TRIGGER WARNING: Rape
I don’t talk about rape much. Or at least I don’t talk about rape and my own life much. I don’t think I have important stories to tell. I don’t want people to know about my sex life. Rape is very much a part of my life: most of my best friends have been raped, blamed for their rape, slut shamed…My most conservative friends become suddenly liberal when rape comes up because their friends and loved ones have been raped.
And I talk about rape culture, and I talk about how horrible these incidents are, and I tell people how upset I am. But I don’t talk about myself. I won’t ever label it rape, I don’t think. There was no penetration involved. He did stop, eventually. But I do have a story, and it’s not one that follows The Script. I think it’s time to tell that story because I am so sick of hearing what rape looks like or what assault looks like and never hearing my story.
I was assaulted slowly, wearing everything from underwear and a tshirt to sweatpants and a hoodie. It happened through words, with someone I loved, with someone I was dating, with someone I trusted. It was on a college campus, at all times of day and night, in public, in his room, in my room. It was in my home, in his home…it was without alcohol or drugs or violence. And it was still unacceptable, and it was still not my fault, and it was still without my consent. This is what happened.
When we first started going out I had an active sex drive. He was afraid of sex. I respected that, but encouraged him to stop thinking of sex as something scary, negative or wrong. I told him it was ok to want sex. Eventually he started to listen, and found that he enjoyed sex. However I have a bizarre sex drive: it comes and goes for months at a time at its own whim. And a few months into our relationship, it turned off. Completely. I understand that this is something that would bother a partner. I understand that it would be difficult to deal with, frustrating, disheartening. I did my best to explain how I was feeling, find ways to be intimate, express my love, and be there for him when I could. I tried to keep our relationship functional even when I found I couldn’t in good conscience consent to sexual activity.
Unfortunately, his response was to demand sex from me. My assault didn’t happen in a night. It didn’t happen in a week. It was a sustained campaign of emotional manipulation. Each night was a struggle: I would go to bed with pants and a shirt on and he would beg me to take them off, telling me he needed to feel close to me. Some nights he would succeed, others I would try to fall asleep as he lay petulantly beside me because I had chosen to keep my clothes on.
He would try to touch me and when I asked him to stop he would say I was making him feel unwanted. When I told him that I wasn’t interested in sex, he told me that I had led him on by telling him I wanted sex before. He would cuddle me and I would edge away. He would edge closer. He seemed to make it clear that my body should belong to him: that he could grab or kiss any part of it he chose whenever he chose. When I told him I was uncomfortable, he said he just wanted me to feel good. It made him cry when I said no. He told me that he couldn’t feel close to me any other way.
Sometimes I would listen to him. I would tell myself I owed it to him to do what he was asking because I loved him and he loved me, and I was making him feel unwanted and unloved, damaging his already low self-esteem. I worried I would make sex even worse for him if I didn’t give him what he wanted now. How could I be so cold and cruel? Why wasn’t I loving him? What was wrong with me that I could care about him so much and then withhold something that would make him happy?
Somtimes I would try to let him do what he wanted. I would try to kiss back. But I couldn’t fake the enthusiasm, and when I just lay there, letting him paw all over me, he became upset: “I want you to like it!” he would tell me, as if it were my fault that I weren’t enjoying his forcible fondling. He made it clear that he got off on my pleasure, and that I had to be enjoying whatever was happening. He would stop if I wasn’t enjoying myself, but not because I wasn’t consenting, because it wasn’t fun for him if I didn’t join in. I owed him not only my body, but my willing joy as well. When I did manage to fake some enthusiasm he ignored every possible sign that I didn’t want physical intimacy.
On top of the physicality, he emotionally made it clear that my body belonged to him. He became jealous and possessive. He told me that he didn’t like me wearing short shorts because “then other guys would objectify me”. He tried to forbid me from swing dancing because he thought it was too sexual and was on par with cheating. He kept asking where we could draw the line. What was so different about a hug, or a dance, or a cuddle than sex?
All of this was happening as he became more and more depressed. This was in the midst of my eating disorder and depression, and I could see him falling into patterns like my own. He would tell me that his parents thought it was my fault, that I had given him an eating disorder. I knew that was crazy, but I couldn’t help but think that his unhappiness was my fault, that I owed him some joy for all that I had taken from him. I could see him falling apart in front of me, and how could I not feel guilty for that?
And finally, I broke. I had been fighting with myself for weeks trying to continue to say no, to watch him cry after I told him no, to remember my own boundaries and my certain knowledge that I shouldn’t consent just because he wanted me to. But finally he told me that I had ruined sex for him, and that if I didn’t have sex with him right that very night, he would never have sex again. He would turn off that part of himself completely. I shut down. Mutely, I nodded my assent to whatever he was doing, but I couldn’t make myself do anything but lay there. I started crying, despite trying not to. I turned away from him so he wouldn’t see. He was kissing me and touching me, and he would ask me if I was ok, and I would blurt out a choked “It’s fine” and he would keep going, until he finally saw me crying. He rolled off of me and walked away to sulk. I don’t remember the details. I don’t remember what all he did. I don’t call it rape because I don’t know what happened, I just know he touched me and I was crying and he knew I didn’t want it.
Of course some people will tell me this was my fault, that I should have seen the signs, that I should have just left. That’s easy enough to say when you aren’t the one in love, when you aren’t the one hanging onto your own emotional well being by a thread, when you don’t think that if you leave he might kill himself. Yes, I had choices in this situation that could have ended it, but I did not choose to manipulate and terrorize another human being until they thought they had no choice but to give me their body in order to keep me sane.
This same kind of incident has happened in three of my relationships. It is not uncommon. But this is not the narrative of rape. If I were to report this incident, I would be laughed out the door. I pretend it didn’t happen for the most part, except when asking my current partner to be particularly careful about boundaries. This is considered normal in relationships. The idea that I owed him sex is normal in relationships. But it hurt me. It made me feel guilty for the fact that I felt violated and hurt. We need to be honest about how common this is, how manipulative it is, and how it is, in fact, assault.