyst for that book was the horrific attack on journalist Lara Logan in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – which opened a new chapter in conversations about women working as journalists on frontlines. I’ve seen discourse descend into victim-blaming; a sense that women were somehow responsible for solving a problem they didn’t create. I’ve seen women treated as a liability if something happened to them.
A decade later and some things have changed – but not enough. Whether it’s online harassment, in newsrooms or in the field, women journalists are still at risk – and often wrongly blamed for the sexual violence they suffer.
As the #MeToo movement gained momentum a few years ago, I found myself chairing panels on gendered violence in the media and writing extensively about it, still not able to share my own story. But there came a stage where I realised that I couldn’t stay silent. I wanted to celebrate the bravery of the women who shared their experiences, and tell them my story – to reveal that I, too, struggled with shame and a sense of isolation.
Around this time, I started to experience symptoms which I know now were a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). My rape fed into a complex web of experiences that left me unable to sleep, or tormented by nightmares and flashbacks. I was irritable, angry, overusing alcohol – and I found it hard to focus.
It was tough for those I loved to understand what I had been through, and how my body and brain were reacting. It still is. For me personally, it was hard to separate the intimacy of love-making with something I associated with pain and power. I still suffer from a loss of libido – but it is such a taboo that I have never before admitted it.
At work, I was able to put on a mask despite my private suffering – an irony that hasn’t been lost on me, since I was running a journalism safety charity.
I remember distinctly the day I considered taking my life, and came close to doing so. I was terrified, desperate to end the pain for me and my family. I haven’t written about this before, but I feel it’s important to tackle the taboos around suicide and suicidal ideation. That was the day I realised I needed to get help, and I finally did, with the support of some of those closest to me: beginning the long, non-linear road to recovery.
I realised I needed to find a different way to work, to channel my expertise and experiences, and to manage my mental health. I began a new career as a media consultant specialising in safety and mental health – and writing part time.
I launched a network to promote more open conversations about mental health in the media. I wrote a memoir about my experiences which has been shortlisted for a major prize. We moved somewhere cheaper so there was less pressure on me to be the breadwinner. I was lucky. I found respite through running, writing and speaking about my experiences, supported by people who loved me – even if they didn’t understand me sometimes.
I decided to share my story because I want others to know they are not alone – and that recovery is possible with the right help and support. It wasn’t easy; it still isn’t – but through talking, we can support each other.
I’m still not prepared to name the man who raped me, though I know his abuse was entirely wrong. But I am not confident enough in our judicial process – or society at large and on social media – to believe I wouldn’t be questioned, blamed and attacked. I remain unconvinced that naming him would help in any way. I hope there will come a day when this will be different.