Raped but not defeated
Elin’s story is the story of a dress. A dress that held such terrible memories that Elin’s social worker recommended she destroy it. But the Groningen student refused. This was her dress and she refused to give it up.
This is the story of how Elin reclaimed her dress from the men who assaulted her.
Elin uses photographs to tell her story. She took the first one a few weeks after the incident. It’s a blurry photo of a startled girl looking into the camera. Photos of bruises. Photos of a dark city. A girl in the woods. Drawings of a girl in the woods. The woods are dark, but there is light in the distance.
The girl is wearing a white dress.
The images show how she felt, who she was. She says it was difficult to access those feelings. For a long time, it was difficult to feel anything at all.
First photo. Night. The moon. A date. July 2020.
That’s when it happened.
She’d had a drink with friends outside a gastropub. Not at a bar or a club ‘where I’d be more on edge about something happening’. She thinks someone slipped something into her drink. After all, she’d left her seat several times to go inside. She remembers getting dizzy when she got on her bike to go home. She remembers she was unable to work the pedals and she had to get off her bike.
I listened to myself breathe and told myself I was still alive
The next morning, she woke up in her own bed. She still doesn’t really know how she got there. She has some scattered memories, some images in her head she’d just as soon forget. ‘I thought, this can’t be happening’, she says. But she saw the bruises on her body. She felt the pain. ‘I knew something bad had happened.’
‘I did nothing at first’, she says. ‘I just lay in bed. I couldn’t move and I didn’t know what to do.’
She lay there for hours.
After a while, she decided to start taking pictures. School had taught her that photos can be a powerful tool to process things. She hopes they might be able to help her down the road. She didn’t have words to describe how she felt. ‘I listened to myself breathe and told myself I was still alive. That calmed me down.’
Second photo. A day later. A single word: ‘Help.’
By complete coincidence, she sees an ad for the Sexual Assault Centre (SAC) that tells people to contact them if they’ve been a victim of assault. But she couldn’t call them; she still didn’t have the words to talk about what happened. She fills out a contact form instead. ‘Looking back, I regret it, because the form was only for non-emergency situations. But I was completely unable to call them. I didn’t know what to say.’
A recent report by Amnesty International showed that one in ten women and one in a hundred men are raped while they attend university. A survey by UKrant among Groningen students revealed how widespread sexual violence is in the student world. Out of six hundred respondents, 40 percent had experienced sexually transgressive behaviour. Twenty-three female students said they had been raped.
Because of this, it took a few days before she got a response. She knows now that the people at the Centre wouldn’t have asked her any difficult questions. They just wanted to know what kind of help she needed: the police, perhaps, or a doctor or a psychologist? ‘But I didn’t know that, and I didn’t want to run the risk of any decisions being made against my will.’
So she waited until someone had read her email and she could start the process of getting help. What did she need? What kind of insurance did she have? She almost had to cough up 385 euros of her own copay before she could get help, but the SAC fixed that issue for her. She had to decide whether she wanted to report her rape. ‘But I’d showered and put my dress in the wash. I also didn’t want anyone touching me.’
She had to take a morning-after pill.
She had to wait some more.
The study programme she’s doing is in the field of social work, so she understood why. ‘It’s normal to not be hungry, to not feel anything, to be unable to sleep. The kind of help you need depends on your complaints.’
But she couldn’t sleep. At all. ‘Every time I tried, I’d wake up and couldn’t breathe, just like that night.’
Sleeping pills didn’t help. The psychological help that Elin eventually got didn’t help at first, either. Not with her sleeping issues, anyway. ‘It happened a stone’s throw away from my house. I regularly ran into those men. How was I supposed to process what happened to me when I kept running into the people who’d hurt me, making me feel unsafe?’
I knew I would get through this, that I could do it.
And no, she absolutely didn’t want to go to the police? What evidence did she have? Any camera footage would have been long deleted, any DNA lost. It would be her word against that of two other people. Elin’s social worker understood. Even she admitted that there was only a small chance of success.
She decided she had to leave, move out of the studio apartment where she’d been so happy, to a place that didn’t carry the memories. ‘I just did it. I think I may have looked like a strong person and in many ways I was, but I was also completely emotionless. I just couldn’t access my feelings.’
She went back to her studies and tried to pass a particularly difficult exam she’d failed a few times before. She failed again.
She tried to speed up the healing process by doing everything she was scared of. She knew that avoidance is a part of PTDS, so she exposed herself to situations that were potentially triggering. She would cycle past the place where it had happened, in spite of her fear and the need to avoid the location and made herself go outside at night as a self-invented form of exposure therapy.
But she did wear ‘safe’ clothes. No more short skirts, and she never wore her dress anymore. ‘I didn’t have the fortitude to deal with the attention clothes like that might attract.’
She still wasn’t sleeping, not even in her new studio apartment she’d managed to procure during the pandemic. At night, she was plagued by a tightness in her chest and the feeling that she had to throw up.
She now knows that you can’t force yourself to process traumatic experiences. ‘And exposure only works when your body is no longer in survival mode all the time’, she says. She needed her social worker to explain that to her.
She went to EMDR therapy. Session after session, she relived the traumatic events of that night. The sessions made her feel like she was suffocating, like she was going to faint, just like back then. But she wasn’t going to let what happened to her ruin her life. ‘I knew it was working. It kept me going’, she says.
Slowly, she stopped feeling like she was being suffocated when she was lying in bed. Slowly, very slowly, she felt the sunshine returning to her life.
A photo of a girl. She’s crouching down among the autumn leaves, hands in front of her face. She’s wearing a white dress.
It’s the dress. The same dress she wore that night. The same dress her social worker told her to destroy, because it would be really difficult to see it as anything other than tainted.
‘But this dress has been with me since childhood’, says Elin. ‘Was I really supposed to get rid of it just because I was wearing it when something bad happened to me? I wanted this dress to stay with me for longer.’
She decided that instead of getting rid of the dress, she had to overwrite the memories attached to it with self-awareness and light. Her power.
She decided to take pictures of herself wearing the dress. Pictures that would reflect that power. She hated being a victim. She even hates the word. ‘But I knew I would get through this, that I could do it.’
She found some woods near Groningen. A quiet, safe space where she could be herself. ‘And the light was great.’ She put on her dress, setting her camera on a tripod and setting the timer.
But the photos she took: she only saw a scared and vulnerable girl, overcome by her emotions. Nevertheless, she kept them. ‘I realised this was part of the process. I’m glad that I kept them. They show just how bad it was.’
A photo of a large sheet of paper with stencilled letters. The paper is filled to edges, with letters appearing to fall off the edge. A closer look shows the letters form two sentences.
She initially didn’t mention it to her therapist, so during the EMDR sessions she’d focused on the feelings of suffocation and nausea. But her rapists had said two things to her. She’d come to realise that this had affected her the most.
The therapist told her to recall them, to speak them out loud. But she couldn’t. Everything came rushing back, and she was forced to cut the session short.
She went home and tried to write everything down. But even that didn’t work. She decided to spell out the sentences using separate letters. In the end, she stencilled the sentences letter by letter, over and over again.
At the next EMDR session, which also happened to be her last one, she’d lost weight because she was so stressed, but she was able to say what her rapists had said to her.
‘You’re a ****** ****** *******.’
‘You can ***** ****.’
She won’t share them with the rest of the world. They’re too awful. They’re too emotionally charged.
A photograph of a drawing. A girl with a white orb in her hands. She is smiling, just a little.
But she wasn’t done yet. More than a year had passed since her rape, and she still only slept four or five hours a night before waking up. Her body wouldn’t let her rest.
‘There was one thing that kept haunting me’, she says. ‘How had these men picked me, of all people? It’s almost as though they planned it. I didn’t get it.’
They thought they could get away with it. And they did
Until a friend took out her phone and checked Happ’n, a dating app that matches you with people you meet on the street. She had once used the same app. ‘Suddenly, it all made sense’, she says. ‘That’s how they knew where I lived, the roads I took.’
She went back to her old neighbourhood, her old street, and opened the app. And there they were, the men who’d raped her.
That’s when she finally went to the police. She wanted to report her police, in case they targeted other women. The arrogance and contempt with which they’d treated her suggested this was something these men did a lot. ‘I suspect it was premeditated. They thought they could get away with it’, she says. ‘And they did.’
The UG and sexual violence
- Your study adviser can help you find study-related solutions.
- If you’re delayed in your studies, you can apply for financial compensation through the graduation fund. You’ll have to go through a student dean.
- You can also turn to a student psychologist at the UG. They can’t treat any PTSD, but they can help you get things in order and refer you to other organisations. Please keep in mind there might be a waiting list.
- If you’re a victim of transgressive behaviour or sexual violence at the university itself, you can report this to the UG’s confidential advisor.
She didn’t want the police to act on her report, however. After all, neither her friends nor her family knew what had happened to her. The police couldn’t promise to leave them out of a potential investigation. ‘That meant I couldn’t file a report’, she says.
It’s still eating away at her, she says, but solving that final piece of the puzzle did help. Now, eighteen months and some distance later, she’s once again thinking about filing a report. ‘Telling my story would protect others as well as myself.’
The UB gave her a studio to study in, after she’d gone to her adviser to talk about her circumstances. At the time, the UB studios were only available to vulnerable students, due to the lockdown. ‘I didn’t want to be “vulnerable”’, she says. ‘But it did save me.’
She finally passed that difficult exam.
The last photo. A girl in the woods. She’s carrying a shining orb. The trees are looming above her, but she is carrying light. She’s wearing a white dress.
Elin has learned to laugh again, she says. These days, she wears an Invi bracelet. It’s a self-defence bracelet that releases a foul smell when broken. It’s better than pepper spray, which is illegal in the Netherlands, and it’s very effective. At 69 euros, it’s not cheap, but the manufacturer set up a crowdfunding campaign for Elin so she could get one.
She’s sleeping again. Or at least, better than before.
She went on a date, the first one in a long, long time. The guy was cute. Sweet.
She didn’t wear her dress because it was too cold. But she could have. After all, it’s her dress, and only she decides whether she wears it or not.
Are you the victim of sexual violence?
- The Centre for Sexual Violence has people available 24 hours a day. You can contact them by phone or online. They will start out by asking you general questions. After that, you can tell them what kind of help you need: psychological, medical, or police.
- If you’re looking to protect yourself, the Invi bracelets are a great tool. They’re inconspicuous, but breaking the capsule inside releases a foul smell to deter your attacker.
- If you incurred any costs because of what happened to you, for instance because you went to therapy, you can turn to the Violent Offences Compensation Fund for a possible remuneration.
- Victim Support can help you emotionally and legally. They can also help you with your application to the Violent Offences Compensation Fund.
- Lost in the forest of organisations? The Victim Guide can help you choose.