A beauty pageant winner who hid a traumatic sexual assault outside a nightclub has broken her silence in a bid to encourage others to get help.
Jessica Ford, the current Miss Solihull International, revealed how she has empowered herself and took back ‘ownership’ of her life following the distressing incident when she was just 18 years old.
Now 21 and finally able to speak out about her ordeal, Jessica has vowed to use the experience ‘as a positive’ to help other victims.
Jessica, who waived her right to anonymity as a victim of sexual assault, is now working with West Midlands Police and the Survivors Trust to raise awareness of sexual abuse and violence.
“I never spoke about what happened to me for a very long time,” she told BirminghamLive.
“It was probably a year and half to two years, which is not as long as it is for some people at all. But I think when it’s that weight over you and no-one knows, it feels like a lifetime.”
Jessica, from Dorridge, was on a night out with friends in another city when she was sexually assaulted by a stranger. Describing it as a ‘traumatic experience’, she said the attack took place when she left the club to look for a friend.
She didn’t tell anyone what happened, and whenever that night was brought up, friends wouldn’t understand why she was ‘very snappy’.
“I don’t like to go into the gory details because I do actually think that kind of gives that person power,” she explained.
“I think it’s much more powerful to say, this happened and I’m not going to talk about you and what you did to me, but I’m going to talk about how I have made a difference.
“You’re not going to get that air time, I’m going to talk about me and you can sit down and look at how far I’ve come.”
After the assault, she enrolled at Exeter University to study law. But the trauma of the assault soon sunk in and she struggled to cope.
“I didn’t want to address that inner demon, if you like,” she said. “That can only last so long, the fuel will eventually burn out. I was in a very bad place, I had severe anxiety attacks, I felt like I couldn’t breathe.”
The lecture hall, packed with over 500 people, along with other ‘very busy places’ were triggers for Jessica’s panic attacks.
“I would go on a night out and I would just cry. I used to love going out with my friends. But every time I would go out at Uni, I just couldn’t cope. I just didn’t want to go out.
“I told my friend at Uni, she was the first person I told. I told her in a jokey way, and she replied: ‘Jess that’s horrendous, that’s really, really bad’.
“I remember sitting down and breaking down about it and thinking ‘yeah that’s not very nice'”.
She deferred University and returned home to Solihull. Though she hopes to return to her law studies eventually, she admits she needed to focus on herself.
“I had a very bad mental health breakdown essentially, I just couldn’t do it,” she added.
“I was so poorly. At the moment I’m focusing on myself and using this experience as a positive. Although what happened to me is awful and I don’t want anybody to go through it, and I’m not taking that away from myself, I don’t want that person to have that power.
“My way of getting that justice and that power is by talking about it and hopefully making a difference.
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“I needed to work on my mental health and that is exactly what I’ve done. I’ve seen psychologists, councillors, psychiatrists. That’s not something I’m embarrassed to talk about.
“Now I feel very proud of myself, I’ve taken ownership of a situation that essentially was taken out of my control by talking about it, by working with the Survivors Trust and West Midlands Police.
“That is my way of getting justice and that is my way of saying, ‘I can do a lot of incredible things even though something horrible happened'”.
Through working closely with The Survivors Trust and talking about her experience, statistics and the charity on her Instagram, Jessica raised more than £500 in a month via her GoFundMe page.
She also has plans for live meetings via her social media with Fay Maxted, the CEO of the Survivors Trust and a meeting with the sexual abuse services for West Midlands Police.
‘They think they’re never going to be caught’
Her key message is to encourage other victims of sexual offences to report the crimes to the police.
“It’s about making sure that people know the police are there to help,” she added.
“We need to really get the word out there that we need to start reporting these crimes so that survivors can get the help they need and hopefully these crimes are going to reduce in how prevalent they are.
“I think that’s how these predators get away with doing what they do, because they think they’re never going to be caught.
The Survivors Trust
The Survivors Trust is the largest umbrella agency for specialist rape and sexual abuse services in the UK.
Their services work with victims and survivors of all ages, all genders, of all forms of sexual violence, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, including support for partners and family members.
If you have been a victim of a sexual offence, you can call the free helpline on 08088 010 818.
Rape and Sexual Violence Project (RSVP)
The Rape and Sexual Violence Project – covering Birmingham and Solihull – offers a wide range of services to both survivors and the people supporting you, including compassionate support for male survivors and children and young people.
You can contact the RSVP for free support via their helpline 0121 643 4136 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
West Midlands Police
If you wish to report a sexual offence, no matter when it took place, you can find out more information here.
If you are in immediate danger, always call 999.
“It should be the cowardly perpetrators should be scared, not the people who have unfortunately fallen victim to it.
“So it’s about making sure people know, once they’ve experienced something as awful as sexual abuse or sexual violence, they are going to be kept safe. They know the process.”
Drawing on her own experience – and not wanting others to make the same mistake, she said: “I didn’t report what happened to me to police. I was terrified, I didn’t know where to go.
“Now, I don’t think reporting it is part of my personal journey. This is my way of getting justice, by talking about it. It’s about managing to go forward.”
As a survivor, Jessica has also joined meetings with the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner – with a view to helping them to improve further.
As well as work with raising awareness of sexual abuse and violence, she’s carrying out work with food banks in the local area and urging people to shop locally in Knowle to keep independent businesses alive.
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The launch of a sexual wellbeing blog called Vibe, alongside a Consultant Gynaecologist, is something to watch out for in coming weeks too, she says.
“That’s all about female sexual wellbeing, educating people on their bodies, sexual health,” she explained.
“All those topics that people maybe don’t feel confident going to school and talking about. It’s all about that accessible education for people.”
Asked what her advice would be to other victims of sexual offences, she said: “I think the best justice you can get is taking ownership of the situation and that’s different for everyone.
“It takes a very powerful and strong person to ask for help, I think that’s a way of taking back that ownership.
“Potentially joining a charity like I’ve done, whether raising awareness, raising money. It’s difficult because everyone’s experience is different and everyone’s reaction is different. The thing to take away is Speak Up.
“That was awful, but that was in the past and now I’m doing different things in the community to help others and myself.”
If you’ve been affected by a sexual offence or sexual violence and need support, you can contact the Survivors Trust on their free helpline 08088 010 818.
You can also contact the Rape and Sexual Violence Project, covering Birmingham and Solihull, via their helpline 0121 643 4136.