Breaking the circle

We know that sexual violence is all too common and everyday. Here 'L' talks through repeat experiences of being targetted with abuse and sexual assault by boys and men

, 25 May 2009

Warning: this article may be triggering for some readers

I am 22 and so far throughout my life, I have put up with a lot of violence inflicted on my body, which has affected the way I am.

I wanted to share my experience because I am at a point where I am acknowledging this violence for what it really was, and I am in the process of releasing anger and finding a positive outcome to those aggressions.

As far as I can remember, I have always had boys – and later on men – taking advantage of my quiet or shy nature to overstep the boundaries, and allowing themselves access to my body. As a child, I was what people might call a tomboy. I was provocative with boys, managing to outsmart them and could be as loud and aggressive as them. A few times, some boys tried to put me back to my place by reacting violently. I remember getting into a fight with a boy where he repeatedly hit me in the face whilst I just clenched my teeth and laughed in his face to show him I was not scared of his violence.

I was still shy, but I had enough confidence to speak back to boys. This came crashing down when puberty hit me. I think that I have never really assimilated myself to any of the two main sexes and that the apparition of my periods just sent me off and confused me.

Those events made me angry but I kept denying them as true acts of violence. I thought I was stronger than that

I did not want to be a girl or a woman. I instinctually did not like what it implied nor did I feel part of this gender. When my breasts started growing, some of the cockier boys would grope them in the corridors and run away. They would stare and make lewd comments, though I was not one of the most developed girls in the school.

And this is how it started. It went from physical violence to sexual assault. Although I felt this behaviour was wrong and felt like screaming every time it happened, I also felt a sort of guilt. As if what was happening was actually my fault and those boys had every right to appropriate my body.

I became anorexic and bulimic for about eight years. Looking back, it was not just the desire to lose weight or maintain it at a certain point that got me to starve myself or on the contrary to purge and throw up. It was also the fact that I was gender confused, along with the self-hatred that came from putting up in silence with those attacks on my body.

When I was 16 and the bulimia was at its worse, a man who worked in my village as some sort of gamekeeper would perve on me everyday, focusing on my breasts. He groped me several times. I did not know how to react. I felt like screaming but couldn’t and I’m pretty sure this fucker could feel how petrified I was. One day I told him to stop, very shyly, saying that I had a boyfriend and he would not approve. The boyfriend in question knew about what was going on, but avoided the subject every time I brought it up, diverting the conversation and denying me the right to speak to someone about it. An attitude that I would find again so many times later on in my life.

Two years later, I met a guy when I was out. He was friends with my housemate’s friends. One evening, I had invited him to my flat to get to know him. He seemed like a nice enough guy. I had not felt him to be aggressive at all. That night, we started watching a film. We started kissing each other and undressing. I asked him to stop and he raped me. He held me down and got rid of my underwear, stopped me from screaming with his mouth or his hand and raped me. He told me it was his fantasy and asked me if I liked it. When he left my mouth free, I could not scream, I was scared stiff and I remember this as a blur where I just stopped defending myself and let it happen. I was afraid he would kill me. I entered a phase of denial as soon as it was over; telling myself it was my fault after all.

What follows is one of the reasons why I never reported it to the police: in the morning – though it might have been later on that night – I initiated sex with him and got pleasure out of it. Only last summer would a close feminist friend of mine help me understand why I had sex with the person who raped me. She helped me understand I was trying to gain back my territory, reappropriate myself my private space… That I was going at great lengths to negate the event.

In following years I’ve been in a series of relationships with people who, to some extent, abused me. In my first year of university, my boyfriend from back home had serious control issues and wanted to buy me. He was working at the time and paid for us when we went out, although I would occasionally pay when I managed to scrape money together. He would disapprove of certain clothes and one day had a fit of anger when I wore a t-shirt that was, to him, too revealing.

I left his house and he followed me to the train station and physically restrained me on the platform. Unsurprisingly, no-one moved.

He marched me back to his house and let me go after I had put on another t-shirt. I ended the relationship a few weeks later, once I was out of his reach.

Those events were accompanied and followed by other episodes of what I call ordinary violence. Like when you step outside and you always find some guy to look you up and down, to follow you around, to grope you in clubs, to make disgusting comments, or your boyfriend/husband who pressures you for sex. At 16, I’d woken up one night to find my boyfriend of the time above me, ready to penetrate me in my sleep.

They said, and I quote, that he was ‘a nice guy’, that he ‘would never do that’ and asked if I was ‘not ashamed to wreak his life’?

Those events made me angry but I kept denying them as true acts of violence. I thought I was stronger than that. Last year was the worse of my life. I was living with a group of six other people, which included five boys, and started sinking into depression, as I could not help but feel unsafe in that house and alone.

Something just clicked inside my head not long after I had moved in, and slowly started to make its way through my consciousness. One incident brought back the pain of the rape that had occurred roughly four years before.

There was a guy that I liked and one night, while we were out, we came back together. I’d like to make clear that this person did not rape me. I was fairly sober by the time I initiated a move towards him and I remember in a sort of blurry haze the moment when we got back and started having sex. However, I suddenly found myself crying with him. I think that the fact I had never slept with someone while drunk is what made me cry. I felt like I had lost control. He didn’t know how to react and I have never told him even after seeing him again weeks and months later.

That night and the reflection that followed brought me to think again about the rape and all the abuses I had rejected out of my mind. It did not happen overnight. It has been a year since I started rethinking about things and finally seeing them for what they were. I am in the process of rebuilding myself, or, more accurately, finding myself and the strength that I used to have, and bettering it. After years of putting myself through what could best be described as a complete and utter mind-fuck, I have decided to sort this mess out and stop denying my right to feel angry, my need to get stronger and understand how all this happened and I want to help other women.

Why am I telling the story of my life so far? First of all to deliver myself and, right now, it feels good to see it all typed down. The images that come back in my mind once again hit me and make me think “How did I put up with all this for so long? Without saying anything to anyone?”

I have talked to very close friends about all this since and discovered that many of them had lived similar traumas. What sickens me in my story and the ones I heard is the fact that most of the time, the abusers were people that the person knew whether their family, their boyfriends, friends, or friends of friends (I have read on the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network website that approximately 73% of victims know their assailants).

I spent a good deal of time going for random walks at night, not only because I enjoy walks by night but also – as I can now clearly see – in an attempt at controlling the public space and make it my own, as a way of facing the possibility of violence

Not only that, but the people surrounding them, who know the offender, might actually defend him when they dare talk about what they went through. I told some of the guy who raped me’s friends about what happened. They said, and I quote, that he was “a nice guy”, that he “would never do that” and asked if I was “not ashamed to wreak his life”? So I made myself believe it was me who was crazy and that these things happen.

The press also perpetuates this idea that girls who denounce rapists and talk about their ordeals are liars. I have read somewhere – I think it was this website – that only 3% of rape claims end up being false (ed: According to a report by the US National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, “When more methodologically rigorous research has been conducted, estimates for the percentage of false reports begin to converge around 2-8%.” via Alas, A Blog) So how come this mentality remains predominant? More importantly, how many girls and women do like I did and refuse to see such attacks for what they are?

I have been reading articles on this website and many others and find them all interesting and insightful. I have also read a few books regarding feminism and rape, most notably Spin by Camille Paglia.

Ideally, I would want rape never to happen. Realistically, I cannot see it stopping and I do think that Paglia’s ideas are powerful only if the rape in itself is not denied and the person receives appropriate support. I would like to make clear that I do not mean by that that rape should be disregarded as uneventful, but on the contrary, to bring it into the light, to make women realise that it is not something that just happens to other women but an everyday reality, that it can take many forms, that it is necessary to accept its existence and acknowledge it when it happens. All this to be able to accept it when it takes place and fight against its effects. On other websites, I have read many, many stories similar to my own. They often involve people who are close to the victim and I would again like to stress out the importance of the fact that three times out of four, the assailant is no stranger to the victim. I would like to point out that a boyfriend or husband can coerce or force his partner or wife into sex or sexual acts and that it is rape.

As I said before, I have denied myself the right to consider those events as violence. Unconsciously though, I was acting out on them. I was putting my body through hell by punishing it and making myself starve or sick, I was – and still am – distrustful of other people, because I have been silenced or ignored by most when trying to express my problems. I spent a good deal of time going for random walks at night, not only because I enjoy walks by night but also – as I can now clearly see – in an attempt at controlling the public space and make it my own, as a way of facing the possibility of violence. At the same time, I put myself in situations of danger by leaving my friends when I was out to wander off on my own or getting very drunk. I have been abusive – psychologically – to people.

I don’t really fit in any of the two genders and just consider myself as an individual. This also attracts a certain negativity, from the violence coming from boys and men to remarks from other girls and women

Of course, I will not deny the importance of my own a tendency to depression – or the fact that I can be naturally aggressive in certain circumstances, but now I can face the past, I understand the reasons behind those events a lot more.

Like I mentioned before, I have also been gender confused and do not really fit into the female stereotypes. I do wear a bit of makeup and do wear feminine clothes – from time to time – and do a few other things which are considered as being ‘feminine’. But I don’t really fit in any of the two genders and just consider myself as an individual. This also attracts a certain negativity, from the violence coming from boys and men to remarks from other girls and women.

The ‘advice’ that is dished out along the lines of “you should grow your hair”, “you should wear more make up”, “you should wear a skirt”, which I have heard several times from various people, can cumulate to aggression. It is one thing to give friendly advice or an opinion, but there is a clear feeling with some that this ‘friendly advice’ amounts to pressure or a denial of the person’s identity. They clearly have to be a ‘real girly girl’, or a ‘tomboy’. The grey area seems to attract much unsympathetic curiosity.

As I have stated before, in many cases, including my own, the person attacked knows their assailant. I have been informed of the Reclaim the Night marches held in several UK capitals and I think that this is a very good idea and I am hoping – provided I do not have to work the next day – to participate in one of the marches. However, let’s not forget that violence coming from strangers is far from being the first source of violence and abuse. I hope this issue is addressed and put at the forefront of rape campaigns and articles concerning the matter.

Upon starting to write this article, I had many things in mind and have not approached them all. It has taken me two weeks to write this testimony and I hope that it shall bring something to other women. During all those years, and I have failed to state this before, I have been lucky to meet a few men who became my friends, my confidents or my lovers and I have been able to trust – to a certain, if fairly limited, extent – some of them. I have not only lived dark events over the years, though I have focused on the very negative upon writing this article. Nevertheless, the shadow of abuse has stained my life in an irreversible way and it will take time to heal, though I have decided to put it in a positive way. I will never back down on my rights to defend my body; I will never take any form of abuse and, no less importantly, will not take it out on myself and other people.

L is an art student based in Wales

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