Trigger Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of the aftermath of sexual violence, right from the start. This is likely to be distressing to readers.
“This is only the 2nd time I’ve admitted the event in detail. It’s taken 5 years. The emotion and confusion is still overwhelming. I still don’t know what happened.”
Cold, Damp, Sore– opening my eyes I’m on the hard wooden cabin floor. Head spinning. Trying to focus as I lift my head.
The smell hits… Vomit and Urine?. Completely confused – Where am I?… What am I doing on the floor? How did I get here? Where are my clothes??
I had been at sea for a couple of months as a Deck Officer and once we arrived in Port, with duties done, celebration and leaving drinks for some of the crew were started. The crew were 90% Male and of all nationalities with some hardened party animals amongst them.
I’m not a big or regular drinker, but as the Crew had a clique, I was keen to fit in and be seen as ‘one of them’. As I write this I can see it sounds like a small child looking for acceptance and connection – wanting to be in the gang… Part of the ship – Part of the Crew – mainly so the bullying and intimidation would stop.
Comments, behind my back and to my face from the Chief Engineer (20yrs my senior) from day 1 about my accent; my weight; what I ate; that I was ‘too friendly’ with some crew; that I had taken the job his friend was supposed to get… every day there would be new insults or ‘observations’. In the mess room, he’d visit the bridge during my watch, he’d stop past my cabin… there was literally no escape. It wore me down. It was definitely personal.
I raised it with the Chief Officer and directly with the C/E – I was told it wasn’t personal; I was over reacting; I was being negative; it was a misunderstanding on my part due to language barrier… Effectively what we now know as gaslighting – I was imagining it… it was all my fault… I hadn’t realized how insecure I had become in such a short time – isolated, vulnerable and stressed. A night to let my hair down and relax with Deck Crew and Officers I was nervous about but determined to enjoy.
I remember going to the recreational room – wearing my usual shorts, T-shirt & flip flops – Nothing provocative, no make up and no effort made – it was crew drinks not a night on the town looking for a date. Clarifying this seems bizarre but women are often judged on what they wore / what they drank / how they acted prior to the event.
I was handed a large ‘whiskey’ by the C/E who I was not expecting to see there… He was trying to make small talk and be friendly which was a total shock after his last 8 weeks of bullying so I accepted his attempts at polite interaction. I remember the music starting and everyone moving to the aft deck, my drink was refreshed by the C/E… Next memory is being naked in my own vomit on the floor.
The retching started. I couldn’t stand up. I was crying and shaking. I was supposed to be duty officer that day but I could barely move. ‘how can 2 drinks do this’ ‘how unprofessional – this will cost you your job’ ‘need to clean myself and the cabin’. I called the 3/O and begged him to take my duty, made it to my bed and tried to sleep. ‘Why are you naked? How did you get up 3 decks to your cabin? Did someone help you?’ kept going round and round.
I was so sore – pain from vomiting, pain from the obvious headache but also internally – vaginally and anally were incredibly tender with traces of blood.
I messaged 2 crew to ask what happened – ‘you don’t know?’ a few icon things and that was it… no details.. No-one could or would fill in the blanks. I had the fear and utter humiliation of trying to gently and carefully ask a few crew what happened the next day – most wouldn’t meet my eyes, ‘don’t know’ would be the reply except the C/E who just smirked… every time he seen me would be a smirk and ‘a gentleman never tells’… ‘can’t sail if you’re pregnant’…’walking a bit funny today’…
Bruises appeared on my wrists and my legs – maybe I fell on the way back to my cabin. Internally still ached and the blood left little doubt penetration of some description had happened – who was it with? Did I consent? Was protection used? Christ I could be pregnant or infected… It was too much to process.
For days I was in a daze – were people laughing and talking behind my back? Were videos and photos going to surface at some point? I desperately wished my memory would give me a clue and reassure me – but it never did and in truth I was terrified what would come back.
On board I couldn’t trust anyone – what if they all knew and were all in on it – there were no pregnancy tests on board… I struggled to sleep. I was consumed with anxiety and self-blame – I knew I shouldn’t have tried to join in… I knew I shouldn’t have accepted that drink… I had 6 weeks left of my contract and couldn’t socialize or interact with anyone – I didn’t know who to trust. I did my watches and my duties but ate alone and stayed in my cabin. Even when the C/E left 2 weeks later the fear stayed with me.
Leaving the vessel I was verging on paranoia (I bet everyone knows, I bet they’ve all seen the pictures), Shame (I must have asked for it/initiated it/consented), Guilt (maybe I’ve made it all up in my head), Self-Loathing (so unprofessional, being such a slut, letting it affect my work)– I sought professional help – counselling. Thankfully I wasn’t pregnant and no STI.
Apart from sharing with Safer Waves today, this is only the 2nd time I’ve admitted the event in detail. It’s taken 5 years. The emotions and confusion is still overwhelming. I still don’t know what happened.
Part of me wants to think I just passed out drunk on the floor by myself…(which in 15 years of drinking had never happened) … But another part of me knows the bruising, the blood, the attitude shift all tell a different story – but what could I have reported?? That something may have happened, but I don’t know how or who with, to a Crew that already failed to support me??
Was I the only one this had happened to? Why me? I was offered another contract on that same vessel and had to decline – the worry of it being with the same crew and facing the C/E made me nauseous and panicky. I would rather be unemployed and struggling than back there.Years of counselling and I still won’t accept drinks from anyone unless I pour it myself and always keep colleagues at arms length, even on dry ships. I aggressively confront any whiff of rumor, bullying or gaslighting on board regardless of rank or gender.. It leads to an isolated existence with a reputation for being a hard faced bitch but it’s the only way I feel safer – to show no weakness or vulnerability…