Up until two weeks ago, Francesca Ebel had never told anyone in her family – or indeed most of her friends – that she had been raped. Yet she has now gone public, and the response has been overwhelming.
There were no dark alleys or threats of knives. There were no dodgy areas of town or even strangers involved. And that’s the whole point, explains the 20-year-old student, who is in her first year of studying Russian and French at Cambridge University.
“It happened three years ago. I was 17 and at a party. I got drunk and so friends helped me up the stairs and into bed. It was there that I was awoken by a crashing noise and burst of white light. I realised that someone was wrenching back the duvet and clambering on top of me, frantically pressing his lips to mine. Then my legs were pulled apart and I felt a sudden, tearing pain.”
Even in her drunken stupor, Francesca knew instinctively that something was very wrong and tried to shove him off. She even said “No”. More than once. “But he ignored me, breathing heavily in my ear.”
When it was over, Francesca stumbled outside, to find him smoking and laughing with his friends, and in the days afterwards, he boasted and joked about their sexual encounter.
Suspecting that she would be branded, at least by some, as an attention-seeker and a liar, she did not accuse him of rape. In fact, even when she confided in a close friend, it didn’t occur to her to use the word rape. “How could I claim to have been raped when ‘rape’ conjures up such violent images? How could my experience possibly parallel brutalities such as gang-rapes in India? It was unthinkable. Mine was not a violent rape; my rapist’s motives were not hateful or destructive. Furthermore, I felt embarrassed, ashamed and humiliated. So I put it behind me and got on with my life.”
And to a large extent, she succeeded. “Thankfully, my enjoyment of sex has not been affected and I’ve flourished in functional relationships. So how could I even begin to claim to identify with other victims’ experiences?” she says.
But about a year ago, when Francesca was in a relationship with a lawyer, she told him what had happened. “He stared at me and said: ‘You do realise that that is legally rape. You said no and that you didn’t want it to happen’. It was the first time I saw things clearly.”
Shortly afterwards, Francesca started university and was struck by how many other women, including a close friend, talked about similar experiences – something that certainly doesn’t surprise Rape Crisis, the charity, which claims that an estimated 90 per cent of those who experience sexual violence know the perpetrator in some way.
“There was a major survey that came out last month, which found that more than one in 13 women at Cambridge University had been sexually assaulted and that the vast majority – 88 per cent – did not report it,” Francesca says. “The study got people talking about their own experiences.”
According to the survey, women at the university are routinely groped, molested and raped. Like Francesca, one of the rape victims explained that she did not report her attacker because she thought that nothing would come of it. “I have no reason to believe that my report will be taken seriously, be investigated or result in a conviction. On the contrary, I have every reason to believe that he would be acquitted,” the woman stated. A couple of weeks later, an article appeared in the Cambridge Tab – of which Francesca is news editor – on what to do if you are raped. “We had run a few anonymous stories of sexual assault in our publication, but this one, which was written by the brother of a rape victim, really got to me, because it listed all of the things that I wish I’d done at the beginning. Suddenly, I just felt sick of this feeling of frustration, powerlessness and stigma about what had happened to me and so many others, and I felt a need to speak out. So I did.
“By storing the incident up inside me, I had let it gnaw away at me – the questions, anxieties and fury had built up to a level which was almost intolerable,” she explains. “And perhaps most critically of all, I wanted to turn a negative experience into something constructive.”
Francesca’s article appeared in the next issue, on 17 May, titled “There are people behind recent rape statistics and you must take their stories seriously”. What followed the headline was a candid, honest and brave account of her own experience, together with a plea for readers to recognise that behind stories of rape and sexual harassment, there are people who have to carry on with their lives and come to terms with what has happened, no matter how violent or “ordinary” their experience.
“Rape can happen to anyone at any time and I hoped that my story would demonstrate that,” she explains. “I also wanted to shed some light on why it is so hard to report an incident, and finally, I want to educate and initiate. Rape is not just confined to shady, impoverished corners of the globe; and it has to stop.”
It would have been far easier to write it anonymously, she admits. “Speaking out about rape has its consequences, not just for the person themselves, but for their family and friends. But there are too many faceless victims. I wanted to put a face to a story that has happened to so many people. I’m not disparaging anonymity in any way, but it does depersonalise the issue and I think that, as a result, people often don’t realise that rape is so common.”
Almost instantly, the article went viral, having had more than 28,000 views so far. Francesca has also been inundated with private letters and comments online, mostly from women who tell similar stories.
“It has been chilling to see the same story told again and again, and they all say the same thing – that they were full of self-doubt and fear of being labelled as an attention-seeker or that they wouldn’t be believed. Many, like me, don’t see themselves as a victim or the incident as defining them, but it has nonetheless affected them hugely.”
The responses also revealed just how frightened people are of reporting it. “Many of the women explained how they couldn’t face the trauma of the very system that is meant to protect us.”
Others wondered if it would even get to court – and with just 6 per cent of cases reported to police ultimately ending in a conviction, according to Rape Crisis, who can blame them?
“For reasons I can’t express even to myself, I have no current plans to report my case,” Francesca says. “But actually for me, what has been most empowering is to have gone public, to have helped raise awareness of both how ‘normal’ this is and how harmful it is.”
On reflection, Francesca’s original fear of attention-seeking has a certain irony: “I am certainly seeking attention now. That night, I was forced to share a level of intimacy which I usually reserve for the people I trust and care for. I was violated against my will, by a friend who unfortunately remains on the periphery of my life.
“Rape is incredibly complex and can have devastating consequences, whatever the situation. Right now, there is a critical and pressing need for us to broaden our understanding of the issues and educate future generations on the nature of consent.”