TW: discussion of sexual violence

There’s a moment in the first episode of the new Netflix documentary Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich where survivor Michelle Licata looked at the camera and made me cry.

The first of Epstein’s victims to be interviewed by Miami Police, she had been narrating the horrible abuse she had suffered in a detached and cool manner. “Before Epstein…” she says… and when she trails off the camera is focused so that the audience can see the exact moment that her face crumples, collapsing in on itself towards some memory of unshareable pain.

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            “Before Epstein,” she continues hopelessly

                                                “I was …

                                                                        I was

                                                                                    something else.”

She covers her face.

I felt as if I was crumpling too. I had not faced experiences comparable to Licata and yet I felt I understood those moments; the out-of-control sobbing in a park, a Costa Coffee, a night club, in the months after what I referred to as ‘that weird night’. Above all, I understood that feeling of an irreversible changing point, an isolating nostalgia for a self to whom the encounter hadn’t happened. Looking at photos of myself smiling in the early evening of the night itself, I felt this strange disassociation. This body I had then didn’t belong to me anymore.

What do I remember? I was in a club in Oxford and I was very drunk. I remember saying no to going home with someone and then I remember being in a taxi, my head in the lap of a boy I didn’t know the name of. I don’t remember calling a friend from his room, crying (she told me about this later) but I do remember other details of what happened, that I don’t need to go into. I do remember standing at his door saying I wanted to leave. I remember him saying nothing, just pulling down my top and turning me back towards the stairs. I don’t remember how or why I let him. I’m still angry at myself for this.

I didn’t know enough to know why I felt so wrong, especially because we didn’t have penetrative sex. Ultimately, directly following and contradicting the trauma I was experiencing, was an inability to categorise it. As difficult as the hurt was, it was compounded by the lurking suspicion that it was self-inflicted. I kept asking in my head – did he know what was happening? Was he really a predator who had come out looking for someone like me, or was he just a nice guy who I blamed my drunken mistakes on, unable to accept responsibility? Did I lead him on, respond in ways I don’t remember?  I didn’t know how to process what had happened; unfairly I was angry at my friends who tried to talk to me about it, angrier still when they let it go. I’m angry now when we have conversations about sexual harassment as if it’s an abstract rather than my experience. I still can’t think about details without squeezing my eyes shut and touching my neck often conjures phantom fingers from someone else’s hands. It’s taken over a year to fully accept that what happened wasn’t right.

I’m sharing this story, not because it is original, but because it is so, so far from unusual. While the Thames Valley Police release city-wide statistics – 3% of reported crimes in Central Oxford the last year were sexual offences – there is a lack of transparency about university offences. The most recent statistics available for crime committed on university campus specifically are from 2016-17, due to a Freedom of Information request. Thames Valley Police told us that three counts of sexual assault had been reported on campus. If the stats weren’t so transparently, offensively misleading, this would be almost laughable. I have more friends who have experienced sexual violence than the report acknowledges for the whole university. As it is, the blank space in the stats shows the magnitude of people currently being failed in Oxford. There needs to be reform of the reporting and counselling system – student organisations like It Happens Here, are doing extraordinary work to push this through.

But outside this, there is much to be done on an individual level. Almost every girl, and a large number of boys, have a story where they or someone they know have been made to feel uncomfortable, ashamed, threatened or violated in a sexual environment. Not all of these experiences would fall under the legal classifications of sexual assault or rape. But why in this instance is the law used as a way to define our morality? At the end of the day, the selfish, scarring use and abuse of vulnerable individuals for sexual gratification should be understood to be wrong. It is as simple as the fact that it happens all the time and it shouldn’t.

Let’s not be complacent. Our society is one filled with the pervasive language of violence around sexual exploits. Many (especially men, it has to be said) take the acknowledgment of rape culture as an attack on themselves – “I would obviously never rape someone” is perhaps the most common thing overheard in relation to consent workshops. I have always rushed to reassure such people that this is not an attack on them. But maybe it should be. Earlier I mentioned that I struggled to understand whether the boy who took me home was a predator or a good guy. The truth is that someone can be a nice guy, a soup kitchen volunteer, a stranger or a trusted female friend, and still inflict violence on another person. If you are not actively opting out of rape culture, if you don’t seek explicit consent, if you are not pulling up your friends who are ‘bad drunks’, ‘preddy’, ‘sharks’ or ‘desperate’- you are facilitating an environment which allows sexual violence. At the same time, just the acknowledgement of these truths can do much to help recovery. The bravery of survivors from high-profile predators – Weinstein to Epstein – is so important; every person has a duty to step up to make an impact in our own communities as well.

If reading any of this sounds familiar to you, please know that you are deserving of support and that it is never too late to reach out. Find resources at https://www.oxfordsu.org/campaigns/ithappenshere/ or contact Oxford’s Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Centre for independent advice and support.

It Happens Here has recently released a magazine called ‘Letters to Survivors’ which I highly recommend to anyone.