Freddie Cocker is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Vent, an online platform where everyone, but especially men and boys can open up about their mental health issues, break down stigmas and start conversations. For more about Vent visit http://vent.org.uk/
Since I started Vent, I feel like I’ve opened up about every aspect of my mental health story; every crevasse dug out, every suppressed memory released, and every painful wound opened up only to be sealed again through support and love. I thought I had told it all. I was wrong.
One thing was left in the darkness and remained buried in the deepest recesses of my mind. Something so stigmatised, something I was so ashamed of, something which took place in literally a few seconds and yet one which has haunted me ever since; my sexual assault. To this day, I still have that much anxiety over it that I can’t stomach putting it in the title. I still feel so uncomfortable mentioning it by name even though, ironically, I’m about to go into great detail about it.
When I wrote my ‘True Story’ for mental health magazine Happiful, the commissioning editor wrote back to me with a list of questions that would help them when putting the finishing touches to the article. One question they asked me was about the section in my piece that stated that my cry for help when I was bullied was initially ignored. They asked me to expand on this.
For some reason, this triggered the memory of my sexual assault coming back to the forefront of my mind and I began to think back to how other people’s sexual assaults have been played out in the public eye.
As the ‘Me Too’ movement has swept the world, we have seen more and more women come forward about their experiences of being sexually assaulted, raped or worse. I saw the conversation slowly shift from one of immediate victim-blaming to, at least in some sections of the population, belief in the victims’ story.
I watched with interest as Professor Christine Blasey Ford took to the witness stand to tell her story about Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged crimes against her. With the entire world watching, she bravely said she couldn’t recall specific details about what had allegedly happened to her some 36 years ago, despite knowing that it could lead some to doubt her testimony. However, she clearly remembered the incident itself, the effect it had on her and why she felt compelled to come forward.
I now see so many commonalities with her story and can truly empathise with her memory recall of that alleged horrific incident because that is exactly how I remember mine. Whether it happened in Year 4 or Year 5 is something I can’t pinpoint exactly, nor the day it happened nor the week, month or even year. All I know is that it happened between 2002-2003.
As I’ve stated in previous articles, I was ruthlessly bullied throughout primary school by another boy in my class. He would pick on my character and personality i.e. my weight (I was slightly overweight for my age at the time), my unfashionable football team, my surname and label me as ‘annoying’.
One day, after another tiring day of being abused by him and his cronies, I decided to stand up for myself, in a rare moment of self-respect. I temporarily ignored my parent’s advice that would of ‘just ignore it’, ‘tone it down a bit and it might stop’ or ‘if you don’t rise to it, they won’t do it anymore’. I had, had enough. I ended up in a physical confrontation with him and we grappled like 7 year olds do in a fight. He then pushed me against a wall. As we began to swing punches against each other, his hand moved to my genitals and that’s when it happened. He aggressively groped me for (like most sexual assaults which involve groping) what was only a few seconds. I remember the pain of it vividly. It shocked me and I had no time to react to it. I instinctively pushed him away and a teacher ended the fight but that feeling is something I will never be able to forget.
Now I’m older, I know exactly what it was that he did and why he did it. Sexual assault motivated by power. He knew he could do anything to me and none my classmates would stand up for me. He knew the damage it would do to me but he didn’t care. The level of status he had acquired amongst his friends gave him the freedom to do this without consequence, in his head at least.
To the school’s credit, when my parents found out what happened, my mum sat the Headteacher down and demanded action be taken. Shortly after the incident happened, my Headteacher took me aside privately and asked me what happened in the fight. To this day, I don’t remember how he found out what exactly had happened as I don’t recall who I told about the incident.
My hunch is that a member of support staff must have seen it, or I had told my class teacher at the time when they asked me my side of the story. I must have just blurted it all out at some point. I can only imagine what the reaction must have been from their perspective. My Headteacher asked me matter of factly, ‘Did X do Y to you?’. I replied quickly and without thinking said ‘Yes’, as if this was a normal thing to happen in a fight or to a child of my age. After I confirmed to the headteacher what had happened, he hauled my bully as well as several other boys into his office to lambast them for what they had done.
At the time, I thought that this boy had done far worse to me over the course of the last 2-3 years through verbal abuse, coercion and other physical assaults. By comparison, this short-lived altercation seemed pretty low on the scale of misery I had endured. But since then, the incident has impacted my mental health and self-esteem.
Back then, female sexual assault victims were in constant fear of stigmatisation, being victim-blamed and their stories discarded. For a boy, I can only shudder at what the environment would have been like for male survivors speaking out amidst the searing white heat of the toxic masculinity our gender was and is still heavily embroiled in.
In the months and years that followed this incident, my Headteacher went out of his way to make sure that I was okay. I cannot thank him enough for being what a good teacher should be; compassionate, supportive, protective and trusting. In many ways, he probably did more to save my life back then than most others and yet, I’ve never been able to thank him properly for it.
Since writing my Happiful article I quickly realised that this incident has been the cause or factor in many of my anxieties towards girls. When you have severe and complex mental health issues, you can feel that to friends, romantic partners or family that you are “damaged goods” – that your covert or overt mental health problems are a disqualification from having friends, sex, partners, jobs or love.
I now know that my alignment with this irrationality stems directly from this incident; feelings of inadequacy, being surprised when a girl likes me, low self-esteem and confidence issues are all things I’ve carried with me my entire life up to this point.
With every article I write, I always state that “it was the hardest article I’ve had to write” like some talking clock stuck on a perpetual loop ad-infinitum. However, this genuinely has been the toughest and most emotionally draining article I’ve ever composed. Now I feel like I can finally be free of every mental shackle which had been weighing me down.
My main hope is that through this article, I can help other men who have been sexually assaulted either as children or adults realise that we are not lesser men because of it. We are greater, we are braver and above all, we are human.
Disclaimer: Although it may seem like I had a horrendous time during these three years of primary school, I hold fond memories of the school, the teachers and the experience I had within it. They supported me, nurtured me and always tried to help me believe in myself.
None of the staff, nor the school itself were at fault for anything that happened to me nor should they be held responsible for the behaviour of the other children in my class. The issue was dealt with properly, the right procedures in my opinion, were followed and I am happy that direct action was taken to address it.
The full original article: http://vent.org.uk/breaking-my-silence