Trigger warning: this article contains detailed discussion of the author’s personal experience of rape.
Until two days ago, I never saw myself as a rape victim. I could – to trusted friends – acknowledge and occasionally talk about the sexual assault that happened when I was an adolescent, and I was happy to make jokes about “that music teacher who locked himself in a cupboard with me…” without looking properly at the consequences of either of those events. I felt as though those two occasions were the limits of my negative sexual experience.
And then on Friday I found myself talking to a close friend about various relationships, and I described my relationship with the man to whom I lost my virginity. (As an aside, I really don’t like the terminology of ‘losing one’s virginity’ – it puts a really uncomfortable value on the whole thing, for me.) Having tried to explain what it was like, I ground to a halt. My friend looked at me, and said: “That was rape.”
Point blank. I’d never looked at it like that before. Or rather, I had not wanted to.
And I am troubled by it now; is it rape, for example, when you enter into a relationship with someone, knowing that they will have sex with you, and that your choice in the matter is almost nil? If you know that will happen, and yet you go ahead anyway, is that rape? I take sides against myself to say ‘no, it can’t be, and it isn’t fair on X to call it rape’. I brought it on myself, is my main feeling.
Two people very close to me are both victims of rape; probably if I asked, I’d know many more women who are. I’ve always therefore assumed that you know that it’s rape; that there’s something in your mind that tells you straight away that this is wrong, even if you can’t react to it at the time. Maybe I did have that warning voice, without recognising it. Maybe I deliberately chose to ignore it.
Consent is often very difficult to negotiate. Many laws globally make reference to the importance of “free and active” consent. In my case, I don’t know that any law would legally call it rape, although my consent was given more out of a sense of inevitability than because I actually wanted to be part of it. I remember, during the many times we had sex, staring at a point above his right shoulder and wishing he would just go away, wanting it to be over, and wondering how long it had to last. I felt more honour-bound to be part of the performance, than actively excited by it. I used to wonder what the point of sex was – I certainly didn’t find it enjoyable, I didn’t ever really want to be there, but I said yes, so in my mind that was consent.
Looking back, it seems very difficult. I’m in a relationship now where I know – for the first time – what it feels like to actively want to be in bed with someone, to feel confident enough with them to initiate contact, and to feel loved enough that it is possible to say no. It is not as though I was ever threatened by my previous boyfriend; he was ever so careful to make sure I knew that he wasn’t going to put pressure on me and that I was at perfect liberty to say no. I also knew – because he told me – that if we didn’t have sex, he would go and sleep with other people (which didn’t, in his eyes, mean he loved me any the less, just that it was more important he had regular sex than that we had a relationship that both of us were comfortable with). So I could have said no, and not minded him having sex elsewhere – that could have been an arrangement we came to. “Like Sartre and De Beauvoir”, was his contention. We could both have other partners, but we each came first to each other. Or rather, he could have other partners, and I would pretend to be happy with it. Somehow, at the time, that didn’t feel like emotional pressure.
Because of the state of mind I was in at that point in my life, I went out with him like a rat leaving a sinking ship. Everything else felt slightly futile; he was someone to be with to make life more interesting. If I had to have sex in order to spend time with him then that was a sacrifice part of me was willing to make. The part of me that curled up in inward disgust every time we were alone in bed together, the part of me that hated the contact of skin to skin and begged to be allowed to sleep in a T-shirt rather than spend the night naked with him, this was a part that – in my self-imposed tyranny – had to subside in order to preserve this strange and uncomfortable relationship.
He was a nice guy. I’m never going to tell him that what happened was – probably – rape. I don’t know if anyone else would define it like that; I’m sure that for people who are victims of much more serious assaults, this seems easy in comparison. I don’t know what I want to call this. I don’t want to live with the knowledge that I brought it on myself.
Consent is tricky; victim-blaming is even harder when it’s self-directed. And through this all, all I want is for someone else to define what happened for me, to take on the responsibility of anger, because I can’t bear it myself.
I’m sorry if this sounds more like a confession than an attempt at an article. It is in part a flood, perhaps. It is also, however, an attempt to recognise from within myself, how easily undefined consent is. I don’t think there is any law that would recognise what happened to me as rape, and perhaps rightly so. What is necessary instead is so much more emotional education about sex and sexuality from a much younger age. If there were some way of teaching everyone to recognise the processes in their own minds that are leading them into situations they may mistrust, and to recognise pressure both from within and without, maybe that would help. Maybe a shift in the way we recognise consent would help as well – either way, a huge dialogue needs to open up to change the way that consent is considered; it is not always (perhaps never is) as black and white as a simple yes and no.