TW: This is a graphic and detailed account of a sexual assault which some may find triggering or upsetting.
I feel like everyone has a secret. One that even your best friends don’t know about.
I never thought I’d share mine.
It was an accidental secret, really. One that was born from shame, fear.
I was 14 and desperate to fit in with the popular girls at school. That never came easily to me, fitting in. I clung on for as long as I could, thinking that if the girls that everybody liked, liked me, I’d be cool. Spoiler: it doesn’t work that way.
It was one of my oldest school friends birthday and a bunch of the girls were round hers for a sleepover, the
drink lambrini was flowing and the gossip was a plenty. We lived in the countryside and there wasn’t really anywhere for us to go; so her house was the house, you know the one with the cool parents who kind of just let you get on with it? It was a pretty great hideout for us.
There were a group of lads in the village, all a good few years older than us and the heartthrobs of our entire existence. Standard teenage girls, am I right?
There was this one guy, kind of separate from the rest, but so pretty it kind of didn’t matter. Like his solitary nature was void because he was hot? Everyone fancied him back then.
He must’ve found out about our little gathering because whilst we were having a cigarette outside her house he walked by and stopped to talk to us. He wandered off up the street with one of the girls, and the others went inside. I stayed put for a few minutes, feeling my head get a little woozy from the alcohol as the cold night air filled my lungs – I never could handle my drink very well. I wanted another cigarette but didn’t have a lighter, so I walked a little way down the street to see if I could spot them; they were kissing but he saw me and stopped, called me over and I asked for a light.
He told me to come with him, up the road to get shelter from the wind so we could light it. I think I knew then that he might want to kiss me, too and I quite liked it. I was never the girl that got the guy.
We walked up the hill and round the corner opposite where I lived. There was an old factory, with steps down to the basement that we used to smoke outside of during the day so no-one on the street could see us. He gestured for us to go down and I followed – it seemed a good idea, I didn’t want to risk my parents seeing me smoke from across the road. My heart was beating what felt like a million beats a second.
I leant in as he cupped his hands around the flame and I lit my menthol. The fresh minty taste hit the back of my throat, cracking a little as I said ‘Thank you’ from inhaling too hard through my nerves. He was 18 and if he kissed me, the girls might like me more.
I didn’t get another drag of my cigarette before his hand was on the small of my back pulling me in close to him and sliding his tongue between my teeth. His breath was hot and tasted like beer. I chortled as he pulled away, I’m pretty sure my cheeks flushed pink with the heady rush that kiss gave me. I’d barely kissed anyone before and he knew what he was doing.
I went to leave, thinking we’d walk back to her house together – maybe he’d come hang out with us. I was naively excited.
Instead he pulled on the button of my trousers and before I realised what he was doing he’d yanked them down to my knees, his hands slid between my legs and all I felt was burning – sharp stabbing pains twisted with a stinging heat.
I asked him to stop, told him he was hurting me and tried to pull away. He was much stronger than me and held my hands or kept batting them away, I don’t really remember which one. All I know was that I couldn’t get up and I couldn’t scream. If I screamed it would be my family that would hear me.
The next part happened so fast I didn’t even realise what he was doing. He’d managed to pull himself out of his trousers and was forcing my legs apart; my back hit the concrete and I was using all the force I had to try and get him off me.
Tears streamed down my face and as I struggled, as if by magic, a few of the girls came running down the steps. They must’ve come looking for us and heard me from the street. He jumped up, faster than lightning, and sprinted up the stairs. Tucking himself back in to his trousers as he ran.
I pulled my knickers up and wriggled my trousers back on from my ankles. The girls were just staring at me, dumbfounded.
I expected them to comfort me, embrace me in a huge hug and ask me if I was okay; but it was very obvious from that moment that their only intention was to ‘catch me in the act’.
I was absolutely mortified. I sat in the hallway of my friends house whilst the others went in to the lounge, I heard them calling me a slut, whispering and giggling. I’d never felt such shame in all my life.
How had this happened?
After a while, one of the girls came out to see if I was okay. I can’t remember who it was or what they even said because I was still in shock.
I went upstairs to the bathroom and cleaned myself up. I had blood on my thighs, in my knickers and under my fingernails. I sat on the floor and cried. I don’t remember anything else from that night. I don’t know where I slept or if I spoke to anyone. It’s just all blank.
The next thing I remember I was at work the following morning. I had a job in the village pub as a pot-washer, and he was the chef. It was a Sunday and we had a restaurant full of people.
Writing this down now, it doesn’t sound real. I really wish it wasn’t.
He’d told our boss that we’d ‘got together’ last night and that he really wanted to ask me out on a date but was too shy.
I remember thinking maybe I should say yes? Maybe I’d misunderstood what had happened the night before. He actually liked me? Maybe that was what was meant to happen.
But the heaviness in my heart and nauseous feeling in my gut knew that wasn’t right. That wasn’t what was meant to happen.
I said I would think about it – but my boss could tell by the look on my face there wouldn’t be any thinking. I’m pretty sure she was glad about it, if only due to the pretty huge age gap.
But an ego isn’t something to be underestimated.
Before I knew it my refusal had resulted in all the guys in the village finding out that I’d bled when he ‘tried’ to finger me.
To be honest, I don’t know how it didn’t go round the whole school. I never thought about it at the time, but maybe anyone he told knew? Knew that what he’d done was wrong, so kept their mouths shut?
I never spoke about it to the girls again. And they never asked.
A year or so ago another old school friend sent me a link to an article. He was in prison. Sentenced for rape.
And in all these year I only ever told two people. My ex and Jamie.
But recently something changed inside me – when the MeToo movement started.
And now I’m telling you.
Because this doesn’t feel like just my story now.
This is all of our stories.
In some way or another we’ve all experienced sexual assault – and we shouldn’t be silenced.
Not by guilt, not by fear, not by embarrassment and most certainly not to fit in.
I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write this, but having got this far down the page is giving me the strength and courage I need to press publish.
I thought that after all this time, it might be some form of therapy for me – to know that it’s not a secret anymore. And for you, too – so that you might realise you’re not alone. I wasn’t brave enough to speak out then, but I’m trying now and hopefully that counts for something.
Big, big changes are happening and we need to keep fighting for society to truly change. It’s not going to happen overnight, and it’s not going to be easy – but it will be worth it.
I may have wanted a kiss but I didn’t ask for this.
I said no and it didn’t stop him.
But I know that I am not to blame.
So please know, that even when you feel utterly worthless, dirty and ruined, you are not to blame – and you, are not alone.
Photography by Alexandra Cameron.