Words are powerful. They make us feel, make us think and very often, make us act. Words have the ability to connect us via our shared experiences and often, give us insight into experiences we’ve never had before – the good and the bad. Every so often, a piece of writing comes along that can stop you in your tracks; so moving that it has the pull to demand your undivided attention and compel you to keep your eyes on the page.
The letter below is one such piece of writing. Sara Roebuck moved to France from the UK to begin a six-month internship. Three weeks after her arrival, Sara was trapped in a small room in a nightclub and sexually assaulted by a man determined to rape her. Using her own words, Sara wrote a powerful letter to her assailant “for men like you, for women like me, but above all, for my own emancipation.” While it is difficult to read, Sara’s letter is one of both vulnerability and strength and a must-read for women and men everywhere.
Because violence against women must end.
I write to you on this cold December evening, almost one year after you tried to rape me, because it’s the first time that I’ve felt strong enough to put pen to paper. I write to you because this afternoon we met again, only the surrounding were not quite the same. Your hands were cuffed behind your back, not sweatily gripped around my body. Your eyes were on the floor, not greedily inches away from my face. We were in the same room, only this time it was my choice and not yours. this time, you didn’t succeed in blocking the door with a fire extinguisher and keeping me against my will. This time, the door was closed behind you, by an armed police officer, and within, you found yourself looking at three judges in front of you, and my lawyer to the left of me. I write you this letter knowing you will never read it, because you are about to spend a significant duration of your adult life, as you already have done for the last one months, in prison. But, I must write in nonetheless, for men like you, for women like me, but above all, for my own emancipation.
I write to you in order to put onto paper the gravity of what you did, to materialise the story that unfolds, the choices you put down to “youthful stupidity”. I write this to you, so others and I can look at the words take its ugly form on this page. I write this because I am tired; I am exhausted of stories like this. I want myself and others to understand how and why we as a society still continue to struggle with the poisonous and violent reality of rape, the gravity of sexual assault, the complexity of misogyny, and the patriarchal weight that continues to minimise the role of the rapist and blame the women whose body was snatched from within her own skin.
I want men to read this and feel just as sick as the women who have lived through things like this do. I want things to change. I insist that things change.
You had many psychoanalytical terms and labels thrown at you this afternoon from the belly of the law. Infantile, sickly, deranged, narcissist. Your lack of father and suffocating mother, the absence of a staple job or decent education, your tendency to lie, to undermine, and furthermore your absolute inability to comprehend the severity of what you did, to understand the clear difference between “I consent” from “I do not”. Yet quite honestly, I am not interested in skirting around the context of your sad life in order to seek excuses for a man who tried to convince a row of three judges that you heard “stop”, “no”, and “help” and therefore were lost in translation because you do not speak English. Even though, when I stood up and addressed the court loud and clear in fluent French, we all know I knew how to say “arrete”, “non” and “aidez-moi”, and did so appropriately when you threw me against a wall. You tried to abuse me, to undermine my sexuality, to enclose me into a cage like an animal, but you will not undermine my intelligence, my integrity, or my strength to call you out in a language that is not my own, in front of a jury of three dudes in a country that is not my own, for your weak and pathetic account of what simply did not happen. J’en ai rien a foutre.
You said that what you did lasted a few minutes, not that you locked me in a room for twenty minutes while you tried to take off my clothes, while you launched my body onto a sink, while you tried to rape me. You said that you were on top of me on the floor because I dropped my drink and slipped, not because, after I managed to push you out from in between my legs, you twisted my body and pushed me onto the floor, pinning me and holding me down with the weight of yours. You said that while you threw me on top of the sink, pulling my legs apart and placing yourself in between them while I cried and screamed, thrusting my dress way above my chest and exposing the most intimate and vulnerable part of my being, all you did was touch me “one or two times” but on realising, seeing, feeling that I was in fact menstruating and had a tampon inside of me, after you had tried multiple times to ram your dirty hands inside of my body, you decided to stop. We both know that is not true. Everyone in the room knew that it is not true. Because it was not you that decided to stop. It wa see who fought back. Your eyes were black and you looked straight into my soul and told me you didn’t give a f*** that I said no, that I had a tampon. You held your thick wrist against my chest while you abused me, while you fumbled with your belt and pushed my underwear to one side, constraining my freedom by forcing my legs apart. While I kicked and screamed and cried, you grabbed and constrained and yanked and hurt every part of me that in no given universe would I have consented you to touch; that the only thing blocked you from succeeding in what you tried to do was the thing that led you to violently assault me: my sexuality. What a concept, the fact that the thing that repulses men, even though it symbolises and embodies female fertility and sexuality, was the thing that saved me.
It was not easy to do what I did today. My lawyer told me that I didn’t need to be present. But I was. I wanted to stand up and respond when the judges asked me if I had anything to say, because I did. I stood up with every ounce of strength inside of me, fuelled by a blind raging fury, furious against your lies, against the absence of recognition of what you did to me, furious against the fact you thought you could take what wasn’t there for you to take. I tapped on that microphone, declined a translator, and delivered my speech to the judges, my voice echoing around a full courtroom, squarely and loudly, in the language that you claimed I did not speak.
At that moment, I stood and spoke for every woman in the world who has suffered at the hands of men like you. I stood for every woman who walks home with her keys clasped between her fingers. I stood for every woman who has switched train carriages because of that one man who isn’t breaking eye contact. I stood for every woman whose parent insist they send a text after a night out, even at twenty-four years old, because they worry for their daughters’ safety because she’s female and not male. I stood for every women who has felt her sexuality stand on show when walking past a group of men. I stood for every woman who remembers the first time their childlike body was no longer so innocent in front of old horrible men. I stood for every woman who knows how it feels to have the waxy heavy regard of an unwanted gaze envelop her body, drenching your skin in this sickly, uncomfortable glare that you cannot put into words but know so well. I stood for every woman who has ever been called a whore, a slut, or a b**ch for rejecting unwanted advances. I stood for every woman who has felt worthless, used, and judged for having sex when a man has felt empowered, free and strengthened for doing exactly the same thing. I stood for every woman who knows the hot fury in being told blatant outright sexism is just a joke and “you should really learn to chill out a bit and have a laugh”. I stood for every woman who has double-questioned an outfit in case it looks “too slutty” or “asking for it”. I stood for every woman who has suffered the lonely, self-destructive, “if I hadn’t done, worn, said, breathed x y z then it wouldn’t have happened to me”. I stood for every woman who has felt that hot prickly shame when other women, friend, co-workers thing they have the right to talk about your attack as if they have any idea what it feels like, as if they have a right to make comment, judging you accordingly in the aftermath for the way you may react and suffer, telling you that “sh** happens” and its “no excuse” to fall behind because “you shouldn’t have gone out, you should have taken better care of yourself, don’t you know men just want one thing, you shouldn’t have put yourself in that situation”, “t’as completement deconne” *you f**ked up big time), spoken from the lungs of women who claim to be feminists themselves.
I stood for every woman who has been groped, harassed, attacked, raped, filmed, photographed, followed, touched against her consent, suffered verbal vulgarities, obscene regards, disgusting gestures, and worse of all, within a society that allows it, in some cases with other women who refuel the blame, and men around her who are supposed to be progressive and modern, but stay silent. I address all of these women because I am each and every one of them. Because it happens every single day to every single woman you, dear reader, know and love. I want people to open their eyes.
This is an open letter to every man who has tried to exploit, enjoy or profit from my body without my consent. This is to the man who was stood filming up my floaty dress while I was queuing to go up the Arc de Triomphe in the middle of blazing summer in 2014 with his reverse iPhone camera. This is to the multitude of men who have either tried or succeeded to grope me in busy nightclubs to the man in Barcelona who rode up behind me on a bike while I walked to the beach in broad daylight, violently grabbed my breast, nearly knocked me onto the floor and sped off, only six months after I was attacked in that little room. This letter is to the man who pushed me against a wall and told me he’d love to “screw me like I’d never forget” when I was walking home in my safe, residential district of western Paris, which reduced me to running home with tears streaming down my face, when all I was doing was walking home. This is to the man who rubbed his genitalia in front of me and stared directly at me without anyone else seeing, knowing I couldn’t change carriage or seat because the train was direct and there was no other space. This is to the man who invited me to his party and then threw me out onto the street at 4am, after screaming at me that the only reason he invited me was because all he wanted to do was f*** me. This is to every man who has reduced me to nothing more than a body, to an object that deserves nothing more than being violated. And what was my role in all of this? I was there and I was breathing.
This year, the issue of rape, sexual assault, and above all the question of constant was brought into the public eye yet again with the acquittal of Ched Evans, a man with the glimmering title of “occupation: elite sportsman”, a very large income, and more relevantly in this letter,, a man with a worryingly large following of strong and passionate male supporters who really got stuck into the rhetoric of “Shows how manipulative lasses can be if they want to be, throwing the rape card about and ruined Ched Evans’ career, justice is done slag”.
Throwing the rape card about. Let’s just consider that slowly. Throwing the rape card about, like having the most intimate part of your body violated against your will and then having the strength to report it is like trying to get an opposing player on the pitch a red card. Do you compare raping women to playing football? That the punishment should be a slap on the wrist because “she can’t prove that she said no, or she was too drunk, or that she was coming onto me before or that her ex boyfriend said she was able to have sex after the event in question so therefore in the eyes of the law it is OK”? No.
Do you have any idea what it entails to report a rape?
In the immediate aftermath of my attack, after I managed to escape by kicking the extinguisher out of the way with my foot and managing to open the door, the attacker took my bag and hid it on top of a cupboard that was too high for me to reach and re-find. He stole my phone and fled the premises. Yet, without my bag, I was without my keys. Without my phone, I was stripped of my ability to contact anyone close to me, anyone the could help. I was completely alone in what was the most vulnerable moment of my life. But alas, my bag was found, three hours later, my keys were returned and I was home. Alone.
There are no words in either the French of English language I can source to describe the aftermath of returning home on my own and of the day after.
The way that I peeled off my dress in front of the mirror and looked at the hand prints, marks, bruises start to develop across my back, legs, arms, shoulders, hips.
The way that I rolled myself into the foetal position, my knees tucked up under my chin, and let my brain process the information without needing me to be awake to register the sensation of coming to terms with the fact that someone has just sexually attacked you.
The indescribable, suffocating, nauseating, horrifying moment of awakening a few hours later, quickly realising that what happened really did in fact happen, the tremor of shock and fear and above all, absolute shame that someone took so much from you, that someone had seen your body in that way; and secondly, the natural instinct to feel culpable and stupid that you let it happen. It felt like someone had died.
The strength that it takes to find a police station open on a Sunday, to arrive and splutter out in a foreign language “I need to report a crime because a man tried to rape me last night”.
To spend fourteen hours being passed backwards and forwards from police, to special services, to medical personnel. To be made to go through, word by word, on no sleep, every single thing that happened to you the night before, the day after you escaped from what is every woman’s biggest fear. Only you didn’t escape, because he had you extended on a sink with your legs spread against your will and his dirty hands trying to invade your body.
To sit down on a chair and your whole body ache, to have to relive what that person did to you, in front of a team of police officers under a grey flickering light in the middle of a cold room. Do have any idea what that is like? For me, in a language that wasn’t even my own.
The way that it feels after being driven to various different offices across the city, to be taken to hospital and to be asked by two doctors specialised in rape attacks to remove your clothes so they can observe the bruises on your body. To be sat on a chair, with your legs extended so that a stranger can violate your vagina once again to check for lesions, cuts, marks, and insert foreign tools to swab for DNA, skin cells, fluid, sweat, anything scientific to prove that what you have said wasn’t false.
This is what it is like to report a rape. And I can tell you now, no person would ever willingly put themselves though that process. It is humiliating, exhausting, terrifying, heartbreaking, and it is just the beginning.
Being thrust into the centre of a legal criminal case is not something that is resolved overnight. The process of finding the individual, being notified of police progress, his account of the events that unfolded, his admittance or lack of, whether he is kept in detention, if he is, is he freed, what can I do, how do I understand, what information can I get. There are no words to describe the level of intensity involved in a process like this, and anyone who thinks that ANY woman would put herself through that is simply closing their eyes to the fear and acknowledgement that “men like me who undermine the gravity and the severity of what it means to reap someone do the things that women like them have to experience”. That, people are so disconnected from the painful, violent reality of rape and sexual attacks, perhaps these men are so ashamed of the way they themselves think and the way they see, bash, objectify, deny and abuse women if only verbally, they can’t bear to imagine that it is men like them that are the ones who think that woman’s body is there to be taken, there to be enjoyed, even against her will, and will go ahead and take it one step further.
For me, not once did anyone from the police service ever question “the role” that I played, because I played no role. Because the problem we have is social. It is not the services allocated to help and protect us that culpabilise the victim and free the actor, it is the society around us that has allowed that to happen.
I did not do anything other than live. I did not do anything other than breathe, exist, happen to be there on that night in the same space as a man who was furious against my rejection that he thought he could take what he wanted regardless. It is so important to understand this mentality. Because what happened to me is extreme, but not uncommon, and as I wrote either, this letter exists as an expression of the overwhelming existence of diluted forms of misogyny, abuse, violation, and intimidation that occurs every single day to 100% of the women of which every person reading this will have in their lives.
So to avoid any confusion, for anyone still struggling with the fact that no matter what a woman does with her life, she does not live asking to be raped, here it is in a nutshell:
As a human being, I have a right to live my life without my sexuality being used as justification by meant to touch me or sexually benefit from my body.
As a human being, I have the right to go out.
As a human being, I have the right to drink, to talk to people, to wear what I want, to go where I want, unaccompanied, alone, with a group, with no group, to live my life.
As a human being, I have the right to have sex if I want to, and that right is identical to that of a man.
As a human being, I also have the right to say no.
If I am unconscious, if I have consumed alcohol, if you are naked with a condom on your penis and I have already said yes but then I change my mind, that does not translate to consent and sex beyond that point is RAPE.
A final word. A letter to women like me.
I hope reading this has empowered you. I’m sure it wasn’t easy, I bet you reading this right now, yes you, there’s something in your mind that connects with something on this paper, something that makes that hot rush shoot up your back, your eyes kind of well, your palms clench just a little, that necessary deep breath. It’s OK, and I understand, and if you want to talk about it, you go ahead and write me a message. But above all, I hope you are empowered. Because I did this for you.
I stood yesterday and I spoke for you. I wrote this for you, so you know that you are not alone, your are never alone. I wrote this to you, when you’re doing something completely ordinary and all of a sudden it comes on top of you out of nowhere, like a tonne of sand, burying you under the banality of your day, and all you can do is push it behind your ears and carry on looking for your Navigo Pass or your Oyster card. I understand. I understand how you feel when you don’t even understand how you’re reacting. Because you thought that a rape victim or a sexual assault victim was this quivering pale thin gaunt-looking woman who locks herself away in a room and never leaves the house. Maybe you are her. Or maybe you’re not. Maybe you had to pick yourself up after that first two months or so of complete and utter shock and denial, that you managed to go out for drinks or have relationships, and take control of your life.
Because apparently, some people like to think that if you don’t embody that frail empty miserable woman, people you even know, friends perhaps, co-workers, of course society would put yet another expectation on the victim (remember though, we know she was raped, we accept this one, so we demand that because of this she shows us that she suffered), then was it really that bad?
Yes. it was bad. And no. It was not your fault. Rapes happen because of the rapist. And as you have just read my lengthy speech to any person who considers otherwise, know that, by doing this, we are making progress, we are forcing people to open their eyes to the daily, hourly sexism and misogyny, sexual assaults and rapes that unfold against women who are simply living their lives.
But believe me. This is not the end of you. No. This does not define you. This does not outline you. This does not do anything to you other than to know that you survived this. You deserve to know, from me to you, that you are beautiful, and wanted, and you deserve every single ounce of happiness in your life.
You deserve to know that you are strong, so unbelievably strong, that you can and will achieve things that seem impossible, even if sometimes, you find yourself unable to sleep, staring out of the window and chain-smoking cigarettes, or overdoing it for a while on something that relieves the pressure just a little bit. Because that’s okay.
Because you are a lioness. You are fearless. You are unstoppable. You are incredible and you will achieve great things. You are beautiful and I want to cover you in love, because you deserve it and so much more. You will survive this. You will walk home at night, as I do every day, alone, with your head held high, afraid of nothing, afraid of no-one.
You will have a lifetime of precious, intimate, loving relationships. You will make love, enjoy and appreciate your sexuality, and you will connect with someone who cares so deeply for you, the love will fill you and never leave. But before that, you’ll be great on your own. You’ll do your thing, just as you want it, you’ll eat alone, drink alone, read alone, walk alone. You’ll discover the world without constraint, without oppression, you’ll live.
My life has not been destroyed, and yours has not either.
I will not allocate this event to determine who I am, or alter the way I feel about myself. And neither must you. I must not, am not, and will not be afraid of intimacy and my sexuality. I am proud and sometimes quite in awe of how I found the force inside of me to fight: to fight against him, to fight against sexual discrimination, to speak my voice in front of those judges, and to learn about myself from what has happened. I must learn to love myself, and to appreciate everything I have done. And as I progress at Sciences Po, as I learn so much about philosophy, political science, the law, I can approach this subject head on, because I must. And you must too.
I refuse to let my life be taken down by this. I refuse to be defined by this, because I am so much more than that, Paris means so much more to me than that, and I will carry on talking and fighting for everything that I believe is right. And you will too.
Here are some extraordinary women we’ve had On the Couch talking about their experience with sexual assault: