Most of you feel you probably know every single intimate detail about me after reading this blog, but did you know that under my massively middle class surface, I absolutely love soaps? I watch both Eastenders and Coronation Street, catching up on the omnibus if needed and only recently kicked my Neighbours and Hollyoaks habits. I feel no shame in admitting to this and have a low tolerance for soap snobbery, especially from those who don't realise Corrie is one of the greatest comedic programmes on TV. I usually revel in my evening visits to Weatherfield. So why on Wednesday did you finding me turning the television off completely and going off to tidy my sock drawer and polish the teaspoons?
I didn't have the Queen calling round the following afternoon. I haven't decided to start watching 'real' programmes. I was simply knocked sideways by the latest storyline in which the somewhat ballbreaking Carla Connor was violently raped in her own flat by the man she declined to marry. Except it wasn't the rape that floored me. It was the aftermath. Twenty two minutes of the immediate consequences of sexual violence.
How do you get rid of him? Do you tell anyone? Who do you tell? How do you tell them? Because once the word 'rape' slips past your lips, the genie is completely out of the bottle. You'll never look at yourself quite the same again and you know no one else ever will either. Can you actually form the words to articulate the changing of your entire life? Do you call the police? Are you pressing charges? Do you even know what's happening or does it feel like the world is spinning round you as you try to comprehend the new reality?
Guided by her friend Maria, who had been the victim of an attempted rape by the same man, Carla finds herself reporting to the police. I expected big drama, screaming sirens and high octane. Instead we got something that felt almost like real time. Carla's reaction with the specially trained WPC were calm, quiet, banal even. Everything was so understated I imagine the average viewer thinking 'what's the big deal? Yes, her blouse is ripped, but she's fine really' until Carla's rapist calmly lets himself in through the front door carrying a takeaway and she responds in an instinctual frenzy of fea, panic and self preservation that is quite terrifying to watch. There can be no doubt that she is not fine. People do not respond like that to people if they have just had a tiff or changed their mind or regretted something. Even Carla herself realised it, no longer so resistant to going with the police officers to be examined by the doctors at the closest Sexual Assault Referral Centre or SARC.
I expected them to skirt over the forensic side of reporting in favour of some good old fashioned soap screaming and disclosure in front of as many people as possible at the least appropriate time possible. I was wrong. There was nothing whipped up to be dramatic, just a very precise portrayal of what a full forensic exam for rape can be. Obviously they didn't show the most intimate parts, nor could they convey just how endlessly long the procedure is, but so accurate was the bleakness of sitting in a hospital gown in a clinical room with a doctor and nurse starting at your head and working down to your feet and methodically examining every centimetre of your body for the evidence of your rape, I couldn't watch at the time. I actually thought I might be sick with how much it brought back. My life and how I felt about my body changed more and more with every inch further they looked at during the three hours my examination took. If I'd been wearing anything more than a sheet, I'd have run away to make it stop. It was the worst experience of my life and remains the one memory of either rape that I cannot look back on without feeling the bottom drop out of my stomach and a cold sweat break out even now.
Yet unlike a bunch of stick up their ass commenters in the press, I think Coronation Street was right to show the scenes of the examination that they did, even pre-watershed. Just like i think they were right not to sanitise the rape scenes (or the subsequent videoed interview session with Carla) because if you don't want to see it, you can turn the TV off and because the only people who benefit from sugar coating sexual violence are rape apologists and deniers. Ignoring that rape is an intrinsically violent act even without (for example) being held at knifepoint allows these people dress it up as 'changing your mind after sex'. Decreeing it can only be rape if you fight back/don't freeze/scream bloody murder/don't know him/incant no repeatedly as it happens or he wears a balaclava allows people to pretend that no one they know is raped, commits rape or that the 80% of rapes that occur between people who know each other actually exist. Pretending that rape victims are a particular type of woman who then react in one textbook way to sexual violence allows people to victim blame when they don't like what they see and creates a smokescreen for rapists to hide behind.
Along with the non sugar coated scenes discussed above, Corrie haven't shied away from anything on this storyline. Carla is not an easy victim who tugs on the heart strings of everyone. She's a ballsy bitchy woman who has been married twice, conducted an affair with her first husband's brother while he was married, dresses pretty sexily, never has a hair out of place, is an alcoholic and took the side of a man she didn't know at the time when her friend said he'd tried to rape her. She's flawed and fucked up (and I, of course, love her) and actually just the right person for them to choose to suffer sexual violence rather than a 'perfect' victim who has no past. There is no doubt in the storyline that her ex-fiance raped her precisely because she's a strong woman and he wanted to humiliate and destroy her, not because this is sex gone wrong.
I would be extremely surprised if Coronation Street (and Alison King who plays Carla) had not worked closely with both victims and support services on this storyline such is their understanding of the complexities of rape and the level of accuracy they have shown so far. They have grasped the fundamental, but often misunderstood, fact that rape is about power above all else. They have immediately moved to show a variety of people's reactions to Carla's rape, including a female friend (who for many reasons, isn't especially understanding.) They've written with sensitivity and educationally, showing the overwhelming number of concerns after a rape from the need for emergency contraception, concerns about Hepatitis and HIV, privacy and not being able to return home to a crime scene. Even where they've had to move the plot on for time constraints, they've explained that it isn't normal to do the medical exam and video statement on the same day. They've shown the self doubt and fear Carla experiences from the minute she is fully questioned by the police and enters the biased and non victim focused world of the criminal justice system. I'd be surprised if they gave up the ghost now and reverted to cliche, rape myths and ratings boosting like a lot of rape storylines.
I know some people feel it is inappropriate to feature sexual violence on entertainment shows as they feel it sensationalises the subject or frightens people from reporting or is 'inappropriate' especially for kids. I'm not sure i agree them on any of those points when the storyline is done well. Soap operas in particular were created to raise issues and I feel that they can be a valuable way to bring things to people's attention, allow them to ask questions and become acquainted with things outside their own sphere. In this case, it might make a woman aware of a SARC before she or a friend are in need. It might also help raise awareness of their patchy provision geographically and the lack of funding for SARCs and Rape Crisis centres in the UK. And although it might have been frightening to see what happens in a medical exam, I think it's better to know what you're letting yourself in for than discover as you go. It could lead to making an informed decision to report than leaves victims less traumatised. It might also make a few people who think reporting rape is something so easy and inconsequential for women that they squeeze a bit of 'ruining his life' in between waxing, picking up a latte and planning an abortion.
I also dispute the fact that sexual violence isn't a subject for kids to hear of when 53 children a day report sexual abuse, hundreds more suffer in silence and girls are abused at three times the rate of boys in the UK. How the hell else do we protect and reassure those being abused and stop others from being abused at various stages in their lives? Silence just breeds the conditions for sexual violence to continue. If you feel it would be too much for your child to see these scenes, then don't let them watch, but do use the occasion to make sure they understand about having the choice to let people touch them.
Maybe it is ridiculous that we need a show that should be half an hour of escapism to challenge and teach us about things that seem so far-fetched but in fact affect at least 50,000 women in the UK a year*. But I think they've done an excellent job and look forward to seeing where the storyline goes, even if I'll be watching a lot of it from behind a cushion. I also really hope a lot of people use it as a chance to educate themselves and challange a few preconceptions. Not even about rape, but about the delightful time waster that is a soap opera...
*It was announced that The National Rape Crisis Centre experienced an 800 per cent increase in calls to their hotline this week after the Carla Connor storyline. Says Rosa Knight, Helpline Co-ordinator: "That we have had such a huge increase in calls demonstrates that it is not that women who have survived rape do not want or need support, rather that many are not aware of the support that is available to them."