Coping as a rape survivor in the animal advocacy movement

In this article I'm going to talk vividly about some very upsetting and traumatic things like rape and child abuse so I just wanted to warn anyone reading this that those topics are coming up.  It is not my intention to upset, provoke or undermine anyone else's struggle, I'm simply going to talk about my own experience and some of the positive things I have done to get past it, I sincerely hope that this be a useful resource to animal rights activists, and other rape survivors as they get on with their lives in an unfair and often oppressive society. It's a long article, but it's probably one of the most important things I will ever write so I feel as if it is deserving of more than a few words.


When I was a child, I was raped. It happened to me on a few occasions over the course of 2 years. It happened in the basement of my parents house. It should never have happened. The person who raped me was someone in my family and I was completely manipulated and abused by them. Nobody knew, and I was terrified to tell anyone. Holding the secret in for so many years was difficult but I now have the strength to be open about it. I have been struggling with the mental repercussions of this ever since.

I'm 30 years old now and I'm still living with post traumatic stress disorder. It affects my life in so many ways. Panic attacks are triggered by things that remind me of what happened to me. These triggers can be obvious ones like the subject of rape popping up in a tv show, movies, or on the news, and they can be less obvious ones: like noises, smells and places. My body often has a strong fight or flight response to normal things and I sometimes find myself dissociating. I go to therapy. It helps me piece together my memories of what happened to me, stop feeling guilt and shame, learn coping mechanisms and process what PTSD actually is.

I've come a long way in my life. I struggled a lot when I was in my teens and when I was at university. That was the period in my life where I think I was the most affected by PTSD. I got myself into many dangerous situations and abusive relationships. I was depressed, suicidal, and destructive. Despite numerous suicide attempts I received very little help from UK mental health services.

After I graduated from University I moved to Norway and I have found the resources here to get my life back together. Focusing on my career, self care, and finally getting access to sufficient mental health care for my needs has turned everything around. Finally, after 20 years of struggling to get by I can say that I am well on my way to recovery. I am happy.

Moving to Norway has allowed me to become myself. I have become a stronger person. I have learnt so much more about my own self worth and how I deserve more than abusive relationships and being treated like rubbish, I have learned to stop hating myself and stop feeling guilt for what happened to me. I have learned to love who I am and have people around me who lift me up. Writers such as bell hooks and Audre Lorde opened my eyes about so many feminist issues and helped me understand what happened to me in a feminist context. Through feminism I found veganism. I thought about how animals were individuals that had families, friends, and their own lives, and that I had no right to take that away from them. I didn't need to use them for food or clothing, there was so many other alternatives. So I became vegan. A few years after I moved to Norway I realised I was a completely different person. As well as the feminism and veganism, I'd learned another language, I've met a whole bunch of new friends. I had started taking care of my body and I had started going to therapy. I was some sort of vegan feminist foreigner that everyone thought was silly and cute. I'd began working in the tech industry and I made the Vegan Norway app.

I suddenly found myself thrust into the animal rights scene. It was great in some ways. I met all sorts of kind and friendly people who shared recipes with me for making vegan cheese, chatted to me about where you could find the best vegan burger in the city and were generally very warm and welcoming. It was so nice to meet other vegans and vegetarians.

Unfortunately though, not everyone has been so nice. In the past three years that I have been working within the vegan community my mental health has been tested and I have met a few angry people which have triggered my PTSD to a point where I have once again felt terrified, and unable to cope. It's been tough sometimes but I refuse to step away from the animal rights scene because I know that these angry and extreme vegans are not in the majority. Most vegans I know are pretty chill people that just love animals and eating falafel. To outsiders it can seem like most vegans are the angry extreme type but that's simply because they are the ones that shout the loudest. I don't blame them for their anger. They're angry because they know that others are suffering and they are desperate to make it stop. In so many ways I totally understand.

I do not feel welcome in the animal rights movement. 

I joined vegan Facebook groups to connect with other vegans. But despite being full of really awesome people, there were also those angry vegans there that took up most of the space and sparked most of the debate. I have had to leave most of those groups because of the types of content they posted. In their frustration that people were not taking animal rights issues seriously enough, they turned to shock tactics, posting the most horrifying images of animal abuse, comparing the abusive treatment of animals to some of the most horrific ways we have abused our fellow humans; the slave trade, the holocaust, rape.

They would make posts in which they had two images: a piles of dead human bodies on one side and piles of dead animal bodies on the other side. They took images of lynchings and collaged them together with images from slaughterhouses. They called everyone who drank milk rapists and they did it in all caps. They made those of us who had survived such terrible things into props, and they did it in such a thoughtless and insensitive way.

After a number of experiences which had me shaken up pretty bad, I left most of the vegan Facebook groups. Now I only have to come into contact with the caps lock crew at festivals, events and meet ups and even then it's mostly fine as they pretty much avoid me because they are angry that I wrote this article. That's fine with me. I wondered how many other people had left these online communities for the same reasons as me? How many people just wanted to make some vegan friends and have been put off going vegan? I worry about the mental health of people who are members of an online space which is filled with so much anger and sadness.

Oppression manifests itself in different ways

Every day we strive within and engage with systems of oppression, trying to do practical things here and there to be a bit better and learn. I believe that all oppression comes from the same place: the exploitation of vulnerability and exertion of power over a group which is less privileged than ourselves. However I disagree with the idea that all oppression can be talked about in the same way and this is because of context.

Animal rights activist often compare the treatment of cows to human rape. I've seen images where they just pop two awful images side by side in order to get people to 'make the connection' and I've seen drawings of cows with the words 'STOP RAPING ME' in a pretty font above the cow which is totally jarring. I've seen the issue approached in many careless ways.

I love cows, they're wonderful animals, they love their family, and are happy grazing on grass. But when they are used for agriculture they don't get to live out their natural life. We inseminate them so that they become pregnant and produce milk. When their baby is born we take it away from them and use the milk for ourselves. To me, taking someones child away from them is one of the worst things you can do and when we buy a carton of milk from the store we support this happening, amongst other atrocities.

When we as animal rights activists try to discuss what is happening to the cows, we talk human to human about an animal which is not present for or able to take part in the conversation. We stand up for them as a proxy, with no insights into how it truly feels to be a cow on a dairy farm, but some of us know how it feels to experience the human version of the things the cow goes through. That's why so many animal activists are so eager to compare the cows suffering with human suffering. For them it feels like an easy way to get people to consider the cows experience.

When we discuss the ways that cows are treated on dairy farms we have to be mindful and considerate of the language we use, especially when we use human oppression as a metaphor. We should always be wary of the ways we discuss rape in particular as there is unfortunately quite a high chance that we are speaking to someone who has actually been raped. Someone who is trying their very hardest to maintain their mental health, job, family life, and feeling of self worth. Someone who is just trying to get enough sleep, three meals a day and is trying to avoid triggers which may make them feel suicidal.

We are stronger together.

I want all of us to feel welcome and part of the animal rights movement. To have a truly progressive and effective movement we need to take care of and listen to the members of our community who have different backgrounds and experiences, learning ways that our activism can uplift and help them instead of upsetting and alienating them. I'm on a mission to make inclusive spaces and projects which take the needs and experiences of different groups of people into consideration, I want to make veganism more inviting to those of us who feel shut out from it.

Many of us feel strongly about the ways that animals are being treated and want to do something about it. When we think of activism, the first thought that comes to mind is angry people waving signs and shouting at others. But that is definitely not the only way we can be an activist. For example, I seem to have been able to make a great difference and help hundreds of people go vegan just by creating my app. I think the best thing we can do as activists is figure out what skills, experience, and privilege we have, and see if there are ways we can use this to fill in the gaps and spaces in the animal rights community which are lacking. Instead of becoming just another angry voice on the internet we can start recipe blogs, create products, curate events, write books, conduct research, make websites, blogs, podcasts and movies. We can volunteer at animal shelters, and donate our money to charities. We just have to make sure that as we move forward in our work, we take time to listen and be kind to those who it is affecting.

Take care of yourself

To anyone reading this who is a fellow survivor and is finding it hard to get by , let me offer you my hand. Together we can help animals whilst protecting and caring for our own needs, we just have to do some practical things here and there and know when to take time off from our activism. Here are some of my top self care tips for getting by in the animal advocacy movement as a survivor:

Your friends are not your therapist

If you have the opportunity to, find yourself a therapist. Coping in this world as a rape survivor is tough enough, but coping in the vegan community as one is going to present itself with some pretty triggering situations. Your friends may be lovely and help you a lot, but this is a pretty complex thing to navigate and nothing beats the support a trained therapist can give you. I would also recommend checking out the book Trauma Stewardship that the lovely Melanie Joy told me about after a lengthy discussion with her on the subject of trauma.

Don't respond every time

Ever had your day completely ruined by some random person on the internet? It's happened to all of us. Sometimes it can be productive to respond when someone is being ignorant or oppressive online, but it's important to step back and consider whether it's worth traumatising yourself. On most occasions our responses can fall on deaf ears but now and then I have been part of some very interesting and intelligent online conversations in which I have prompted others to change the way they feel about issues and they have done the same to me.

Unsubscribe, unfollow, delete and block

On Facebook, I usually unsubscribe from notifications on a post when I can feel like it's starting to get to me. I also jumped for joy when I discovered that you could unfollow racist uncles and sexist colleagues without them knowing that you didn't want to be their friend. I delete people who I'm uncomfortable with following me and I have a list of around 200 people who I have blocked for various reasons. Don't be afraid to protect yourself from traumatic online content.

Get the basics done

When you are going through a rough time you may find yourself unable to get the normal things that you have to do every day. That's ok. It's ok if you couldn't find the energy to work out, if you felt too anxious and stressed to go to work, if you cried so much that you couldn't go to a party. When you are feeling like this make your goals basic. Get three nutritious meals today. Get some fresh air, even if it's just a walk around the block. Take a shower. Brush your teeth. Don't engage with the things that are making you feel terrible. Just get through the day.

Listen to music

Never underestimate the power of putting on your favourite song and having a dance. Listening to Prince has got me through some of my darkest moments.

Disconnect

Sometimes things can just feel overwhelming. It's hard to do it but force yourself to just shut off for a bit. Leave your phone at home and go for a run. Meet someone for a coffee, go for a swim, go to the cinema, lose yourself in a good fiction book, hang out with your pets. Anything that gets you offline or out of an inflammatory situation is a good idea.

Remember that you deserve to be happy

As a survivor of rape it's taken me a long time to get past the shame, guilt and fear that I have been carrying around since I was a little girl. It's been hard to get past the idea that I'm worthless. I've worked very hard at getting to where I am now but it hasn't been easy and I am very aware that I can easily sink back down to feeling like I deserved what happened to me. I didn't deserve it. I'm not worthless. I am a woman who understands compassion and I'm beautiful and sexy and strong. You are too. You deserve to be happy, and as soon as you start believing it you can work to achieving that goal.

Please take care of yourself, whoever you are and whatever you do. I wish happiness and health to all humans and non humans, even the man who raped me. There is strength and power in compassion, spread it as far as you can.


Help

If you have become upset by or are struggling with any of the issues above I recommend talking to a trusted friend or family member, doctor or support line in your local area. We have made a list of helpful resources below:

Dixi - DIXI resource center against sexual assault is a low threshold offer for sexual assault victims or their next of kin. They don’t offer treatments, but guide you to Self-help. Everyone who works at DIXI is skilled with broad experience in the field and some of them have also been victims of sexual assault.

Dinutvei - Find a crisis centre near you.

Alarmtelefon for Barn og Unge - an emergency helpline for children.

Red Cross have a chatting/telephone helpline for young people.

Crisis and advice hotline for boys and men: 224 19 016.

FMSO (Stiftelsen Fellesskap mot Seksuelle Overgrep) can be called whenever, as their lines are open 24/7. Their number is 800 57 000.

Incestsenter for gutter (IFM) can be called on 224 24 202 in Oslo and 333 18 750 in Tønsberg.

Amathea is specifically for pregnancy, but they offer good help and counselling about things like abortions, they offer good help for minority women as well.

You can also always call the police on 02800 to report a crime.


Further reading

Veganism and the Problem of Props

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s Rape Rack: Feminism and Animal Rights

Rape Culture in Veganism

Kjøttindustri - a collection of articles about the meat industry in Norway published by NOAH (in Norwegain)