The questions asked in the aftermath of sexual violence

Eleanor Cope has turned trauma into the motivation and conviction to help others.Eleanor Cope trained as an actress after getting a first class BA Hons in American Studies. She has co-founded a theatre company that brings free theatre to libraries in areas below the poverty threshold. She also works as a Giggle Doctor, entertaining children in hospitals. Eleanor is about to undergo a big career change, embarking on an MA in Human Rights and International Law and hoping to work in aid projects in countries where sexual violence has been used in conflict.


 

A sexy beast?

I sometimes wonder if I was born with something dark and malignant inside me, like a tiny monster at the back of my mind that truly deserved pain or at least a good talking-to and a sharp kick up the bum. Perhaps an odd thing to wonder, and I’m not sure now whether the thought developed after I was raped or whether it was always something I feared. After my trauma, I thought for a long time that the rape had happened precisely because my attacker had sensed this monster in me.

Maybe he thought I was a dangerous woman and needed to be taken down a peg or two.

I backed up my own argument about being a secret monster – I’d already experienced some strange sexual encounters in my early childhood and been snogged by a 40-something man when I was fifteen. So I ask myself, is my sexuality dangerous? Was I somehow a sexual fiend from birth? Did people sense something in me that begged to be exploited?

Actually, I think all women at some point or another have to face this question: is my sex dangerous?

Are we women accountable for instances of harassment and sexual assault by men because the very fact of our womanhood is a temptation, a bait? Are we destined to re-live Eve’s ill-advised apple moment over and over again, always assuming the blame while Adam chomps away and points the finger?

It may be that a dangerous woman is a woman who wears a sexy dress or a sexy pair of jeans or a sexy massive jumper. Maybe she’s a woman who takes a taxi home alone or walks through a park at night. Maybe she is a woman who doesn’t wear magic nail varnish that detects rape drugs.

I’m guilty of all of the above.

And I still want to know when the men who shout or whistle at women in the street, who call us darlin’, who pat our arses and stare at our chests, who force themselves upon us in some large way or small, will be the ones held accountable? In this instance, they are the ones who pose a threat, and they are a very real and potent danger that needs to be stopped.

Before I was violated and humiliated, battered and broken, I was a weaker person. Even if I did have a treacherous little beast inside me, my friends certainly wouldn’t have described me as a dangerous woman. I tried to please, I felt uncomfortable being direct or leading a group or making decisions. I cried easily and often. I had an outer-layer of soft downiness.

So perhaps my ferocity arose out of the aftermath of the rape, and my status as a dangerous woman was only won by first being ripped apart.

The guilt and the fear and the shame that I feel has made me push myself both physically and mentally. At first I ate and ate and ate as if I wanted to make my body into a shape that wasn’t associated with me, or any woman at all: I wanted to be a ball and did my best to bounce through life in denial. Then I decided I was softer than I’d ever been and I hated that: I threw myself into exercise, desperately trying to be strong and hard. That didn’t work either, so I opened a bottle of wine and kept opening more bottles until two years had passed and I realised it was time to get a home and a job and a life again. During this time I had been a danger to myself.

Now, I push myself to work.

I work and work until I’m almost a machine and don’t know what my personality is any more. Sometimes I’m emotional. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed. Almost always I’m shattered. I have swathes of rage physically coursing through my body. They keep me going. On occasion, I wonder if I’m insane because I think I could scream so deeply and lastingly that the whole world would actually turn inside out and the monster inside me would burst out and become everything. If this were real, and if I chose to do it, I’d certainly be a dangerous woman.

But as it is, I’ve chosen to harness this power into helping, into looking after people and making exciting things happen in my community, into fighting for equality between women and men, into seeing the world, learning new things, challenging everyday injustices, even having fun!

So who exactly am I a danger to?

As far as I can see, only to those who deserve to be in danger. If being a dangerous woman means learning to like the inner-monster that pushes me forward, expressing anger at sexism, demanding accountability from men who are sexually abusive, running my own business, taking control, making decisions, recognising my own talents and abilities, then I am happy to be that woman.

On my long and often faltering route to recovery, I can take some comfort in the idea that I can be defined as delicate, daring, dynamite.