We recently attended ActionAid‘s #Fearless event, where three amazing women stood up and told their honest, moving, and thoroughly inspiring stories – from the woman currently on trial for a murder she didn’t commit to the lady who set up an SMS helpline for rape victims in Kenya.
And then there was the keynote speaker, Charlie Webster. Charlie stood up, calmly took the microphone and unfurled a story of fear, strength and courage that kept a room of powerful women rapt. We felt her resolve as she described the sexual abuse she endured as a 15-year-old girl at the hands of her running coach, her terror as she recalled revealing her abuse on live radio, and her indignation as she explained her decision to resign from Sheffield United over their handling of convicted rapist Ched Evans.
We caught up with Charlie after the event to ask more about her story, what we can learn from it and how we can help.
Hey Charlie. That was an incredible speech. You mentioned that the abuse first started when you were 15 – what was your reaction the first time? Did you realise what had happened to you?
Since I’ve been speaking out, I’ve looked back at it. When you’re groomed like that, you don’t really know what’s going on, and back then, it wasn’t talked about at all. I mean, it’s not talked about as much as it should be now, but back then it really wasn’t.
I knew something was wrong. I knew it wasn’t right and that it didn’t make me feel very nice but I didn’t understand what it was. And this was somebody that I trusted, that I had a relationship with – as in, a professional relationship, a relationship of authority – he was the authority and I was the child, so I had no reason to doubt him.
In your case, you didn’t speak out until you were much older – what stopped you at the time? Do you think that’s something other women experience?
The problem with domestic abuse and sexual abuse is that it’s complicated. In the most common form of sexual abuse, you know the victim, so it’s a domestic situation – and that makes it so much more complicated than other crimes where say, you’re walking down the street and you’re mugged, because you don’t know the perpetrator.
So there’s a lot of emotions involved, and a lot of other people affected: it’s not just you that’s involved with that person. For me, I think, when it all came out, only two people knew and I just ran away almost. It came at the perfect time in a way, because it was when I had a choice to go to university so I went and that was my escape. Then, I still hadn’t come to terms with what had happened.
I wouldn’t have said at university “I was actually abused,” because I think it was hard for me to admit what had happened to me. It was almost easier to ignore it, it was hard to admit that I wasn’t in control and that happened. Then, as I got older, I did so much work without even realising. I worked with kids at a very young age after university; I spoke and helped young kids in disadvantaged areas because I related to them and wanted to help to build up their confidence – I always lacked confidence so I wanted to work with their self-esteem and show them that they could be anything and do anything. So it was always there, I just never spoke about my personal experience.
I was an ambassador for Women’s Aid for years before I said anything, and I’d raised money for them, I’d done loads of marathons for them, been involved in all of their events but I never spoke about what happened personally to me. Then I’d even come up with a big challenge which was out last year, where I ran to and from 40 football clubs and I still didn’t speak about it until a week or two before I actually did that run because what clicked was the fact that I was asking people to speak out and I was raising awareness – but I wasn’t speaking out myself. I think I subconsciously went on a bit of a mission in my own career to make sure that I was in a position where I could have a voice and therefore give other people a voice.
Has your speaking out helped other women come forward?
Yeah, hopefully! I’ve just got an amazing comment from somebody at ActionAid even tonight – one of the ladies who spoke this evening just told me that after hearing me speak it’s given her inspiration to keep fighting – and she’s a campaigner and activist in Kenya! That makes everything I do worthwhile. Even if it just affects one person, I believe that one person can affect so many.
How can people support women who’ve been abused? What’s a useful response when someone tells you it happened to them?
That’s a good question. If a friend seeks advice, the best thing to do is to not treat them like an alien or like something really weird’s happened to them. Just speak to them like a friend. I think making them feel like they’re a victim isn’t the right way to go about it. Just reassure and listen.
Comfort them and emphasise that it’s not their fault and listen to the victim’s needs, listen to how they feel. And don’t straight away try and make them go to the police, because you have to remember that they’ve had a horrific violation and it takes a lot to even speak to a friend, never mind go to the police. Listen to what they need – maybe they’ll need to go to the police and speak about it, and work it through with a counsellor – but at that moment, at that first instant, just really listen and reassure.
You famously resigned from Sheffield United over the handling of the Ched Evans case. Can you tell us what making that decision was like?
I was a patron of Sheffield United and I was brought up in the football community in Sheffield. We all loved our football, I’d been going since I was 4 years old – so I felt very privileged to be asked to be a patron and be part of the Community Foundation, which is all about the next generation of young boys and girls.
When Sheffield United privately discussed Ched Evans with me before it was in the media, I told them what I thought and gave my advice very strongly, and they respected me as a voice of the community. And then they still decided that they were going to employ him. So I had no choice but to resign as patron – and people seem to think that means I don’t support the club anymore. Of course I do, I’ve supported them since I was a baby, but I’m not a patron because I don’t believe in the way that they approached it. Also, I was not prepared to stand by and watch that after all the work I’d done and everything I’d spoken out about – what a hypocrite I’d be!
I love football but my morals don’t come below it. My morals always come first and it’s sending out such a damaging message to give a rapist a position where he can influence young boys and girls, that was the key thing – it wasn’t about a job, it wasn’t about rehabilitation, it was about the fact that he could walk on that pitch and people would cheer him, and young girls and boys would have a rapist’s name on their backs. During that period, fans were actually shouting to other fans about raping their women – and they used the words ‘Ched Evans’ as a form of rape, as a verb, to ‘Ched Evans’ somebody.
Jesus christ. What was the reaction like to you stepping down?
At first it was a mixed reaction. I know as a football fan how passionate fans are, and I am too: I’m super passionate, I’m competitive, I love sport, I love to win, so I understand that – but we have to remember that this wasn’t a football issue, it was a social issue. Football does impact society and every club that I know says that they’re at the heart of the community – well, if you’re the heart of the community, you have a responsibility.
So, to start with it was very mixed, then the tide started to change and I think Sheffield United thought it would just disappear and they could just slide Ched Evans in. I did get some death threats and some rape threats but towards the end, the majority showed incredible support and that absolutely meant the world to me. Because yes, I have an inner courage but those messages also gave me the strength and courage to carry on and make sure that we stand up against rapists.
How do you feel about how Ched Evans and his victim have been treated?
Well, I can speak from a victim’s point of view because the victim had her identity given away six times, she had to keep changing her identity after it was released by thousands of people on Twitter. We’re compassionate to a rapist but she was raped, what has she possibly done wrong?! She had a few drinks, so what? We’ve all had a glass of wine tonight, does that mean if we got raped we’re excusing the crime?
The way the victim was treated was wrong, but also when we look at the media, they didn’t really speak about her. Every time I spoke, I wanted to mention the victim because we didn’t speak about her. We spoke about the rapist, the perpetrator, but we should speak about the victim because people need to understand what she’s going through – yes, he got 5 years in prison and served half of his sentence but he then went back to his family and his community. She can’t see her family, she can’t be in a community because her life’s at risk – she’s had to have the same level of protection as child killers.
Chrissie Hynde recently made some remarks about her own rape, saying “this was all my doing and I take full responsibility.” What do you make of her comments?
I think we have to respect Chrissie Hynde because that’s her experience, she’s allowed to feel how she wants to feel. I think it also provides an excellent forum for us to actually discuss what sexual abuse is and to tell Chrissie that it wasn’t her fault and it’s never the victim’s fault. The blame always, only, ever, lies with the perpetrator.
Her abuse happened in 1972. Imagine what it would have been like for Chrissie to walk into a police station in 1972 and say she was raped. What reaction do you think she would have got? We need to make sure it’s not the same reaction in 2015.
A lot of people had a go at her, but we shouldn’t because she went through rape, she’s a victim and if she feels like she’s to blame we can’t then blame her for feeling like that. We’re just easing the cycle of blame. The only person responsible is her perpetrator – and society, which is making her feel like she should be blamed. That’s part of the problem, because we expect women to come forward but in a culture that still debates whether they are at fault.
You’re here because you’re involved with ActionAid’s Fearless Women campaign – what does being fearless mean to you?
I’ve been scared so many times. When I first spoke about my abuse live on radio, I came out and I felt all sorts of feelings – my stomach was in my throat, I had the worst butterflies ever, I was nervous, I felt child-like again, I was scared, I felt embarrassed, I felt ashamed, I thought I was going to lose all my friends, I thought no one was going to speak to me – I had all these feelings, but I still had strength and courage.
What fearless means to me is that we do have fear, it’s human, but it’s actually what we do with that fear and how we use our courage – courage is something I always speak about – because we have a tremendous courage inside of us, we just have to let it out.
If you’d like to see more from the amazing Charlie Webster, follow her on Twitter here.
Main image: ActionAid