Sunday, 29 July 2012

LEARNING IT THE HARD WAY....




Trigger warning: This post deals with the Reddit thread featuring confessions of rape and my responses to it. Please be aware of that before reading either it or linking to the original thread. I really really debated whether to publish this or not in case it ended up being more triggering than the original thread. But I decided to after reading this piece on the Guardian today where a majority of people decided to disregard the information because it's not the right kind of site (where have we all that line before?) to talk about it on, leading to a situation where they don't believe what victims say about rape or self confessed rapists say about rape so keen are they to pretend rape isn't an issue. I think the thread is genuine. It's too similar to accounts I've heard and read from victims and I just don't feel it can be brushed aside so easily. I decided the opportunity for education was there instead of just going 'la la la' a lot. You may decide this is an excellent opportunity to go make tea and eat cake instead. You know what's best for you.

Friday, 27 July 2012

THERE IS NO CORRECT WAY TO BE RAPED...



This week we had deja vu when West Mercia police popped up with their cliche campaign saying the same old 'don't drink too much or you'll do something you regret' message. This is incredibly offensive. I didn't actually do anything when I was raped, except try very hard to stay alive and contain the immediate suffering. Being raped is by its very nature not an event you are active in. It's passive, because you don't want it to be happening. Therefore telling me not to do things I'll regret in this context is like telling the wind not to blow.

And regret is not really the word I'd use about rape. I regret wearing shoes that make my feet look like trotters. I regret that 90s purple iridescent lipgloss from Miss Selfridge. I reget nipping to the loo, missing the nightbus and having to wait 40 minutes. Not once in the 8 years since I was raped and I've lain awake at night riven with misery or trying not to cry, has the word regret seemed adequate. It seems too meek, too minimising. The fact they've used the idea of 'regretful sex' and rape in the same sentence just heaps insult upon injury.

Regretful sex is no bloody concern of the police. Waking up and realising the hot guy from last night actually wears loafers and has a cuddly golf club on his bed does not need 999. It needs lots of tea and a self deprecating anecdote with friends. Going on highly scientific discussion with friends, regretful sex has usually become amusing by the time you've left the situation and had a shower. I'm still waiting for the moment I find being raped even remotely titterworthy. There's no correlation between the two and it's extremely detrimental to suggest they go together as if rape is just sex you regret a lot and not an actual criminal offence with serious consequences.

It's the kind of myth that mutates into victim blaming on juries especially and like everything else about this campaign, it ties into the idea that rape is something that happens because of alcohol and because a man and woman were left un-chaperoned after being out and 'he said, she said'. It ignores the fact that most rapes do not happen like this and that 80% of rapes happen with someone you know and that you're most likely to be raped in your own home. And for all the 'victim warning' that these campaigns profess to offer they actually leave women more vulnerable in many ways because they teach women to look for rape in only one aspect of their life, but not to say 'it was rape' when their ex demands sex when he comes to collect his CDs after you've split or your new squeeze refuses to use a condom and keeps going or your husband hits you unless you agree. Instead of being able to clearly identify those scenarios as rape, women blame themselves, feel guilty and stay frightened and unable to speak out at all, often remaining trapped.

But being raped 'the right way' according to these police posters, still isn't a guarantee that you'll be taken seriously if you've committed some kind of infringement according to their helpful list. Partly because it's been knocked into me since I was about six to be careful because I'm a woman and partly because it seems natural, I did everything on that list on a night out. I didn't drink while stressed or tired, I ate a meal, I ordered a glass of water, I didn't leave my drink unattended, I drink incredibly slowly anyway and I'd planned my route home in detail. I was still raped. Because the barman spiked my drink. In fact he spiked my glass of water. If I'd quaffed my drinks a bit faster, not bother to rehydrate and just drunkenly lurched to the bus stop, I'd have been fine.

Actually rehydration is my nemesis. I was making a cup of tea the first time to make sure I didn't wake up with a headache after a few drinks in my house just before Christmas when my rapist snuck into the kitchen. We all thought he'd left, everyone else had gone to bed and it turned out he'd been hiding. I was only up because I was waiting for the kettle boil. If I'd merrily staggered down the stairs to bed singing Santa Baby and keeping everyone up, I'd have been fine. But that peppermint teabag put a target on my back and the quiche I'd had for dinner didn't protect me at all in the end. I was still raped.

Of all the women I know who have been raped (and sadly that's quite a list), none of them would have been helped by that checklist or the knowledge of self defence. Even the two who had been drinking enough to admit they were quite pissed wouldn't have been helped by alternating their drinks or planning their taxi route, because they were asleep when they were raped anyway. The only thing that would have kept them safe is if their rapist had kept himself to himself. The same with the women who took John Worboys' cab because they didn't want to risk an unlicensed mini-cab or the woman who asked a friend of their boyfriend to give them a lift home because she thought it would be safer than walking alone. Being drunk may make your reactions slower, but in my experience, rapists don't actually give you that much warning they are going to rape you. It's a crime that relies on surprise and fast reactions don't always save you. For every sober reaction where self defense floods back to you and adrenaline makes you superhuman, there is the secret response no one ever mentions.

Humans don't just respond with fight or flight. There's also freeze. Sometimes the human brain in its primitive self preservation state tells you that you can't out-run this sabre toothed tiger. You've just got to go still and hide in the undergrowth til the threat stops. You have no control over this. Your body and brain take over and do this because it's the best way to stop you getting physically hurt or dying. It's just another way to protect yourself and it's totally normal. I'm never usually backwards about coming forward when I am displeased and expected I'd scrap like a mad March hare in a bag. Instead I completely froze. Even though it probably saved me from really serious injury, I blamed myself for years for not fighting back because I thought I'd done it wrong.

And that's the problem with these police campaigns. They read like an etiquette list as if there's a correct way to be raped rather than rape being wrong. Victims measure their reactions by these lists. Juries make their decisions based by them. The police and CPS investigate to certain standards because of these lists. And rapists get given a handy cheat sheet of how to spot a suitable victim. Some women are more vulnerable, especially former sexual partners, sex workers and women with mental health issues or disabilities, but these 'don't drink' campaigns don't teach them or the people round them protection, they just seek to highlight ways that can be manipulated further. It reinforces the idea of the 'right rape victim' and reduces the idea of rape to sex when most people know it's really about power. By making it seem like an inevitable consequence of a night out it diminishes the severity and hides it behind the bogeyman of 'drinking'.

Drinking actually means bugger all as a statement of fact. Saying a rape took place after drinking tells me nothing much. Who was drinking? Was it the attacker or the victim or both? How much where they drinking? Where they drunk? If I've had a glass of wine with dinner and then get the bus home, walk through my estate in the dark and am raped, it could still be said I'd been 'drinking', but it doesn't really add any information. Just using that word doesn't mean I was roaring drunk and gusset up in the gutter but it's often said in such a way to attribute blame as if when women are drinking it means being incapacitated, but when men do it, it's normal. It's just another tactic like like the newspaper telling you what colour hair a rape victim has to belittle the event and make victims seem like statistics rather than people.

The statistics that count are the conviction rates and that's where the police should be focusing their efforts. West Mercia (on the most recent figures I could find, dating from 2007) have a conviction rate of 4.5%. At least South Wales, who ran a similar campaign last year, are at 7.1%. I'm not suggesting that the police don't try and prevent crime before it happens. That's common sense after all. But I suggest they take a tack like the 'Know the Difference' campaign running in Lambeth, South London which addresses the potential perpetrators and their peers with a non judgemental ad campaign about a variety of sexual violence outside the home displayed on public transport, licensed premises and outside clubs and pubs. It combines it with training barstaff, bouncers and police in the nuances of rape and consent. This has been combined with new facilities for women needing help, sits along a council campaign about gendered violence in the home and has resulted in reports being up a third as women feel less judged to come forward about rape and sexual assault (which is often seen as less important because of the focus campaigns like West Mercia's have on rape only.)

It might seem a bit insulting to some men that they feel they are being tarred with the same brush as rapists when they would do no such thing, but it opens a dialogue and helps erode rape myths that are so ingrained around women, sexual violence and alcohol that even the government funded Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority routinely docked women's pay-out after rape if alcohol was involved until a just few years ago. Keeping those myths going and suggesting that women wouldn't be raped if they just tried harder to stick to these lists however is a much bigger injustice and one that destroys many women's lives and prevents rapists from being punished properly because women fear repeat victimisation on reporting. Women can't do anything about being women so we need to tackle the societal changes around rape instead and make change that way.


*This post originally appeared at The Vagenda in rebuttal to a previous less favourably received piece on the West Mercia campaign. They offered me the chance to write something when I complained on Twitter and I thank them for that. The original piece was upsetting, but it's good they didn't go on the defensive and allowed for a piece to educate.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

TRY A TRIBUNAL...

Last week, I had a day out with a dear friend. We took the tube, went to the West End, picked somewhere for lunch, stopped for a coffee. All very nice, apart from the fact that the day out was actually because I had a Disability Living Allowance tribunal in Fox Court in Holborn. Not quite the treat you'd thought...

I applied for DLA in December 2010. I've been ill and off work since 2003, but some bad benefits advice in around 2005 meant I thought I wasn't eligible to claim DLA that whole time. While that led to me losing out a lot of financial support, it was probably also the catalyst for wanting to become a benefits advisor and make sure other people don't get caught by poor advice. I'd made the classic mistake of thinking I had to have carers to get DLA rather than being made aware that it's about your need for care, rather than the actual provision of it that qualifies you for the benefit.

After some job training about other benefits, I realised I fitted the criteria and got a form. Slightly daunted by the size of it, I got out my favourite pen and started filling it out in my best handwriting, thinking how hard could it be? Turns out, if you aren't blessed with government department bureaucracy style thinking superpowers, attempt to be positive about your conditions and your life and don't usually have someone to help and thus can't picture how that would work, it's akin to trying to make the Enigma machine singlehandedly using two bog roll middles and a cornflake box. The form is a masterpiece in asking a question one way and expecting the answer another. I ploughed through it, making all the classic errors everyone else does when they see one for the first time, especially if they have mental health needs as the prompts are all physical related.

I said I didn't need help with my medication because I didn't take psychiatric medication, but didn't know to say that I didn't take them because I couldn't cope with them, couldn't get them easily due to my agoraphobia and because of the horrible side effects. I said I had no night needs because I didn't need anyone to physically help me into bed, not realising that i should have mentioned not being able to sleep without the TV on or the nightmares and reliving of PTSD. I didn't explain how someone could help me day to day because I don't have anyone to do it. I just wrote down what I thought I needed and felt like I'd been hit by a truck doing it. Seeing my life in black and white almost reduced me to tears at a time when I was being taught to be positive about it. I did the form wrong and it was still one of the hardest things I've done.

Surprisingly enough they awarded low rate mobility as I need someone to guide me when outdoors due to agoraphobia, but said I had no care needs. Thrilled to be around £20 a week better off and passported to other things like a Freeview upgrade and some help with energy bills (this depends on your supplier), I didn't query it. I started my volunteer role and began learning how to fill out DLA forms like a demon. 8 or 9 months later, able to fill out a full form in under an hour and half and not having had a single case turned down or need to go to appeal, I realised I was missing out because I definitely fit the care criteria myself. I asked for a review form to do a supercession and see if I could get my award altered.

Taking more than 4 hours to do it, I girded my loins and waded into the world of being honest about how crap life is most of the time. I backed it up with prescriptions, social worker reports, Community Mental Health Team reports, a full psychiatric report from from a psychiatric hospital, two letters from therapists and medical notes in some cases going back 15 years. They turned me down. I appealed. They still turned me down. A tribunal was the only way forward.

The waiting list for tribunals is evergrowing as both Employment Support Allowance and DLA awards seem to be modelled on finding the Higgs Particle. I asked for mine in October 2011 and it was set for 12th July 2012. Technically this gave me ages to collect further evidence for my case, but in reality meant I just sort of forgot it was happening because it was so far in the future. The one thing I did in that time was after discovering the inaccurate, incomplete and biased report my GP submitted to DLA was move GP to one who doesn't think I'm a big malingerer. Unfortunately I dithered about if for so long I ended up doing it too close to the tribunal and put myself in a situation where my new GP doesn't have my notes and couldn't write me a supporting letter.

Trying to comfort myself I'd saved up £45 on that at least, I gathered up the evidence to show my condition had worsened and that I had had to be referred to specialist services and found someone to come with me. I needed someone reliable and able to balance practicality with being comforting and who wouldn't look horrified by the details of my life I usually prefer to keep hidden. Turns out I am lucky enough to have a choice of people to ask, but it had to be my friend A who asked where was good for lunch nearby and gave me something else to focus on!

I sat down and went through my appeal bundle, sending my supporting evidence back to them by recorded delivery and picking out where the DWP were wrong or had ignored evidence or points of eligibility. Three A4 pages of detailed notes later I felt ready to take on the world. I spent more time choosing what to wear, eventually going for the obvious choice of what I would normally wear when I left the house. For me that included my mask of make up and I made a mental note to explain the healing power of eyeliner to them. We made our way to Holborn in good time and I realised I was actually incredibly unpleasantly overwhelmingly anxious (seriously, after 8 years this still surprises me...)

Greeted by a receptionist who resembled Dolly Parton crossed with the duffled coat dwarf in Don't Look Now who was annoyed I'd forgotten my letter, my first reaction to the tribunal was to run far far away. A quick trip to the toilet reminded me it would be awkward to explain to A why I'd pissed off and left her in a waiting room, I went back. The clerk of the session came out and introduced himself and the panel. I'd been expecting 2 on the panel, so was thrown by the fact there are 3. You get a doctor, a tribunal judge and a disability expert in a DLA tribunal, but only the doctor and judge in ESA tribunals. I barely had to wait before we were off down the glass corridored rabbit warren and delivered to a large bright room with 3 people waiting.

Pleased to see one was a woman, they explained that they are independent of the Department of Work and Pensions and are from the Ministry of Justice. They outlined the judge was there for fairness while the doctor would ask about my health and the disability expert would assess how the law of the benefit fitted in with those answers. And we were off. The female doctor started and I found her pleasant with an air of neutrality but just enough interaction to be aware she was human. I did find it odd that she asked me about all my illnesses and conditions, except the PTSD and everything seemed swerved away from that elephant in the room for some reason I couldn't quite fathom.

I found the questions from the disability advisor harder to deal with, party because he looked just like the coelacanth at the Ulster Museum, but also because it was hard to answer these with my 'sick person' head on than my 'advisor' head. Part of me knew the point of eligibility he was raising and wanted to highlight it, but the rest of me just wanted to kick my heels and complain like a toddler til someone gave in. I was also massively taken aback to start crying when he asked me about my night needs. I've sat and discussed the nightmares and reliving of my rape with plenty of experts over the years, but I've never shed a tear before. It was like being stripped bare and asked to beg. I can't remember the last time I felt so exposed and I really thought at one moment I wasn't going to be able to pull myself back without collapsing.

But throughout that moment and the rest of the hour long tribunal, the people involved were polite, listened to me without patronising or interrupting and treated me like a person not an inconvenience who fucks up their nice statistics by being alive. They offered me professionalism and allowed me a chance to speak like an adult with a brain in my head. After years of contact with the DWP and Atos, this shocked me and disarmed me. I couldn't read their responses. Where they luring me in? Where they really being nice? I couldn't be sure to trust them and I left feeling unsettled and unable to assess how the tribunal had gone.

DLA tribunals don't usually give decisions there and then, unlike ESA ones and I had to wait until Saturday morning's post to get my result. They awarded me low rate care for two years, backdated to last September and extended my low rate mobility for a further year, meaning the two award lengths match for renewal. It also means I don't have to do my DLA in the same month as my first ESA50 which is a nice bonus. I was originally pleased to see the award, although pissed off that they'd discounted my night needs, thinking I cried for you and you ignored it. But then a sense of profound upset came over me.

I've been sick pretty much constantly for 20 years and still it suckerpunches me when experts agree that I'm ill. I find it easier to say to myself that I'm just not well today than accept I'm probably never going to get completely well again or have back all the things being ill has cost. To see an agreement that I am very unwell in black and white knocked me and made me feel that for every progress I do make, it's really just me kidding myself. I'm no closer to holding down a full time job than I was two years ago. I'm still sick and struggling despite all the therapy I've done and I can just picture myself doing the tribunal roundabout for years to come. It felt heartwrenching and I wobbled all week, only perking up slightly when the DWP paid the backdated amount in my account this week.

Money doesn't buy you happiness. It doesn't buy you health, but it does make it easier to pretend life is normal and for that extra support I thank the tribunal for seeing sense and standing up for us when the DWP refuses to. It's been a long 10 months, but I think I'm glad I did it if only to remind myself what wonderful friends I have and to treat myself to the proper Miss Marple box set I've been eyeing up for years...




(I also like to take this moment to tell the Daily Mail to ram their filthy rag somewhere that means they have to start explaining their toilet needs to someone on minimum wage who hates sick people and see how easy 'just' filling a form in is...)