Women

“How the night I was raped changed the course of my life forever”

On Friday 19th July 2019, Jen’s life changed forever. The founder of You Will Be Heard, a website of practical guidance and information for those who have reported, or are thinking about reporting, rape or sexual assault, tells Stylist her story. 

Warning: this feature contains sensitive information about sexual violence/rape which some readers might find distressing.

It was Friday 19th July 2019, just before midnight. I’d been out with two friends in Tower Bridge in London for a celebratory meal by the Thames and nightcap at a local pub. I said goodbye as they jumped into an Uber before starting my walk home, a walk I’d done hundreds of times before. I was in a world of my own, headphones in, umbrella up, head down. I was getting wet, so when I reached a shortcut I took it. I hadn’t noticed it was eerily quiet.

Out of nowhere, I felt someone grab me from behind. I spun around to face a man. He was saying something but I couldn’t hear him over my music. I thought he was in trouble or lost, but then his grip became more urgent and my headphones came out. He was saying that he had a knife and that he’d stab me if I didn’t go with him and do what he said. I couldn’t break free and the fear almost paralysed me. He was taking me somewhere, a bush, and there wasn’t a single other person around to see. I was certain I was going to die. He didn’t hide his face, so surely he wasn’t going to let me go alive? I begged him not to hurt me. Then he raped me, choosing oral rape after I pleaded I was on my period. All I thought about was the knife, would it hurt, would anyone find me? When it was over he let me go. I lived.

The next few days were a blur. The police took evidence, I had a medical examination, my liaison officer recorded my video statement and I was back at work on Monday. I have no idea how I did any of those things, I was a shell of a person switched to autopilot mode. This numbness made it difficult to talk about what happened. 

My boyfriend was the first person I called after the attack so he already knew everything. I also told my mum, sister and a few close friends, mainly over message as I didn’t know how to speak the words. My wider circle wouldn’t know until much later, and some still don’t know. It’s not that I was ashamed, I was just in denial. 

What happened next

Things moved quickly. A DNA match led to him being identified. I assumed he was in his mid-twenties. He was big, well over six feet tall. I found out he was 17. He was arrested and charged with rape. I thought that would be the end but at his first hearing he pleaded not guilty, it wasn’t over yet. Over the next few months, I continued to help the police with the investigation and the court dates were set. I was terrified. What if he got away with it? This terror settled in alongside the other debilitating symptoms of PTSD: denial, sadness, grief, and overwhelming anger. The anger wasn’t just towards him, it was towards every man who had given me creepy looks on the Tube, every builder who had catcalled me, every stranger who had grabbed me in a club. 

I carried on trying to get through each day as best I could but inside I was dying. My nightmares were traumatising (they still are) and I hated going to sleep. The attack would play in my head over and over again. I couldn’t stop worrying about him getting away with it, finding more victims and covering his tracks better next time. I’d start sobbing in public with no warning. If someone unexpectedly came up from behind me I’d freeze in panic. To this day I can’t walk down any street at night if it looks quiet, no matter how central or safe the neighborhood.

One night my body just broke and I went through hours of extreme pain, vomiting, repeatedly passing out and not being able to see when I regained consciousness. I recovered, believing it was probably an infection, but when it happened again a few weeks later it was so serious that I ended up in A&E. All my tests seemed fine and the doctors were puzzled. They asked if I’d been through a lot of stress recently and when I told them about the attack and upcoming trial they were certain that was the cause. I think they were right.

I had no idea what to expect going through the criminal justice system. The emotional support was there, my boyfriend, friends, family and the various victim services, but I had little practical support as a witness in a prosecution case, which was what I was in the eyes of the law. The police (especially my liaison officer) were supportive and understanding but I needed more than the guidance they were able to provide. I turned to Google and typed ‘what happens after you report rape?’ The screen flooded with stories and statistics about how few cases get to court, and how few of those result in a conviction.

This year rape prosecutions in England and Wales fell to a record low. According to the latest Crown Prosecution Sevices (CPS) data in the year 2019-20, 1,439 suspects in cases where a rape had been alleged were convicted of rape or another crime – half the number three years ago. As I read the stats, my heart bled for the victims but in that moment I was looking for empowerment, not more fear. 

I wanted an ounce of control in a situation where I’d had it all taken away. I wanted someone to tell me what the reality was like for a victim after reporting rape and what I could do to help my case. I was frustrated. I felt alone and underprepared. As the months went by I became aware of a handful of useful but lengthy or complicated resources, some were buried deep in the on websites I didn’t find until it was too late. I made a promise to myself that when this was all over I would help plug this gap for others. 

My day in court

My day in court was painful. Being questioned by the defense barrister broke me and at one point I hid under the stand and sobbed. All I could do was tell the truth. The jury believed me. He was found guilty of rape and a few weeks later the judge handed down the maximum sentence she could within the guidelines – a six-year custodial sentence (reduced from nine years because of his age at the time of the attack, although by then he was 18) and four years extended licence – a total of 10 years. He needs to serve at least four years in prison before being eligible for release and he will remain on the Sex Offenders Register indefinitely. Finally, I could focus on recovery.

My therapist suggested it could be healing to write my story. So, out walking one day, I sat down on a bench, took my phone out and started typing. It felt good to get it out but it wasn’t enough. I remembered the promise I’d made to myself, I would try to turn this nightmare into something positive to help other victims. 

Looking back there was a lot I wish I’d known after reporting the attack, like what my rights were, how to preserve evidence, how an investigation works, what to expect at each stage, the roles of the Crown Prosecution Service, what I could do to help my case, and what being in court would really be like. l know worry and fear can prevent victims from coming forward, it nearly stopped me. 

You will be heard

After time to regroup and research I created You Will Be Heard, a website to spread hope, empower victims of rape and sexual assault to seek justice and shed some much-needed light on what to expect at each stage of the criminal justice system. There are some professional resources out there which are helpful and detailed but, as I’d found out, they’re not always easy to find and the page counts can be daunting, especially for someone suffering from trauma. 

With time to heal I was able to dig these out, digest them fully and extract key points. My aim for the website is to explain the criminal justice system in a logical, concise, step-by-step order, with direct links to the resources for those looking for further reading. I’ve also included my personal timeline, my learnings from the experience and information on where to go for support. It’s everything I wish I’d had, all in one place.

If you or anyone you know needs help and support, you can call the Rape Crisis national helpline on 0808 802 9999 (open 12-2.30pm and 7-9.30pm daily). You can also find your nearest centre here or visit the website for more information.

Details on how to report a rape to the police can be found here.