Trigger Warning* The following contains themes and descriptions of rape and sexual assault
Adam Saraswati Rawlings was only sixteen when a stranger raped him in broad daylight in a back alley in Manchester, in a violent attempt to punish him for daring to express his gender and sexual identity. In this interview with TNF, he recounts his tragic experience, but also shares the teachings he drew from it, and explains why he will keep fighting against gender-based violence and discrimination for the rest of his life.
It was a sleepy Tuesday afternoon in July 2014 when Adam, then a reserved sixteen-year-old, was walking to a local Hindu Temple.
At the time, Adam, who describes himself as a hijra, a Hindu concept associated with the third gender, did not yet identify as Hindu, but he was curious about Hinduism and eager to find out more.
Sadly, he never made it to his destination, as a man in his fifties appeared out of nowhere and pulled him out of the alleyway and into a back alley.
That’s where he raped him for the next few hours, all the while holding a blade to his throat.
“It was my first time, not the best introduction to sex,” Adam bitterly acknowledges, noting that some of the details are still sketchy since his mind tried to block them out.
Adam, who had come out as gay when he was twelve and had a feminine appearance, tells me he believes that he was targeted because of his sexual identity.
“The guy said to me: “This is what you get for being a stupid little tranny,”” he recalls.
Shortly after the rape, Adam turned to his friends for support. However, rather than empathising with him as a sexual abuse victim, they sided with the rapist.
“They said I shouldn’t complain, that I just had some rough sex and didn’t like it… They are no longer my friends,” he tells me.
In the months that followed the attack, Adam gradually tried to normalise the event to the point that he even started questioning whether he had somehow “looked for it”.
“Like many people at that time, I used to associate rape with promiscuous or bad behaviour. I remember thinking that rape did not happen to good girls. I was smart, well-behaved, always making the right decisions. How could this happen to me?” Adam says.
He carries on: “The Me Too movement had not yet happened. It was quite normal for people to believe that if you don’t want to get raped, you should not dress in a certain way or should not drink too much. Many people still believe that today.”
After being victimised by those whom he considered his friends, it took four years before Adam managed to pluck up the courage to confess what had happened to someone else.
“The first person I told was my sister. She was very supportive, as were my parents and the friends I had at that time,” he says, although he conceded that, as hard as he tried, he could not let go of the shame that the overall experience had triggered in him.
“The rape lasted one or two hours. The shame as a result of the rape is lifelong,” he notes.
“There is always a little bit of shame sticking with you.”
But not only did Adam carry a constant feeling of shame following his traumatic experience. He also struggled to develop a relationship of trust with any male figure in his life.
“[The rape] really affected my ability to trust men, it still does,” he says.
The event took a heavy toll on his mental health too, with Adam experiencing ongoing depression as well as anger mostly aimed at himself.
He reached out to a university counsellor, but things did not work out. “It was not the right time,” he said in hindsight. “I needed to come to terms with the fact that this is part of my story, not a secret I should hide and be ashamed of. I had to learn and give myself time to acknowledge what had happened.”
Adam started using sex as a coping mechanism and a way to “feel in control.” That’s when further rape took place, albeit, he explains, “not as violent as the first time.”
There were occasions when his sexual partners would still carry on with sex, even when he was not in the mood due to recurring post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) attacks and had withdrawn consent.
For years, he kept locking his negative feelings away, in the hope that, by suppressing his emotions, they would go away on their own.
However, things only got worse, until one day, in May 2021, he decided to face his demons and seek help once again, following a bout of acute PTSD, triggered by a toxic work environment.
He had to wait another five months before he managed to start therapy due to the NHS long waiting lists, but eventually, he succeeded in completing the sessions earlier this year.
“I tried to understand why that happened, but I came to the conclusion that there is no why. My rape was inevitable,” Adam says.
“We live in a world where every single society has rape culture embedded in it,” he points out. “That means we live in a culture where it’s normal to make a joke about rape, to be felt up on the tube or in clubs, to receive unwanted sexual advances and sexual attention from men.”
Adam, who studied Politics at university, said that, particularly since the spread of the Me Too movement, conversations around gender inequality and rape culture were commonplace within his faculty, and that also helped him open up and find a space to make his voice heard.
“I am still a work in progress, but I am at level where I am confident enough to raise my voice,” Adam proudly tells me.
His relationship with sex is better than it used to be, yet still a complicated one.
“As long as we live in a patriarchal society that places men at its centre, everybody else will be sexualised,” he argues, noting that sexual violence is not exclusively about sexual gratification, but rather about power and control.
He condemns the toxic narrative that normalises rape, the idea that the bodies of women and those who identify as such are something to be mocked and viewed as an open (sexual) invitation.
“I refuse to be silent about rape culture. As much as I am still recovering and probably will be for the rest of my life, I will continue to make my voice heard,” Adam says.
His horrific experience may have scarred him, but it also made him realise his worth and encouraged him to speak out against any form of abuse by transforming his anger and frustration into a powerful tool of advocacy and resistance.
“I can still remember his words in my ear like it was yesterday, but these words no longer scare me. They embolden me. They are a reminder of everything I am using my voice to speak out against.”