Libby was raped but refuses to see herself either as rape victim or as rape survivor. She told Sara Hinchliffe why
'Aren't I allowed to be all right?'
Libby is a vibrant, outgoing 24 year old biology student. She loves talking, her boyfriend, her course and her life. She's a completely normal young woman with a lot going for her. But according to the experts, she shouldn't be. Libby was viciously gang raped when she was 16, lost her virginity, forced to have oral and anal sex, beaten black and blue, and left pregnant.
Reluctantly she had a termination. Her attackers were never caught. Three years later she was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance who was later imprisoned for eight years for a series of rapes.
According to the literature on rape trauma syndrome, Libby's experiences should have damaged her for life. For Judith Rowland, being damaged is inescapable: 'Rape trauma syndrome consists of what have been found to be clusters of symptoms, following certain patterns and phases, suffered, to a greater or lesser degree, by virtually all women who have been victims of rape.' (Rape: The Ultimate Violation, 1986, pxiii)
Instead of suffering the symptoms of lifelong trauma that the experts would lead you to expect, however, Libby is just angry. And she is angriest about they way in which raped women are treated by those who are supposed to be most sympathetic - counsellors and health professionals. The problems she experienced following the assault were due, she insists, to the way these people and others treated her.
For Libby, rape was certainly a terribly traumatic experience: 'at the time all I wanted to do was pretend it hadn't happened.' Yet her main worry was about the impact the attack had on her family: 'I felt really angry more than anything. I don't actually remember, but I didn't feel guilty. I felt very guilty about getting pregnant, and mum having to go through all this stuff, but about the actual rape, I never felt it was my fault.'
The nuns at her school reported the attack to the police when Libby realised she was pregnant and decided she wanted an abortion, two months after the attack. Libby was unable to identify her attackers; and was more worried about her family finding out that she had been raped. 'I thought so much about what it would do to my mum and I was sure it would break my mum's heart, kill her. In hindsight it probably did affect her more at the time than it did me. With having a younger sister at home I thought she might never let her out.' Her delay in telling anybody she had been raped affected her father's response and made her feel guilty about the rape for the first time: 'He said "Well did they catch them?" and I said no because I didn't say anything to anyone for ages. And he said "So they're still out there doing it to someone else?", and it was really weird because all the time when I had told people all the focus had been on me - are you all right, are you all right - and this cloud of guilt came down and I was just absolutely mortified when he said it.'
Did she ever feel like a victim? 'Every time I saw my mum, I'd see this pained look in her eyes, always so concerned about me and so worried. I suppose it is the ultimate nightmare that can happen to your kids. She was a fantastic mum to my sister, she didn't lock her away, she was great, she was great with both of us.' Libby did go off the rails for a while after the attack, taking drugs and running away: 'I could say yeah I went haywire, but I might have done it anyway' she says, matter of factly. Her response was determined - 'I never felt stronger than I did then in my life. I felt absolutely that I was invincible and that, you know, I wasn't going to let this affect me. They were the fucked-up ones, I was perfectly all right'.
She has found that men treat her differently: 'Either they really want to look after you, take care of you in a totally different way even though they have known you years as a right feisty old cow, or else they get really defensive.' She went off oral sex for a while after she was raped, but 'I could say that was because of rape or because blokes have cheesy dicks'. Sex isn't a problem with her long-standing boyfriend, she grins.
Libby gets really animated when talking about the effect the 'rape industry' has had on her life. 'That Cosmo stuff winds me up - you're not allowed to get over it.' She is most furious about her treatment by a local family planning clinic. She had gone to a new clinic for her contraceptive injection, and had had to answer the usual questions about her sexual history, including pregnancies. The sniffy reaction of the nurse to her pregnancy and abortion at 16 pushed Libby to tell her that she had been raped. 'The woman instantly changed totally - she started saying that there was a counselling clinic; I said "no thanks, I'm fine, it was six years ago". "What? Don't you think you need to come, don't you think you're in denial?".' Libby was outraged: 'Aren't I allowed to be all right? Am I a traitor to the female sex because I don't want counselling? It would make me feel bloody awful! She was telling me I was fucked up. I told her that people like her were worse than the people who did it to me in the first place.'
When Libby returned for her next injection three months later she was accidentally handed her notes, which indicated that she was in denial and in severe need of counselling. 'Yes, I'm in denial that I have a problem', she insists. 'Isn't that a good thing?' That experience was one of the few times Libby felt like a victim, 'because it was a no-win situation'.
Some raped women see rape as something that affects their whole personality and self-confidence. One victim told Sue Lees that 'I think torture is the only thing you can equate it with. If you've been tortured you come out very shaky and unsure of your personality and you've had something subjected on you against your will and it takes a lot to reconstruct your strength and your confidence' (Carnal Knowledge, 1997, p16).
But Libby is very reluctant to see being raped as something that has shaped her life. 'If I was really honest it hasn't had any more effect on me than when I was run over by a car. Two months after, I had it out of my system, apart from being pregnant. It gives you a very easy excuse - you can make it shape your life or you can shape your life how you want it to happen. What happened to me was half an hour of my life which shouldn't have an effect on the rest of my life. You can only use rape to make excuses, not to do things. It's better to ignore it and get on with life.'
According to Libby, you can put even the most traumatic experiences behind you - 'all the problems I have ever had from it have been people telling me I should have a problem, or from other people having a problem with it, from the anaesthetist at the hospital to the woman at the clinic'. Perhaps it is her anger at the way her experience has followed her around that has given her the basis to get over it.
My time spent discussing life and rape with Libby makes me reluctant to see her as an especially unusual person - a woman with hidden reserves of strength who has done something extraordinary in getting over being raped. She is very like most of the women I know; there is nothing terribly unusual about her - unless you call a healthy desire to get on with life unusual.
Libby makes a final plea for rape to be discussed differently. 'Rape is always discussed with such hysteria. It's never discussed sensibly, logically, rationally. There are too many emotions involved. It is such a taboo thing to talk about. Even the police didn't want the details. The way I look at it, I got beaten up and there were a couple of dicks involved.' Perhaps this is a more healthy way for women to look at rape; perhaps it is the way we frame rape as different from any other crime that makes it so traumatic. Taking out the emotion might be a good start to allowing us some of that rational debate.
Reproduced from LM issue 103, September 1997