When I was 14 I was sexually abused by my 25 year old “boyfriend”. It happened in my parents house, when they and my sister went out for the day, leaving me alone with him. I “consented” in the sense that I never said “no, stop”, but the imbalance in power between an adult man - even a young adult - and a 14 year old girl is such that I was hopelessly outmatched in terms of negotiating how to defend myself. I had been sexually innocent - I had only ever french kissed once before - and when he was touching me I felt terrible; violated, scared and ashamed, but I wanted him to like me and approve of me, so I said nothing. I was suffering from depression at the time, self-harming on a regular basis, and life at home was rocky - my parents, two of the most wonderful people you will meet, were going through a really rough time coping with dad’s stress and my mum’s diagnosis of terminal Milo Fibrosis. Things in our house were hard, and no one had any idea or experience of how to deal with a depressed teenager, so I was very lonely and vulnerable, desperate for approval and love.
This was my first real sexual experience, and it taught me two things:
1. That I - my feelings, my desires, my emotions - were not important, and
2. That I could have love and approval if I was prepared to let men have access to my body.
As I grew up my depression worsened and I spent more time away from home. I became involved with another older man, again ten years older than me, and we had a two year relationship that was psychologically and sexually abusive. He was a serial abuser, searching out vulnerable teenage girls and grooming them to look and behave in the way he wanted. If I didn’t do what he wanted me to do he would punish me with hours of silence and cold treatment, or endless arguing that I could never win, grinding down my self esteem. These things may sound unpleasant but not terrible, not “abusive” as such, until you take into account once more the imbalance of power between a mentally unwell sixteen year old and a twenty six year old man. He worked hard to isolate me from my friends and to some extent my family, so that I relied solely upon him. By the time he was instructing me to do things I felt unable to do - join him in having sexual relationships with my school friends, for example - I relied on him so much that leaving him was unthinkable. I was also terrified of him, and his capacity to hurt me mentally.
But I did leave him, and survived it. Eventually I made it through the interminable waiting list to have CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), which gave me tools I needed to manage the self harm and the depression and I went on antidepressants. I left town two years later to go to university where I studied Philosophy and started counselling. I had at least one more abusive relationship before I started to really recognize the warning signs in a potential partner, and started to really believe I deserved to be loved. Each relationship over the years has brought to light more of the damage done by those men to my teenage self, but also has helped me overcome it; I owe a lot to some great counsellors and some very kind men!
Now, four years later, I’m about to turn 29. It’s been ten years since I left that abusive relationship, and for the first time in my life, this year, 2013, I think I can finally say that I no longer fear my ex.I finally feel I have healed from what was done to me; I thought I might never feel free. I’m not saying I forgive it, or that it’s forgotten, only that I no longer feel I’m walking round with open wounds. For 5 years I’ve been living in Edinburgh, spending my spare time learning more about how to support people who’ve survived sexual violence and about the cultural inequalities that perpetuate it. In May 2013 I got tired of carrying an ever-expanding list of victims round in my head. It’s not fair that the people who were victimised by sexual violence are the only ones who suffer over it. Do you suppose either of my abusers spent the last ten years in and out of therapy? Do they still have flashbacks during sex so that they freeze in terror? I doubt it. I paid for their crime every day for a decade, as does anyone who has been raped or sexually abused.
I decided to start a project for survivors as a way of giving voice to the hundreds of people who’ve survived this kind of abuse and carry it with them in secret every day, a little bit more afraid, a little bit more in pain, having to work a little harder to be “normal” and never having that struggle acknowledged. I want them to have a voice. I want to educate people so that I don’t have to hear one more blissfully ignorant person say, “I don’t know anyone who’s been raped.” Yes you do. And the chances are you know their rapist, too.
This problem is all around us, walking by our side every day, living in our heads, and it’s about time it was recognised.