After actress Lucy DeCoutere publicly accused former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi of sexually assaulting her, Lauren Reid felt inspired to share her experiences of rape with the world—for the very first time—and create a platform for others to do the same. So last December, the 30-year-old Toronto resident who works in the field of data privacy started WhenYoureReady.org, a website for survivors of sexual assault to tell their stories and support each other. She posted about the three times in her life she has been raped.
She writes about when she was 16, drunk at a high school party in her hometown in Oregon. Her ride had left her alone and she went to lie down for a quick nap before walking home. A guy she’d known since childhood came in and raped her. She wanted to run away, but felt ashamed and didn’t want anyone to see her. “His girlfriend found out, and soon everyone had heard what a slut I was,” she writes. “Somehow I was more comfortable with being a slut than with being raped, so I accepted it.”
In another post, she writes about being raped two more times when she was 19: at a college frat party and three weeks before her graduation. “I didn’t tell anyone because it seemed complicated … I decided to let it go.”
At the end of both posts, she writes: “When you’re ready, and want to share, I’m here. We’ll do this together.”
Reid spoke with Project 97 about dealing with sexual assault, her new website, and her goal to create a national sexual assault database:
Q: On the website, you write about how the media coverage of Jian Ghomeshi was a trigger for your past abuse, but that it also inspired you to take action. How so?
A: I’m American, and I was so excited by the positive response toward the women who came out against Ghomeshi and the way the Canadian media handled it. It was very different from the ways that Bill Cosby is treated in the U.S. People here didn’t support Ghomeshi, people were offended. It made me happy that people weren’t just going to stand by him. And that was the start of a different conversation around sexual assault. I was really proud to be here in Canada. Bill Cosby is down in the States getting standing ovations, and Ghomeshi is being condemned by everyone here. I started realizing the conversation was shifting, and I wanted to help other women too, and I realized that I could. Now we’re all talking about sexual assault, we’re believing the women, and these women sparked that just by sharing.
Q: Why did you decide to start WhenYoureReady.org?
A: I’m not famous, I’m not an actress, an author, or a politician, but when I wanted to tell my story, I didn’t really have anywhere to go with it and I needed more, I needed a voice and a platform. I wanted to continue the conversation started by the Twitter hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported. Every time someone else speaks up, it makes it a little less scary for other people to speak up as well. It makes it easier for the people who are suffering in silence right now. In my lifetime, even talking about breast cancer was taboo because it involved breasts. When I was younger, people didn’t talk about breast cancer at all, then that shifted as people realized the importance of discussing it. I want sexual assault to be something women can talk about without guilt or shame. I want women to be able to open up about this.
Q: Tell me about the day you launched the website and the response you received.
A: The first day I put it online, Dec. 10, I just needed to sit there for a little while and didn’t tell anyone about it. Then I told some friends and close family members, just to give them a chance to digest it. Nobody knew anything about the whole story: my mom, sister, closest friends, no one except my husband knew this had happened to me, so they were hearing all about it for the first time.
Most people responded by saying they had been there too. That was really unexpected. They were sad. A lot of people took responsibility that they shouldn’t have. They said they were sorry they didn’t do anything to prevent it –it’s not anyone’s fault. But that’s not fair because there was nothing they could have done. I didn’t want people to take this on and feel guilty. Those who didn’t have their own experiences were grateful for the website and encouraging.
There are 10 people who have decided to put their stories on the website. But people also responded to me over email, people who didn’t know me reached out and shared their own stories. Then the really overwhelming part was how many people in my very close circle said, “This has also happened to me.” Those first few days were the most emotional days of my life: it was family members, close friends, people I’ve known my entire life, and there we were, going through this side by side, talking about it decades later. Lots of men responded. Two out of the three times I was raped was in one fraternity by two different guys that were members there. One of my friends, who wasn’t part of that fraternity, but was involved with the Greek system—he lived next door—reached out and said he couldn’t believe this had happened. He said he read my story and was horrified and sorry. It really hit home for him.
Q: Many people would be nervous to share their stories in such a public way. Are you glad you did it?
There were two things that gave me a surge in confidence that I had done the right thing. The first thing was that my stepdad told me he was so sorry that he wasn’t there for me in the right ways, but that he’s really excited to do it over with his granddaughter, who’s eight now. That made me really happy, that he’s going to guide her with a different perspective than the one he had when I was a teenager. That gave me a lot of hope.
The other thing was that a woman responded to me and said she remembered the night I was raped. She said she knew the guy that did it and that he also raped her two years later. I thought: “Shit, what if I had reported this, I could have stopped this.” I started thinking I was to blame. That’s what you do as a victim, and I think, oftentimes, as a woman, you take these things on. Then her sister reached out to me and said that my story prompted them to talk about her sister’s experience, which they had never spoken about before. So because of my story, they started talking and reconnected after a long time being apart. They opened up to each other and began to heal together.
These two things made me realize that no matter how painful or scary this has been, it’s worth it.
Q: What are some of the best ways to respond when people disclose their experiences of rape and sexual assault?
A: Listen. Try not to push for further details. Don’t ask questions like, “did you report it to the police,” or “what were you wearing,” or “were you drinking?” I know those questions come from a good place with the best intentions, but certain questions can seem undermining and skeptical. People are raw, they are sensitive and exposed. It’s important to be careful about the questions you ask that they might construe as blaming them. We already feel, for so many reasons, that it was our fault. The best response is asking how we are now, or what was it like to share your story. Try to bring the person back to the present moment. Some people asked for the names of my perpetrators, and I didn’t like that. Remember that the survivor needs to feel like she’s in control. She’s had her control taken away from her. Respect that she has her own way of dealing with it. I don’t want anyone calling the guys who did this to me, it has to be on my own terms and pace.
When I told my husband–who was then my boyfriend–I had a panic attack. I was sobbing, hyperventilating; I surprised myself when I said it out loud. That was the first time I ever told anyone out loud. And I was so worried that he wouldn’t want to be with someone with all these issues. But he didn’t run, his response was amazing. He told me I could tell him as much as I wanted, when I was ready. It felt like a secret I was carrying around for so long because I felt ashamed.
The nature of the website is for any form of expression, whether that’s a story or a poem or a piece of art, with any attribution. Mine has my first and last name and picture, for example, some may choose to be anonymous, and that’s fine.
Q: What are your goals with this website and for the future?
A: My goal is to create a meaningful resource for data and statistics to really understand the scale of the problem. I’m looking to create a national database of sexual assaults that fills the gaps between existing statistics that are available, which give only a small glimpse of the problem. The other database I am looking to build would not be part of this website. It’s still very early and I don’t know who would be involved or how it would work yet. I’m speaking with data experts, politicians, to figure out how to make this happen, but I’m not exactly sure at this point. I really believe that it’s critical.
I appreciate what can be accomplished through data and information because I work in the field of privacy. It’s all about protecting the privacy of individuals and balancing those rights with social change and innovation. When I do go about creating the database, privacy will be the core of the project.
I wouldn’t say the goal of the database would be for Canadians only, it might be for North Americans, it might be international. One of the reasons behind this sort of database would be to assist academics, outreach providers, journalists, and police, in decision-making. I still need to figure out the scope and mandate. But I know I want to jump in and see how big we can make this.
Q: You spoke with Lucy DeCoutere around the time you started the website. What did she say to you?
A: The night I started the website, I wrote emails to some of the women who spoke out about their experiences with Jian Ghomeshi, thanking them for giving me the courage to share my story.
Lucy called me that night and she thought my idea was really cool and gave me a few pieces of advice and one of them was to be prepared that he [Reid’s rapist] might reach out to you. That hasn’t happened to me yet, but I didn’t think that part through and I was suddenly panicked. A lot of people know who did this to me even based on my story. I didn’t put too many details, but because I’m from a small town, people who were there that night pieced it together very quickly, so there are a lot of people who now know who he is. The other thing that Lucy said was that now that I’ve told my story, it’s out of my hands. I didn’t understand what she meant. But after I told my family about it, I got it. This isn’t my secret to keep anymore. And it was this weight lifted off my shoulders. And now, anything that happens, I am just along for the ride. It was such a wonderful feeling. That was really special.
This story is part of #Project97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit Project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.