‘The System Failed Me When I Was Raped, Now I’m Dedicated To Changing It’: Ciara Charteris On Going From Acting To Activism

Ciara Charteris opens up about her experience reporting rape, dealing with trauma and being betrayed by her best friend.

Ciara Charteris

by Georgia Aspinall |
Updated on

'Sharing my experience of rape, I was prepared for complete silence from people in my life and industry or even a negative response. But it's been incredible to watch people who have been in and out of my life since it happened in 2015 have lightbulb moments and say "Yeah, that makes sense to me" or "Now I understand."'

You may think you know Ciara Charteris as the incredible actor who appeared so often on our screens Emma Tergirls in BBC’s Poldark. But three years on from her first episode airing, Ciara is on a different career path. Now, she’s an ambassador for abuse survivor network,I Am Arla, dedicating herself to empowering women who have been victims of all sorts abuse and most importantly, keeping them safe.

Ciara wasn’t awarded that privilege. Launching her journey as part of I Am Arla’s team, she wrote about her experience in 2015, describing how she was raped by a friend. Her incredibly written, harrowingly relatable piece spoke to women not just because of the trauma she suffered in being raped, but the subsequent betrayal of those closest to her who forgave her accuser.

Ciara wrote of how her best friend, who she told instantly after the rape, initially supported her wholeheartedly, cutting him off from their group as she did. And yet, a few years later, around the time Ciara first shot to fame because of Poldark, she saw them out together, friends once more. Cutting Ciara off instead, she described how they went on to rewrite history, sour her reputation with her peers and most notably, since they ran in the 'same professional circles', ruin her relationship with acting and the film industry.

In writing about her story, Ciara wanted to take back that narrative. ‘For me, telling my story was all about taking my power back,’ she tells me over the phone from her London home. I wanted to create some space in the world for me and my truth to exist again in a way that wasn't being allowed before. For me it felt as though the system had failed me, and this was a way of making noise and taking back what I deserve in a way that the system couldn’t give back to me through a charge or whatever.’

One of the most painful details of Ciara’s story is her journey with the police – which she describes as horribly traumatic despite having a ‘really good’ female officer on her case - when she chose to report the incident last year. She, like 98% of other women, filed a complaint with that resulted in no conviction, but notes the police telling her ‘it does not make him innocent.’ But the most powerful part of Ciara’s story is that she knew the likely outcome going in, but she did it anyway.

Walking into the police station, it is all really terrifying.

‘Walking into the station, it is all really terrifying,’ she remembers. ‘There's a reason why the statistics of women coming forward and reporting are so low. But I had got my head around the fact that I was never going to get a charge. Even though when I found that out it was so difficult, I kept that in my subconscious the whole time.

‘To me, to learn the importance of adding to the numbers, literally adding to the statistics, and also the power that is his name will sit within the police system should, if anyone else come forward in the future or from the past, it means something,’ she continues. ‘Everyone deals with these things in their own way, so there's absolutely no pressure but if you do feel that it's something you can do, there are reasons to do it beyond. You know, Go into court and getting a charge.’

And while she describes walking into the station as ‘the hardest part’ of reporting rape, she notes the anger she felt after sitting down to make her statement that gratified her decision completely.

‘The first thing they said to me once I had made my statement was “You do realize that you are accusing someone of a crime that is one below murder?”’ Ciara recalls. ‘In that moment, you really have to find all the strength to not run out the door. But I went from hearing that and feeling nothing but fear to, in a split second, feeling nothing but anger. It shouldn't be my job to, I hate this word but as a victim, understand that - we should be teaching men, people that abuse and people that rape that this is the case.’

It was her experience reporting that helped her move on and deal with her trauma in a healthy way. Because, so often when we are victims of abuse, we might acknowledge the incident openly and be very aware of how wrong it is, but we still rationalise those experiences, trivialise them almost to be just ‘something that happened rather than acknowledging the severity of the trauma we’ve been through. At least, Ciara agrees that’s what she did.

I was very aware that I had been raped but I definitely did not want to be someone who had been raped.

‘I did that for a really long time, I was very open and very consciously aware that I had been raped and that wasn't something that I tried to twist ever into something else,’ she remembers. ‘But for me, it was one thing to acknowledge that I had been raped but I definitely did not want to be someone who had been raped. I didn’t want to acknowledge that narrative. So for a while when I would talk about it with friends, I would try and make it as light and dare I say it, as humorous, as possible. But it was a complete coping mechanism.’

But it only worked, Ciara says, because she thought her rapist had acknowledged what he’d done to her and wouldn’t repeat the same abuse. A year on from the incident, he had text Ciara saying ‘I know I’ve done something really, really wrong I just need you to tell me what that is,’ which at the time she took as an admission of guilt.

‘I kind of told myself, “He knows, he won't make the same mistake again, I'll take the hit”’ she explains. ‘But it was when he when he came back into my world, by suddenly reigniting a friendship with one of my best friends, all of a sudden it felt as though neither of them were acknowledging what had happened, which not only dismissed, my truth but also that – with so little acknowledgement – that it could happen again to somebody else, which I couldn’t bear.’

The betrayal of being raped by a friend and someone you trust is one thing, but much of the discussion surrounding Ciara’s story has also been on said best friend, the woman who she says outwardly appears as an avid MeToo supporter but inwardly left her traumatised by the disloyalty of befriending her rapist once more.

‘I do understand that being on the other side of someone telling you that they’ve been raped and to stand by them is no easy feat, and exceedingly complicated if it’s someone you know that has done it,’ she says. ‘But that being said, it’s so vitally important that we believe women and stand by them. I even would have understood in the moment that I told my friend if she was unable to cope, because it’s complicated and it took me a long time to believe my male friend was capable of something like that and it had happened to me, so I understand the complexity of that. But it was the fact it was three years later, after supporting me for so long, to then decide to take the opposite stand is unbelievably hard to wrap your head around.’

I can’t bear the hypocrisy of being so avidly supportive of women online but not actively practicing it.

‘I can’t bear the hypocrisy of being so avidly supportive of women online but not actively practicing it in day to day life,’ Ciara continues. ‘It’s dangerous in our society, because it’s so very easily done. It’s easy to pretend you’re one thing online when you’re not in real life, and we haven’t got to a place where we hold people accountable for that. It’s a big feat to tackle but it’s needed.’

It’s one of many experiences that has ignited a passion in Ciara to protect women and survivors like her, and what pushed her to switch careers and begin working with I Am Arla. Right now, she’s working on building up the way they help Universities support students who are victims of abuse as she herself was a student at the time.

‘It will be a really important part of my work moving forward,’ she says. ‘Helping universities and institutions understand look at how they breed cultures of abuse, how they change that and handle it after the fact.’

With women like Ciara and the incredible team at I Am Arla leading the cause, perhaps we can have faith in that change after all.

Read More:

'After Ciara Charteris Shared Her Experience Of Rape, Countless Women Have Come Forward': Meet The Founders Of Abuse Support Network 'I Am Arla'

Things You Only Know If You've Confronted Your Rapist

'I Am Left Wondering If, By Staying Silent, I Am Letting Him Take Control Once Again'

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