My column from today’s Newcastle’s Journal 10/2/12
So, Frank Foster walked free from court after raping Carla Connor in Coronation Street. I’m not one of those people who doesn’t realise that soap characters are fictional. I wouldn’t go up to Barbara Windsor and ask her to pull me a pint, or expect a nice chat about railways with Roy Cropper- but I had hoped that in this instance Corrie would help create a new reality, rather than just reflect it. Only 6% of reported rape cases result in a conviction. The odds are heavily, heavily stacked against rape victims. The vast majority of incidents, like the one in Coronation Street, involve a rapist and victim who know each other. When I did my Edinburgh show, I received an email from Rape Crisis Scotland. It was about their hard hitting “No always means No” campaign. “As a strong woman performing in the public eye…” it began, seeming to make the assumption that performing poems during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival makes you strong rather than overly-optimistic about audiences for rhyming. It then asked me to send a quote to endorse the campaign. I looked at the myths they were wanting to explode and raise awareness of. Things like “A woman raped after consuming alcohol is to blame for not considering her own level of security”, “A woman raped by a man she is in a relationship with has automatically given consent for sex”, “A woman raped after consenting to any level of sexual activity is to blame for giving “mixed signals” “. They hit me like a sledgehammer. Many people I knew believed those myths. At some level I believed them. A man who once said to me “What did you expect, coming to my hotel room late at night when I was drunk?” believed them. I think what happened to me happens a lot. I was involved with the man in a way that the Facebook status “It’s complicated” was invented for. We hadn’t slept together. I hoped one day, when the time was right, we would. I hoped there’d be hearts and flowers and violins and an Angelic chorus. In the meantime there were discussions about poetry and misery late into the night. That was all good for the black polo neck jumper-clad part of me that thrived on that kind of thing. It was what I expected this particular night when I went to his hotel room. He asked me to take off my clothes. I said I would if we could hold hands across the bridge the next day in the city where we were gigging. He agreed. I did. Naively believing he meant it. Next thing, he was on top of me. I said “No”. Next thing he was inside me. I didn’t scream, protest or shout. “You wanted this anyway” I told myself. Just not here and now, like this. But it didn’t conform to my image of rape. There was no stranger in a dark alleyway, no shouting, no threats to kill. My mind didn’t say the word “Rape” until I read that rape myths website several years later. Even though I later confronted him about how I hadn’t wanted to sleep with him then and he had responded with “What did you expect, coming to a drunk man’s hotel room late at night?”- the word still didn’t make it past the censors in my head. My body knew though. It knew it had been entered without permission and made me hold back from him, scared in his presence, even when my mind was telling me I liked him because he could talk about Dr Who and T.S Eliot in the same breath. It also carried an anger that would harden into a knot in my stomach or erupt like a geyser when people made jokes about rape. I didn’t listen to my body very much then though, even though it’s signals turned out to be rarely wrong. Now, as I read the email from Rape Crisis, I was feeling the anger again. It was an anger at myself for not being the “Strong woman” they were calling me and having betrayed myself by letting this happen. This is the shame that many rapists will count on so that their victims will never tell. The shame that contributes to there only being a 6% conviction rate and countless unreported cases. “The Rapist” makes it sound as though he was some inhuman monster with evil intent. Instead of a man who had grown up with the same rape myths and boundary issues as me, but strength on his side and a rather less romantic notion of what could be done in a hotel room late at night in a strange city. Now I’m feeling the anger again as Coronation Street seems to have reinforced all this. They’ve congratulated themselves on raising the issues and on increasing calls to a rape hotline, but how many women are going to see the anguish that Carla Connor suffered as her personal life was raked up in court and the injustice of her attacker going free, and think that looks like something they’re willing put themselves through? Frank Foster will suffer soap justice because he’s going to end up being murdered, but that won’t happen to most women’s attackers. At the same time, in the likely absence of legal protection, I wish I had been aware of those rape myths earlier so that I could properly protect myself. I never did send that quote endorsing Rape Crisis Scotland’s campaign because I felt like too much of a fraud at having being called a “Strong Woman” when, as far as I can see, I’d been a naive drip. At last that ball of anger in my stomach has unfurled enough to propel me to write this down for the first time though. And I’ll send it to them.