I have never said this publicly before. Up until last month, I hadn’t told my family or my closest friends. Those conversations, over 30 years on, have been some of the hardest I’ve ever had.
But I decided that I can’t keep this secret any more.
In my job, I meet many women who talk about what’s happened to them, to try and make it better for others. I have spent time with children who have been exploited, and I know that could have been me in different circumstances.
Like many others, my past is material to who I am today, and what I do today. So, when I listen to these people, I feel it might make more of a difference to say that not only am I on their side, but I am also by their side.
Crown Prosecution Service figures recently showed that there is a shockingly low conviction rate for people accused of rape. As was inadvertently but demonstrably shown recently in North Yorkshire, policing still all too often falls unwittingly into the trap of blaming victims.
Some forms of sexual abuse – like sexting – are becoming an ‘acceptable’ part of everyday life. Revenge porn is classed as a communications offence, not the sexual assault that it really is. It is no wonder so many cases of sexual harm go unreported.
Many girls, women and boys don’t believe they will be taken seriously. Many in some way feel they are to blame. They don’t want to put themselves and their families through the trauma, they don’t want to speak out.
In 2016-17, just over half reports of rape resulted in a charge. Of those that were prosecuted, 42 per cent did not result in a conviction. Of course, justice needs to be done for both the victim and the accused but addressing the low conviction rate presents a challenge for the entire criminal justice system.
North Yorkshire is no exception, but between myself and the police, we have worked hard to improve matters. Devolved responsibility for commissioning services for victims has allowed me to transform support services.
There are now three times the number of Independent Sexual Abuse Advisors across the county, provided by York-based IDAS. The Children’s Society offers a specialist service for victims of child sexual exploitation and Parents Against Child Exploitation (PACE), a dedicated programme for parents and carers, who are also often blamed.
There is Bridge House in York, the sexual assault referral centre, and specialist forensic paediatric services at York Hospital. We are part of a region-wide programme to tackle violence against women and girls, which also includes new ways of dealing with perpetrators. And working with the charity Reshape, we are pioneering a new programme to prevent sexual harm.
These services are available to children, men and women who have been harmed, and they don’t have to involve the police. Had such services been available when I was 15, perhaps things would have been different, but I am yet to be convinced that society has moved on as much as we would like.
This brings me to the other reason for speaking out now.
Over the last few months my character has been called into question by allegations about my management style that hurt me deeply. I know I am far from perfect, indeed I am my own harshest critic. After all, I have spent 36 years beating myself up for a situation that I still think today was partly of my own making.
I also hate to ever think I had either, intentionally or unintentionally, made someone upset or feel unvalued, and for that I am deeply sorry. But those characterisations hurt. I can’t hide that – and they brought everything back I’ve hidden away for so long.
I have seen the #MeToo movement take off and it is vitally needed. Women of all ages and all backgrounds get a different treatment in this world than men. In work. In public life. In society. When we challenge the status quo or vested interests and campaign for change, there can be an undercurrent of sexism that’s like a slippery fish – you glimpse and feel it, but it’s impossible to pin down, so you end up full circle, castigating yourself.
We need change, but it’s not happening fast enough. Since my election, I have consistently looked out for the vulnerable, been vocal on women’s and victim rights. I am impatient for change. So yes, I do have an agenda, for which I make no apology. Because it is #MeToo.
I’ve spent years pretending my assault didn’t happen, boxing it off in my brain. Locking it up, full on blaming myself. No longer. I want to help those who have experienced what I went through. I want to help stop more girls and women, boys and men, ever experiencing it in the first place. It’s why I chose public service. It’s why I wanted to become the Police and Crime Commissioner. It’s why I am determined to make a difference.
Julia Mulligan is the Police, Crime and Fire Commissioner for North Yorkshire.