This year at WOW, I was there with my still relatively new partner Steve, and on the Saturday we went to the rape survivor talks led by Jude Kelly. She has been doing this for a few years but I had never been before. I wanted to see how it was handled, but didn’t quite anticipate how the session would affect me. The extremely open and raw talks moved me, because they made it very clear how normalised a lot of rape, and rape culture is. What I became aware of is the value of speaking out, for the brave (and very articulate) women we witnessed there as well as for the audience listening, and also that I had buried experiences that would benefit from being unearthed too. I’d started writing this blog in February I think, as I’d sensed there were some blocks I needed to uncover, and hearing the talks encouraged me further. I had to postpone processing the effects of the session, as I was running Spirited Bodies later that day and there was a lot to coordinate. The next day however, I felt it. In fact I have been finding that whenever I am at a low ebb, those feelings re-emerge, and I have to do some work on them. Writing really helps.
A long long time ago, I had an experience with a photographer, from the fetish scene, which was part of a big period of setback for me. I wouldn’t say that rape was uniquely responsible for my fall, because, I was already on that trajectory. I am not letting him off the hook, however if it hadn’t been him, I at that point would most likely have attracted something of that nature one way or another. There were deep family problems that created the right set-up for some disaster. It’s not always the case, but it was for me. Rape happens in many ways, from via people we know very well, to complete strangers. This was a man I met in a club, who lured me to his studio with the promise of paid fetish magazine modelling work. I was interested, and probably overlooked unsavoury signs, because my parents had told me I had to move out after finishing my A-Levels. It was the Spring term, 1995. I was clubbing a lot, taking drugs, and truly I had a bent to try injecting. It was that sort of phase in life – and I was also considering the sex industry. I didn’t know how I would support myself after leaving home, and could not imagine getting an ordinary job. My general appearance was a bit punk, or hookerish, and back then I don’t think that was ok in your average bar, or shop. In any case, I had a yearning to experience a different side of life to the narrow band of just-within-the north-circular-suburbia that the edge of Muswell Hill had thus far afforded me. At that time, life modelling was not within my sphere, sadly! Although artistically gifted as a child, going to an academic school I was mostly guided towards more cerebral subjects, which later proved to be less fruitful.
Rape has become much more publicly spoken about in recent years, and I keep reading that there is no hierarchy in rape. It’s positive to read that, because I did use to categorise my own experience as something far less valid or challenging say than a woman who had been forced violently, perhaps drugged too. Mine was more psychological, harder to prove technically. I was such a mess generally at the time that I never considered going to the police, I sensed that could be even more difficult. I was very promiscuous and hardly ate. People say I’m rather slim now; back then I was weighing myself everyday and making (short) lists of the foods I ate. I wore basically underwear in the nightclubs I frequented and took speed in particular on a regular basis. On occasion I whited out at home in the kitchen and Mum had an idea of the nature of my condition. We weren’t on the friendliest of terms then. She’d been diagnosed with MS a few years before and though only in the early stages of onset, was quietly dreading her more limited future.
I didn’t dare go above 7 stone – I had a strict limit on myself, would not allow myself to grow further. This wasn’t anorexia exactly; I wasn’t vastly concerned with being fat. I just didn’t want to be bigger, and I was deeply unhappy on a soul level. I could not allow myself to enjoy food. I had newly discovered confidence on the dance floor in my underwear on speed. I didn’t have to work at remaining thin, but I made a dedicated practice of it. I could get high on being empty, and drugs were more readily absorbed by the absence of food in their path.
The photographer was sleazy and I was far too easy prey. I must have embodied ideal victimhood. I was already well-sexualised and largely looking for it, just sometimes not being as discerning as I might. I was not strongly grounded – I felt undermined by family support who ought to have been guiding me with love. I was abandoned in spirit and in need of a new home, a new family. The lynchpin of my independence (and career) could wrest on my completed education as I had been thus far prepared, but it was not to be as I spiralled off the rails. I would have to find my own way, invent a new path. Hard won female pathways of power had already been indicated, however there seemed a fault along my branch.
My Mother though having a degree, had simply been a housewife (and not a happy one). My Father’s Mother though having graduated well from Oxford (and the first woman in her town at that), had not long after developed schizophrenia and suffered detrimentally. My Mother’s Mum hadn’t been to university but had forged several careers including journalist, broadcaster in East Berlin, and fashion designer in London. This woman was the closest person to me in my youth, who represented female power and autonomy. In her old age she was a talented artist who guided my love of painting and creating collages as well as building sculptures made of rubbish. She died just after my 14th birthday, and I don’t think it was by chance that my walk towards the darkness happened soon after.
I was emotionally lonely and found myself submitting to the photographer. He had a very large penis and he wanted anal. I was not so gifted in the art of saying no and he was obsessed with gratifying his appendage. I sank to new levels of despair but home was a spent force for me and I had to cut loose. Finding fellow inhabitants of such a place of broken was my calling. I count three of those people still as friends even if we don’t meet so often. Another died last year, and others fell off the radar a long while back – indeed I think their own darkness was a tad beyond my scope in time. Outside of that immediate circle a wide sprawling network of Slimelight, fetish and gay clubbing networks buzzed and vibed. It was the 90s, there was a scene.
The rape photographer staged intimate shots of me that he personally prepared my body for. He was keen on bondage but it was all relatively new to me and he so pushy. I negotiated away from the more extreme stuff, and took lines of speed between shots. I wasn’t interested in keeping any of the prints, except for one of me dressed, and one a portrait. The innocence and beauty on my face at the time he had in fact caught. I actually put the portrait on the wall of my bedroom in the new lodgings I secured with a friend. A curious memento marking my departure from the parental home, more so for in the image of my face, I saw my Mother’s resemblance. It seemed mostly her that I escaped from, yet she would always be with me, within me.
The pictures were never used for a magazine that I know of and I have no idea what became of them. He never paid me, and at the point of acquiring the two nice photographs (which subsequently got damaged or lost) after two or three visits I was able to say I wanted no more business with him. Being raped had seriously hurt me emotionally, but I couldn’t completely think of it as rape as I had allowed it. I hadn’t wanted it, but I hadn’t stopped it. I thought life might somehow be better if I didn’t say no. I thought I might get something I needed, though I don’t think I had a clue what. I just wasn’t in a good place to begin with. My Mum shouted and screamed at me (and the rest of the family) every day, that she hated us and wished we were dead. I could hear how unhappy she was, but she was unreachable, and we couldn’t utterly understand what was so wrong with her. At the same time, she was very powerful and there was little manoeuvring around her stubbornness. She wanted me out, and was especially jealous of my open and youthful sexuality. I had to go, and was yet to discover my own layers of protection.
Within a year I had transformed into a notorious and newly powerful dominatrix; if any man deigned to try even the slightest wrong doing towards me, I was ready to kick him with my heavy metal boot heal.
I gave myself away to that man in 1995 when I could have spat in his face and walked away. I wasn’t empowered enough at that time to do that, or to even be aware of it in the moment. Maybe that’s why now, I have been wanting to help other women wherever I can. It took me quite a few years to get to that point of just being able to help in the way I have. Now I realise I have to help myself a bit more, before I can help anyone else.
Talking about the rape incident with a new friend at the time led to a lasting friendship that helped throughout my several years episode outside of the mainstream. Up until that point I had been considerably more isolated, and now at last a small family of fellow freaks emerged in my midst. It wasn’t exactly a smooth ride; I did enter the gloriously varied sex industry at several junctures, and found the wild experiences and underground insights I’d sought.
Coming back from that journey wasn’t easy either, trying to re-enter institutionalised life not as my unwise youth imagined. At university and drama school I didn’t know how to connect, effectively. For years I hid behind a very long fringe, dressed down, so no one would ever guess my bohemian past. When a fellow student once asked what I’d done before coming to college, I started to shake and stutter for several minutes. I gave up on uni and transferred to an experimental theatre degree at drama school. Even if I couldn’t find much commonality with other students, I could dig the out-there qualities of some of the practitioners we were investigating. Tadeusz Kantor’s ‘Dead Class’ resonated with my gothic leanings; I felt I’d already lived this art, let alone studying it!
Now at 39 years of age, I have managed to reach a considerable way in my life modelling career without greatly delving into photographic modelling. I think, even if I was bound to get raped when I was 17, the fact that it was a photographer did leave particular scars. I have had a block about photography. While I am comfortable being photographed by friends, especially women, and more recently in the context of my performance work, I have never actively sought photographic modelling work, though it generally pays at least twice the life modelling rate. I always felt safer dealing with drawing artists, and have found that generally far less sexual politics comes into it.
I think I have past issues to heal that could uncover previously concealed layers of potential confidence, that reach way beyond photographic modelling. This is much more than about being raped, it’s about the conditions that led to that. It’s about not feeling valued, not knowing what I had that was positive and worthy of respect. I didn’t know how to channel myself towards a bright future, in fact the very idea of that was alien or even repugnant to me. I was anti-bright-future, and so destined to find some darkness. I was more than a drop-out, I was an active seeker of darkness! I revelled in it; it was the only thing that made sense. The world was not one I could see myself or anyone flourishing in.
Much of that harsh attitude has naturally been reshaped over the years, softened and redirected. But there are still pieces to uncover and iron out, in order to achieve the shine I’m after. As an adolescent I had not been raised with a strong sense of how to look after my own interests. I would let myself be overtaken and wouldn’t allow myself to reach the heights I would like to. I had massively missed out on emotional support, and was far too ready to give myself away and not consider consequences.
My own lack of confidence was responsible, and some of this patterning has remained with me. It has been pointed out to me that while my projects focus a great deal on helping and empowering others, I have tended to neglect some of my own needs.
During this recent period of reflection, I haven’t been seeing my parents so much as I noticed that if I want to realign my behaviour, I need to not be overly exposed to the most original source. At this stage in my life, this is not about blame, but rather trying to get to the bottom of things, to a better understanding, so I and all in my sphere may grow towards greater happiness. I would like to say that I generally have a good relationship with my parents now; a lot has been worked through. They are there for me, and very importantly they accept me as I am. I know I am very lucky to have them, and appreciate the unique upbringing they gave me. My Mother is now severely ill with MS, and caring for her takes up considerable family energy. I have felt that my own needs haven’t been prioritised but know that I am far from alone.