The women who only realise they have been raped MONTHS later

As reports of drug spike attacks raise awareness, more and more victims are waking up to the reality of their own experiences. Now read the harrowing stories of the women who only realised they have been raped MONTHS later

  • There has been increase in suspected spikings in nightclubs throughout the UK
  •  14 per cent of people have waited longer than six months to report their rape
  • Heather Darwall-Smith says women come to her with problems such as anxiety
  • Psychotherapist says how women who don’t realise they’ve been raped present

As Sophie Collins watched the documentary on date rape drugs, she began to realise with rising horror that what it was describing had happened to her, too.

Nine months earlier, on a second date with a lawyer, James, she had ended up in his bed without knowing how. Now she did. ‘I’d heard of these drugs but it sounded too far-fetched. He was an intelligent lawyer — or said he was. There was no weirdness. I’d always been hyper-vigilant in my choice of dates.’

As she learned more about what date rape drugs do, it became clear he’d almost certainly spiked her drink and assaulted her. The realisation, she says, ‘hit me like a bolt of lightning. I felt sick, disgusted and angry’.

For every woman whose rape causes immediate devastation, there are others who only realise months or years after the attack that they are a victim. As an increase in suspected spikings in nightclubs up and down the country continues to make headlines — and as women protest the failure of police forces to follow up reports — it’s likely more women will be feeling the cold chill of recognition, just as Sophie did.

Women recount the moment they realised they had been raped after being drugged – including Libby Behrens, 36, who woke up to a stranger having sex with her

She was 39 when she and James met online. On their second date, they’d just finished a restaurant dinner when James went to the bar to buy her a glass of white wine. ‘I drank it slowly, as I always do, and towards the bottom of the glass I felt dizzy and nauseous,’ says Sophie, an accountant from London. ‘I told him I wasn’t feeling well.’ She has a vague recollection of James helping her into a taxi — ‘then nothing’ until she woke in the early hours of the morning, wearing just her T-shirt and pants, in James’s bed with him next to her. Any shock that she was in bed with a virtual stranger after never having a one-night stand in her life, was subsumed by nausea.

‘I was violently sick,’ she says. ‘I felt embarrassed. I thought it must have been a reaction to the alcohol and when he told me not to worry I assumed he had looked after me.’

After their next date several days later, however, they were sitting on his sofa when he tried to unbutton her jeans. ‘I said I wasn’t ready,’ she recalls, before James responded with a comment that now chills her. ‘He said: “Why not? You enjoyed it last time.” ’

Sophie recalls: ‘Looking back, there was a smugness, almost an arrogance, to his words. He knew he could boast because I might not know what he meant — and if I did clock on, what on earth could I do about it?’

Although she ended the relationship, she told herself he’d been joking — until she watched the documentary and realised the horrific, most likely, scenario was that he had drugged and raped her — ‘and his arrogance was such that he bragged about it to me on the following date’. She says: ‘In my gut I feel it’s the only explanation for my passing out into an unconscious state for hours, with zero memories, for the first time ever.’

Deciding not to go to the police, because it would be her word against his, ‘and clearly he’d deny it’, she adds: ‘Because I was unconscious I don’t have flashbacks. I’m not haunted. But I still feel angry.’

Home Office figures show 14 per cent of people — and a third of those under 16 — waited longer than six months to report their rape. Many more don’t report their rapist at all.

Home Office figures show 14 per cent of people — and a third of those under 16 — waited longer than six months to report their rape (file image)

There are myriad reasons for a delayed realisation, among them the fact drugs such as GHB and Rohypnol affect memory. Last month a spate of spiking cases were reported in a number of university towns across the country, with some women claiming they had been injected with unknown substances.

The incidents sparked demonstrations and nightclub boycotts in more than 40 towns. And this week, Sussex Police revealed three men have been arrested in connection with spiking attacks.

It took just a few sips of whisky at a party for Libby Behrens’s hitherto clear recollections of the night to begin to splinter.

Much later, she would sit with a therapist and explain how, after blacking out, she came round in the back seat of her car to discover her jeans around her ankles and a man sitting astride her.

When she tried to push him off, he said ‘you’re loving it’.

Afterwards, she cried tears of shock and confusion. It was the therapist who, looking up from her notes, first asked: ‘… and you don’t think that’s rape?’

For ten years, Libby, 36, hadn’t thought what happened was rape. She’d blamed herself for getting drunk and not locking her car. She’d assumed, even while barely conscious, that she must have consented.

Two years ago, reliving her ordeal to a professional, the truth finally dawned. ‘I had always known something wasn’t right, but wasn’t sure what. I don’t think I’d have come to that realisation myself,’ says Libby, an operations director from Northampton, who spent a decade blocking out a festering sense of anger that culminated in a breakdown.

‘I cried as I realised. It might sound odd, but it was a massive relief. I felt my life hadn’t been messed up over nothing. I had a legitimate reason.’

When there are memories of an attack, the brain often tries to block them or recalibrate what happened. ‘Memory fragments in such a way to protect us, as part of our survival instinct,’ explains psychotherapist Heather Darwall-Smith.

Psychotherapist Heather Darwall-Smith said victims default to thinking they’ve done something wrong as part of the survival process, because it puts them in control (file image)

‘There is also an element of denial. Victims default to thinking they’ve done something wrong as part of the survival process, because it puts them in control.’

Often, the truth only emerges years later when a victim is triggered by something that reminds them of the attack, such as a smell, a sound or a song, unlocking a discovery that, Heather adds, can be even more shattering than if the knowledge had always been there.

Libby was 24 and backpacking in New Zealand when she went to a house party with friends. A sensible drinker, she remembers the evening clearly until around 11pm, when somebody offered her that whisky.

‘After I drank it, I felt really odd — not drunk as I’d ever felt before, but out of control and fuzzy. I remember I was frenetically sociable, which was out of character,’ she says.

She has only vague recollections from then on, before she blacked out altogether, coming round in the back of her Honda Civic on the drive outside, where she’d planned to sleep, with a stranger having sex with her.

A panicked Libby, who has waived her right to anonymity, recalls telling him to stop, twice. After the second time, she says, he retorted ‘whatever’ and left.

‘I broke down and cried,’ she says. She didn’t tell the police. ‘I thought the fact he’d stopped meant it wasn’t rape and that I’d put myself in that position,’ says Libby, for whom the only explanation for her altered state of mind was that she’d drunk too much. ‘I assumed if I’d been drugged I would have passed out completely, but I had patchy recollections of the night.’

In fact, GHB, a Class C drug and odourless liquid formerly used as an anaesthetic, and Rohypnol, a depressant, don’t always cause blackouts.

In smaller quantities, symptoms can include numbness, out of body experiences and loss of inhibition — which would explain Libby’s behaviour. She returned to England with her attitude towards sex and relationships altered. ‘I’d date, and sleep with people, but didn’t let anyone close emotionally,’ she says.

Heather explains this is common behaviour for rape victims. ‘There is a split between those who are numb and not interested in sex, and those who sleep with lots of people to try to feel better.’

Libby adds. ‘I was angrier, but pushed it down.’ For years, she blotted out the nagging disquiet with exercise and meditation but, in 2019, aged 34, she saw an episode of U.S. drama series Veronica Mars, in which the protagonist is drugged with GHB, attends a party she can scarcely remember and gathers accounts from people there to piece together the evening.

Heather said the behaviour of rape victims is split between those who are numb and not interested in sex, and those who sleep with lots of people to try to feel better (file image)

That’s how she registered she’d been drugged. ‘I realised date rape drugs didn’t always black out memory entirely and that this had happened to me.’

Shortly afterwards, exhausted in a job she risked losing, she broke down. ‘One day I lay on a foetal position on the floor and couldn’t stop crying,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t eat or sleep. I thought it was because of work. I didn’t register that there could be another cause.’

Heather says this is often how women who don’t realise they’ve been raped present to her. ‘They come to me because they have other problems — with sleep, depression, anxiety, IBS and migraines — almost a cluster of symptoms they can’t explain,’ she says. ‘I often work out what’s happened when they haven’t. It’s not for me to tell them, but for that awareness to emerge.’

Then Libby’s anger started to surface. ‘I’d drink alone to forget my feelings and pick unnecessary fights with men, to whom I felt a general hatred even when they’d done nothing wrong.

‘Luckily, therapy helped curb my behaviour. My therapist said sometimes it takes 25 years to address a rape — I’d done well to accept this horrible thing had happened after ten.’

Shifting attitudes towards the idea of consent have also forced many women to view historic sexual ordeals with a different lens —realising what they once viewed as consensual was anything but.

A few months ago, singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor, 42, revealed she had been raped at 17 by an older musician. She didn’t believe she had a ‘case’ then because in the 1990s rape was equated with aggression and ‘no one had pinned me down or shouted to make me comply’.

Heather recalls a 50-year-old client ‘shaken to pieces’ after watching last year’s film, Promising Young Woman, starring Carey Mulligan, in which the protagonist seeks revenge for the rape of her best friend years earlier.

‘My client realised she’d been raped at university 30 years earlier. Ever since she’d had problems with sex and developed OCD but didn’t correlate any of this with the fact she’d been raped. She thought she’d gone along with it.’

Having no recollection of an assault can only increase that sense of powerlessness most rape victims experience (file image)

Having no recollection of an assault can only increase that sense of powerlessness most rape victims experience.

‘It’s horrid having no details,’ says Tanya Thompson, who was raped while drugged aged just 15. Now 30, it was two years before she realised she’d been raped and she only started to come to terms with the attack during therapy three years ago. Tanya, an account manager from Leeds, rarely drank and was a virgin. She had been about to watch a football match on the night she was drugged at the house of her attacker, Jake, one of a group of boys three years her senior she and her female friends socialised with.

He mocked her for being ‘boring’ when she turned down alcohol. Under pressure, she relented and accepted half a pint of fizzy orange liquid from him that she assumed contained vodka.

‘The next thing I remember I was being sick,’ she says. Her next memory was of a man lying on top of her: ‘I can’t remember feeling fear. It was as if I were completely numb. Then I remember crying uncontrollably.’

Tanya came round in a bedroom alone at dawn. Jake — she later learned — had told her friends she’d left the party.

As she walked home, the gnawing suspicion that something ‘wasn’t right’ grew greater by the hour. ‘I didn’t understand why I’d been crying and had woken up with my jeans unbuttoned. I thought I must have got really drunk and blamed myself.’

It was only weeks later, when one of her friends told her Jake had told his friends he’d ‘shagged’ her, that she realised they’d had sex. Again, she assumed she was responsible: ‘I felt stupid and ashamed — that I must have been up for it and it was my fault.

‘Whether he deliberately stayed away from me, I don’t know, but he seemed to disappear,’ she says — until one evening, two years later, when he walked into a mutual friend’s house where she was watching a film on the sofa.

‘My heart thumped. I couldn’t look. I couldn’t move,’ she recalls. The shock stripped away her fear of judgment and, after he left without speaking to her, Tanya told her friends everything she could recall about that night.

‘They were horrified. They made me understand that was rape and that I was unlikely to have blacked out after one alcoholic drink. I went home and cried,’ she recalls. ‘I felt relief, but anger, too.

‘I wish I’d reported him but, at the time, I felt it was his word against mine. One of my friends confronted him, but he said I’d been “up for it”. He didn’t think he’d done anything wrong.’

Her attitude towards her body changed. ‘I felt like I was a slag throughout my 20s.

‘I didn’t trust men. I didn’t like being touched and I’d never let anyone buy me a drink. I needed to be in control.’

It was only after an emotionally abusive relationship ended three years ago, and Tanya had therapy, that she realised the ramifications of the rape she still has no recollection of, but that has cast a shadow over her life nonetheless.

‘I hate him for what he did to me. Not knowing made me feel even more violated.’

  • For advice and support visit rapecrisis.org.uk or call the national helpline 0808 802 9999.
  • Some names and details have been changed.

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