Guest blog: Imogen Butler-Cole

TRIGGER WARNING – this piece contains descriptions of sexual assault that some may find upsetting.

I have been sexually assaulted three times on three separate occasions by three different men. They were the kinds of assaults that we do not commonly understand as assault.

One of them was by someone I had been seeing. We had been sexual together but I had never had sex with him – nor had I consented to. One night he stayed over at my house and I was woken from sleep by him having sex with me.

Another was a stranger. I had slept on a sofa after a party and was woken in the morning by the sensation of fingers inside me. I was fully clothed. I didn’t know who this person was.

A third was a friend at the time. We had been at a dinner party and decided to stay over in separate sleeping bags on the floor. He came over and started being sexual with me. A tried to stop him two or three times but each time he carried on. He put his fingers inside me, I pushed him away, he did it again.

These incidents all happened around 10-12 years ago now. It wasn’t until I started therapy that they arose for me – for many years I had kept them buried. It was more comfortable that way. But even as I buried them they were having effects on me, unconscious of them though I was. I didn’t have any longstanding relationships. I found it hard to trust men. I was promiscuous, no longer valuing my body or being able to establish boundaries around what other people got to do with it. And though I was sexually active I rarely ever enjoyed the sex I had. I would try to force myself to enjoy it. I would pretend that I did. I got into more and more dangerous, more and more unpleasant situations. Looking back at some of those situations now I feel degraded, sad and lonely.

Many years later once I had recognised that the things that had happened to me were assaults I began to be affected in a different way. I was exhausted. I spent hours and hours lying in bed, hiding from the world, not being able to get up, struggling to get on with what I needed to be doing. Outwardly everything was still okay but my drive had plummeted. I went from being hyper energised and massively busy, to feeling like I was in a waste ground. No energy. No desire to be busy anymore. I also realised that during the interim years there had been an opposite kind of energy, a kind of hyper-activity that I have come to understand as overcompensation. Not thinking about it. Not allowing myself time to think about it, to reflect or to examine myself. I was running around the world pumping out project after project not really putting roots down anywhere – now it looks scarily as if I was running from myself.

As I’ve said much of this is quite a way in the past now. I’ve pretty much got over what happened to me. I’m in a great relationship, I’m learning to trust again, I respect my body and treat it well and it gives me lots of pleasure in response. But this didn’t just happen automatically. I’ve been privileged to have had the resources to be able to go through years of healing. I’ve done talking therapy, physical therapy, spiritual exploration, sexual exploration, personal reflection, and I’ve shared my story time and time again both in public with Foreign Body and in private with many many women who have survived similar experiences and also much more violent ones.

Another thing that’s happened is that I have chosen to forgive my attackers. This is primarily a selfish act as I do it to set myself free. It’s not about telling them that what they did was okay – it’s about living my life joyfully and without regret. Finding forgiveness was made easier for me by a conversation I had with one of them. He apologised whole-heartedly and took responsibility for the assault. He has been interviewed and recorded and with his permission his voice is part of the play. He’s not an evil outlier, he is friendly, popular, professional, a brother, a husband and a friend. He is a normal person who took advantage of a situation. This, in my experience, is what people who assault are. They are not grotesque monsters, they live among us and we know them and love them. They look just like us.

I have made this play because I believe that talking about this helps to destigmatise the dialogue around sexual assault, and I believe that in order to stop it happening we desperately need that dialogue to happen. It’s not easy to listen to. It’s less easy to speak. But if we can open our ears and our hearts to those that actively want to speak we are taking steps in the right direction.

Let’s stop pretending this doesn’t happen, that it doesn’t matter, and that it is nothing to do with us. 1 in 3 women have been sexually assaulted. We are all affected. We are all responsible.

Foreign Body is part of Calm Down, Dear. Catch it on Fri 30 Sep. Find out more.