Music With Lyrics: Finding Your Way Back to Yourself After Sexual Assault

The term itself is insufficient and sounds oddly trivial. The word ‘stealth’ has various associations in the Oxford English Dictionary (2020), including ‘secretly and without right or permission’, ‘clandestinely’, ‘furtive’. A stealth action happens quickly and slyly, like the swiping of an appetising sweet by a small child before their parent sees. But stealthing does not just happen surreptitiously, swiftly, or without the total awareness of the victim.

Content Note: graphic description of sexual assault

Beginning

As long as it has existed, writing has been an act of self-control as much as it is an act of self-expression. It can bring solace and even medication. I am writing this to take control of what happened to me, but sharing with readers I have never met. I hope some of what I say speaks to you.

This is a time of deep, global reflection. For some, it may be a balm, as they steady their gaze and look at their life with newfound peace. For others, this slowness may increase anxiety, as we are thrown into waves of endless questions, where answers are like the rarest pearls of hope at the bottom of a murky ocean bed. Perhaps old demons have resurfaced: people you don’t want to hear from or think about, events you thought you’d buried. It may cause you to reframe moments in your life, to see them from a different angle, lit with renewed pain, joy or acceptance.

I want to tell you about an experience that is newly spun in my own tapestry.

A few months ago, I was sexually assaulted. I’m very early in my journey of reflection and acceptance. Through writing this, I am trying to put what happened in a frame, to observe it as a memory. Part of, though clearly separate from, me.

I am a single, white, and able-bodied woman. I am emotionally open and I try to be consistently kind. Some of my favourite things to do are dancing until my clothes are transparent with sweat and studded with wet glitter; to eat fresh food in green spaces with people I love a lot; and to laugh very often. I remember this quote from Toni Morrison’s Jazz: ‘laughter is serious. More complicated, more serious than tears.’ So, I laugh and I cry and try not to put a dam up against either of these wellsprings.

I had my first kiss when I was eighteen (which I think can generally be considered late) and first had sex when I was twenty-one (perhaps more average). Both of those times felt right for me. I have only had committed, romantic and sexual relationships and sex with men, but I have also dated and am attracted to women. I have had mundane, excellent and hollow sex, in and out of relationships. I have dumped and been dumped. I am a very romantic person but I have never been in love. I am optimistic and I hope, one day, to marry someone with whom I can laugh, cry and eat in the sun.

I am sure that you will recognise a lot of these qualities, in yourself and in people you know. Perhaps I am more sensitive and vulnerable than some. Less savvy and experienced than others.

I reveal some fairly ubiquitous details about myself to demonstrate something which you should not ever have to prove. No one aspect of me or of anyone can ever explain, excuse or justify sexual assault. What happened to you is never your fault. Never, never, never.

First meeting

We met on a dating app; matched and exchanged a few messages before agreeing to meet – neither of us seemed like small talk people. “Seemed” is the keyword here, because dating apps, in their infinite, algorithmic wisdom, amalgamate the complexities of our identities into bald, flat projections of two-dimensional comparison. We tap and swipe with one eye open, dully hoping for the next connection. And in the spaces between matching, messaging and meeting, we have already formed a million micro impressions, whether we realise it or not, based on our histories and sensibilities, on what they are like.

On our first date, we shared information and interests and found mutual connections. He encouraged – and sometimes demanded – openness. This was new. He remarked that when we date, we play a game of conceal and reveal. I thought – that’s true, that’s insightful. And within that thought, I had couched the assumption that, because he recognised the cynicism in modern dating, he himself was not playing a game. I began to trust him.

I trusted him enough to decide to go to his house a week later for dinner. We had a couple of calls and exchanged messages during the week. I deliberated, but I wanted us to take an evening to enjoy ourselves. So I decided to go. Plus, he was making me dinner.

His house

The atmosphere while he was trying, and failing, to cook, simmered with the charge of two relative strangers who are attracted to one another. He asked lots of questions, and I liked his curiosity. I took it as him making a genuine effort to learn about who I am. But sometimes, he pushed the verbal contract implicit in every conversation. Know when it’s too soon, or too raw, to talk about some things. The two words he said the most were, “Tell me.” I found myself at one point having to explain why I wouldn’t immediately tell him something from my history. This felt like a new kind of dating game: pushing someone to see how far they’ll bend to you.

But each time, after repeated ‘nos’ from me, he’d get the message. All these exchanges were under the guise of flirtatious play. I did not feel any insinuation in them that this person had an issue, full stop, with boundaries. With being told no. And how could I? At this stage? We were flirting. We were cooking. We were strangers, learning about one another.

I don’t know if you can really tell what someone is going to be like sexually before you actually are sexually intimate with them. I think kissing reveals a lot, but sex has clear rules. It has rules because within those rules, there is so much boundless, beautiful freedom that you can find with another person. The main rule is that consent has to be active, consistent, and enthusiastic. I would never judge someone based on how soon they have sex with someone they’ve met. You have to know then that it’s what you want and what feels right. This far into the evening, it was still what I wanted, still what felt right.

The bedroom

We spent a few hours in his bedroom, getting to know each other sexually. We had protected intercourse a few times. Neither of us climaxed. But we were having fun. Mostly. Intermittently, he was rough. ‘Ow!’ was what I said most during our encounter. Ow for stop, you’re hurting me. Which he did. But the main, niggling issue amongst all this was his persistently pressurising language.

When you’re in a room with another person, being sexual, you create a new world together. There is a power in the atmosphere which, if both parties respect each other, can be shared and equal; see-sawed, stretched, billowed and played with to create an ecstasy of human collaboration, trust and wonder. But when someone else seizes that power – it may be over a period of time, or all at once, in a moment – they have changed the rules. You may lose where you are. You may not realise it happening, because you think you are still in that place of equality. But it’s become a different game.

It started with little, seemingly offhand remarks about how ‘shit’ and ‘inconvenient’ and ‘unsexy’ condoms are. He would come to me without a condom on, I would say, “No, stop, get one. “ He would say, begrudgingly, somewhat mockingly, with a roll of his eyes, “Yes, yes, I know you’re right. You always say the right thing.” This happened two or three times. Then the remarks started to mount, each one degrading more at my will power and ability to say no:

It’s just a boy thing, I think. All I can think about is ejaculating.” “Nothing happens for women, does it, if they don’t come? They just get pissed off.” “My stomach is really starting to hurt.” “It’s male biology. This is my reaction. I can’t come with a condom.” “No one has ever made me come from just a blowjob. That’s your challenge.” “Oh but it’s soooooo rubbish with a condom. Can we just…”

These, and more like them, for a very long period. I suggested we go to a 24-hour shop to get more condoms. He, lounging on the bed, in a childish huff, instead repeated at me his apparent biological imperative.

My self-possession had been whittled and worn down. I was exhausted and I wanted everything to be over. Every time I said no, I was made to feel more and more like I was being unreasonable, even mean. It became exhausting to continually assert myself, until the point where I no longer felt I could. My self-control was zeroed by his coercion.

Stealthing

‘The Social Science Research Network (SSRN), in their paper ‘Rape-Adjacent’: Imagining Legal Responses to Nonconsensual Condom Removal, last revised in 2017, defines stealthing as:

‘Nonconsensual condom removal during sexual intercourse [which] exposes victims to physical risks of pregnancy and disease and, interviews make clear, is experienced by many as a grave violation of dignity and autonomy. Such condom removal, popularly known as “stealthing,” can be understood to transform consensual sex into nonconsensual sex.’

The term itself is insufficient and sounds oddly trivial. The word ‘stealth’ has various associations in the Oxford English Dictionary (2020), including ‘secretly and without right or permission’, ‘clandestinely’, ‘furtive’. A stealth action happens quickly and slyly, like the swiping of an appetising sweet by a small child before their parent sees. But stealthing does not just happen surreptitiously, swiftly, or without the total awareness of the victim. Not using a condom when your sexual partner has explicitly, repeatedly, insisted that you do; wearing them down until you have overridden their final plea of ‘No’; and proceeding to climax in the knowledge that you are actively violating their sexual autonomy, crossing a clear, iron-clad boundary without consent – this is stealthing, too.

I recall Lady Macbeth’s words, ‘That my keen knife see not the wound it makes, / Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark, / To cry ‘Hold, hold!’’ The man who assaulted me knew the wound he was making and, still, he did not stop, did not look away.

The aftermath

Cycling away from his house, the morning after pill in my bag, I felt bruised, numb and clouded. His words throughout the night, and the strange spectrum of emotions that were exchanged and heavy in the atmosphere, weighed on me like lead.

“I just feel…” I searched for the word.

“Disrespected.” He supplied it. I found this very chilling.

I thought – okay. So, on one level, you know and understand what happened here. I don’t think this makes him a better or worse person for going ahead and doing it anyway, because what adult could seriously claim that in the moment itself, they had no idea what they were doing? Absolutely none at all of what the other person was feeling? I think, on balance, it makes him worse; but what I’m saying is no one could claim ignorance and therefore be deemed ‘better’. There is no better or worse, there’s just the facts of the matter. You do not not know what you are doing.

I’m upset that you’re upset.”

He was not upset about what he had done. 

I got home and went for a run. Then I went to buy some condoms, as an act of reclaiming control, I think. Then I called a close friend. Something wasn’t right, I knew that, and I wanted advice. Once I’d explained what happened, he was silent on the phone. Then, he said, “What he did is absolutely disgusting.”

This was the first step to me recognising the experience in the cold light of day. On the advice of the friend, I sent the man in question a voice note, articulating how wrong I felt, and suggesting a conversation. He asked to speak on the phone.

I was still very much trying to understand the situation and to put it to bed. I did not want it to have happened, and my contacting him when things were still so fresh was another attempt to put the night to rights. At this stage of the trauma, I did not realise that righting his wrongs was not my obligation.

The phone call was really strange. Unlike in the immediate aftermath, he was clearly shaken up. During the course of the call, I wanted everything to be ok, neutralised, erased. This meant we ended up ending things fairly amicably. Two things really stayed with me.

“I don’t know what being an adult means,” he said, boyishly.

“Being an adult means taking responsibility,” I replied, with sudden knowledge.

That’s it. That’s what it means.

Processing 

I told a close female friend a few days later. “How can I best support you?” she asked. It is the support of other people, which I am so fortunate to have around me, that started a process of healing, reflection and renewal.

I don’t want to feel any of these feelings. They feel so much bigger than me.

For the first month, my thoughts, dreams and fantasies were invaded. My reaction to things, things which felt random and inoffensive, disarmed me. I spent a long time not feeling like myself. Like a stranger in my own body.

I couldn’t listen to certain songs because the lyrics were too on-the-nose.
I feared sensory pleasure and tensed up at the thought of a sex scene on TV.
I felt sick thinking about other bodies being sexual.
I felt bewildered and intimidated thinking about my own body being sexual.
I felt reticent to exercise, I was afraid of sweat.
I was continually restless.
I lacked resolve.
I sat still a lot. I moved around a lot. I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere.

I had very visceral flashbacks from that night. They intercepted my vision, disrupting my interior world. I felt like a faulty television set which blinks back to the same channel, no matter how many times I try to change what’s on. I was held captive by these invasive images which flared up in my free associations. Everything and nothing reminded me of what happened.

I imagined seeing him in the street. In a club. In a supermarket. In another country. I was trying to prepare myself. I still am.

Two weeks afterwards and my bruises were fading, only faint discolourings. Yellow-purple half moons or squashed berries blended into my skin, receding into my body’s memory. They persisted to remind me of what happened, that everything was not okay.

I sought professional support and legal advice. Both processes are ongoing. The initial bureaucracy of both was tiring, but every phone call I had with someone who listened, who made me feel heard, who let me cry and work through so many complicated, ugly and intrusive feelings, made me feel hopeful. They gave me faith that most people are like those people and not like the person who has left me with this reality. Articulating my experience in different ways – to friends and family, to medical professionals, to myself and for myself, to you – has never stopped being horrible and hard. But it has empowered me also, because it has helped me claim what happened through externalising it. As soon as you describe something, your mind becomes more spacious, and their action has less power.

The emotions I found hardest to handle were empathy and rage. The empathy especially, felt because of the fact he is a three-dimensional person who clearly had some understanding of the depravity of what he had done. It is a natural emotion but, initially, it was a huge hindrance to my own self-soothing. I was trying to take responsibility for him changing, in some vicarious way. It is important to recognise what you are and are not responsible for. Empathy and compassion are infinitely beautiful things which, whether directed outwards or inwards, are a direct source of comfort and salvation. Don’t misdirect them towards people who have actively abused these qualities. They may be hurting, but they have hurt you. Be compassionate towards yourself.

As for the rage…I thought about the obvious things. Post dog shit to his house, or something; sign his email address up to spam accounts. I have decided against these courses of action (for now, at least). Writing this is a vehicle to drive out many of these feelings, so I can move forwards.

The future

Thank you for sharing your insights with me and thank you for being a good person in the world.”

This was the last thing he said. This looks like a sincerely pleasant, mildly heartfelt and touching, goodbye, doesn’t it? It felt like that at the time. I am still confused by its apparent sincerity. I know that he meant it, that’s the weird thing.

It’s the fact that I can’t render this man monstrous in my mind’s eye, the fact that he doesn’t emerge with seven heads, breathing fire, spiked tongues hissing, dagger eyes rolling, that so addles my brain.

When I imagine someone who abuses, I see a dark, shady figure, faceless, ageless, timeless, who moves silently with profound intention. Who can run, dart, fly. I imagine someone who has no interests. No past. No home. Nothing they love. No pets. Few aspirations. Who doesn’t feel real pleasure.

This is, of course, the stuff of fantasy, but it underlies collective conception of who it is exactly that sexually assaults. Such nightmarish imaginings lurk in victim-blaming culture, in the stark statistics of reports versus arrests, and contribute to a sinister and prolific culture of trivialising sexual assault. Of ‘not all men’. The victim should have seen the abuser coming. Should have worn a longer skirt.

We should not be frightened of normality, or of all men. But in order for this basic fear to be assuaged, we need to recognise that we are a long way off from assault not being normalised.

There are no blurred lines in sex, just lines, plain and simple.

The only way to address how insidiously skewed the ways we talk about, regulate and teach sex is through education at every level, in schools and in workplaces. Only then can we truly discover it for ourselves, autonomously; talk about it, openly and without shame; and trust the majority of people, with the trust which only education empowers you to exercise, to love freely and respectfully.

It is not the responsibility of the victim to explain to an abuser what a boundary is before, during and after they have crossed it.

I reported him on the dating app and he was removed. That felt like a small victory. My friend assured me that it wasn’t small, but in my head all my attempts to claw back power were woefully meagre. In one phone call, the kind voice at the end of the line said, “Justice means different things to different people.” I don’t know what justice is for me, yet; how relatively big or relatively small it is.

I am so lucky to feel safe where I live and to have a strong support network. I know, for some people, one or both of those realities is not theirs. To you, I say: there are people you have never even met who care about you, and they really are a phone call away. Take a deep breath and pick up the phone.

I listened to Kate Tempest in a podcast recently. She was saying how creative acts, even if they come from something traumatising and frightening, are always beautiful. I am striving to take something beautiful from this.

I’ve been writing a lot, and I’m grateful to be writing this. I feel safer and less suspicious everyday. And I can now listen to music with lyrics.

Advice for readers 

♥ If you can, sleep a lot. It will help your body recover and your mind more clearly assess how you feel.

♥ My way of dealing with what happened was to go into ‘productive’ mode – proactively processing, busying myself, still loading up my days with things to achieve. If this is you, slow down and let yourself feel what has happened. This will feel scary, but it will help you. If you are struggling to motivate yourself in any way, start really, really small. You got out of bed and went to the shop and bought chocolate and milk? Yes queen!

♥ Try talking out loud to yourself about what you’re feeling. This will help you feel more in control and will prepare you for when you are ready to talk to other people.

♥ Speak to people when you are ready. There is no rush.

♥ Doing activities with your hands may help. I made cards for friends and did a bit of painting/online art classes. They really diverted my attention.

♥ Daily rituals, like yoga, can help you centre self-care.

♥ Practise noticing when something triggers you. This will strengthen you and make you more equipped to deal with life’s randomness.

♥ Don’t put pressure on yourself to report what happened. If you are thinking about it, research your options and speak to someone informed.

♥ You may feel confused or alarmed by directive emotions, such as desire, passion and anger, reawakening. Especially if the assault has made you feel passive or disinterested. Notice these emotions, and if they are causing you to actively want to do things – anything from masturbating to sending hate mail to the abuser – ask yourself what would be healthy for you and for your recovery. This allows you to be engaged in a continual process of coming back to yourself.

♥ If you can, light a candle and have a bath. Make or buy yourself your favourite food. These sensory activities will soothe your body.

♥ You may feel frustrated by people’s responses if you choose to share with people you know. Perhaps they will ask lots of questions, or not know what to say at all. Hold in your mind your reasons for telling them. It is more important that you have shared than what they say – unless, of course, if what they say or do helps you.

♥ If you seek support, which I encourage you to, the bureaucracy will be waring. What helped me was making a ‘Love Log’, in which I noted who I had called and if I had spoken to anyone. This allowed me to see these things as victories in the interim between reaching out and waiting for long-term support.

People to thank with all my heart

My cousin
My friends
My work colleague
Every health professional who answered the phone and let me speak
My family (though I haven’t told them, they’ve still been around)
Christine and the Queens
Survivors who have shared their testimonies
Survivors everywhere
Scarleteen, for this space to share











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How Can I Access Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare in the UK?

A primer on accessing sexual and reproductive healthcare in the United Kingdom.

ALL sexual and reproductive healthcare in the UK is free through the NHS.

The best ways to access sexual and reproductive health services are through a GUM (genitourinary medicine)/sexual health/family planning clinic or through your GP. You do not need an NHS number to attend a GUM clinic — these services are available to everyone. To find out which services are available near you, you can check out the Sexwise website.

A great thing about going to a GUM clinic is that you can get a comprehensive sexual health check up with a doctor or nurse who works in sexual health. It can be your one-stop shop for contraception, sexually transmitted infection (STI) screening and management of STI symptoms, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV and more.

If you need contraception

ALL contraception in the UK is free, including emergency contraception. There are many different methods of contraception available so you should be able to find something that suits you. These include contraceptive pills, the contraceptive patch, the vaginal ring, injectable contraceptives, implants, and intrauterine devices (IUDs). You can have a read about all the methods available in the UK on the Sexwise and Contraception Choices websites, or a range of contraceptive methods here at Scarleteen, so that you can come to your appointment with some information and any questions about the methods you’re interested in.

Emergency contraception comes in two forms – an intrauterine device or emergency contraceptive pills. Both forms of emergency contraception are available for free at GUM clinics, some GP clinics and some A&Es. Emergency contraceptive pills can also be bought over the counter at some pharmacies.

If you want to get tested for STIs 

Free at-home STI testing kits are available to many people in the UK (depending on where you live) and can be ordered online. These kits are for if you want to test for STIs and also have no symptoms. If you do have symptoms, you should see a nurse or doctor at your GP clinic or a GUM clinic instead.

The free STI testing kits are sent to your house in an unmarked confidential package. The tests usually involve collecting a urine sample for those with a penis and a vaginal swab for those with a vagina; these usually test for chlamydia and gonorrhea. Taking a vaginal swab is similar to inserting a (very tiny, very thin) tampon. There is also a blood test, usually for syphilis and HIV; this involves pricking your finger and squeezing out blood into a small tube. You can then post the samples back to the lab for processing for free – just pop the kit in any post box.

If you’ve got STI symptoms

If you have any symptoms, like unusual discharge from your vagina or penis, pain passing urine, pain in your pelvis or lower tummy, pain with sex, unusual vaginal bleeding (like during or after sex, or between periods), or rashes, lumps, bumps, or sores on or around your genitals, then you should be assessed by a healthcare professional at a GP clinic or GUM clinic.

If you need a cervical smear

A cervical (or Pap) smear is a test to help detect pre-cancerous changes in the cervix . All cisgender women or other people with a cervix aged 25 to 64 should be invited by letter. You should have a cervical smear every 3 years from age 25 to 49. After this, the test becomes less frequent. Even if you have had HPV vaccinations, you still should have regular cervical smears.

If you have not already, register with a GP in the UK. You will get a letter in the post just before you turn 25 inviting you to book an appointment at your GP clinic for a cervical smear. If you do not receive a letter, or you think you need a cervical smear and haven’t received a letter, contact your GP.

If you need an abortion 

Abortions are available for free through the NHS. You can either ask a GUM clinic or GP to refer you, or you can contact one of the following abortion providers directly:

Check out the NHS website for more information.

If you have been sexually assaulted

The UK has sexual assault referral centres which are 24-hour one-stop specialist services where you can receive medical care and counselling. Find your closest centre on the NHS website. You can also go to a GUM clinic, an accident and emergency department, or your GP clinic.

Check out the Sexwise and NHS websites for more information on finding those services.

The last thing you may feel like doing after being sexually assaulted is going to the doctor. However, you should ideally do this as soon as possible because you may be at risk of pregnancy or STIs. You can be given medications to reduce your risk of pregnancy and STIs after assault. You don’t have to report the assault to the police if you don’t want to: reporting isn’t required to get emergency contraception, medications to help prevent STIs or other kinds of care.

I’m a man who has sex with men. Where should I go?

You can visit your local GUM or GP clinic to discuss regular STI screening, relevant vaccinations that may be available to you for free (e.g. the HPV vaccine, hepatitis vaccines etc), pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, and more.

What to expect at your appointment

If you have symptoms, are having a cervical smear, or are having an IUD inserted your nurse or doctor will likely need to examine you. Please don’t worry about pubic hair: your healthcare provider couldn’t care in the slightest if you have or haven’t shaved or waxed. It also doesn’t matter if you are currently menstruating. If you are feeling anxious, remember that the doctor or nurse you are seeing examines many people every day and this is as mundane for them as brushing your teeth is for you.

What about during the coronavirus pandemic?

The NHS is still open. Don’t avoid seeking healthcare you usually would during this time. Call your local GUM or GP clinic and they will advise you on what you can do during this time. They may try and manage your needs remotely, like by posting you medications you may require.

During the lockdown is also a great time to order an STI testing kit to your home.

While routine services may running at reduced capacity right now, all emergency services are functioning. If you have been assaulted, if you need emergency contraception, if you are feeling unwell, or if you need an abortion, you will still be able to receive these services and more. For example, some clinics are now posting medical abortion pills to patients, and you can still get help from a sexual assault referral centre (SARC) during the coronavirus outbreak. You can contact your GP clinic, GUM clinic, or go to A&E if you need any sexual and reproductive healthcare.











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Being Single During Lockdown: A Surprisingly Empowering Experience

Freedom is one of the most wonderful parts of being single. But for me, it’s too easy to get trapped in that. My instinct is to throw myself into new experiences and new people. Instead of embracing freedom, I’ve come to realise that this is me running from it. This is why lockdown has been a strangely empowering experience for me.

There are a thousand tips out there for how to cope with a breakup. They’re handed down through generations – from older sisters, from wiser friends, from your aunt who appears every Christmas with a wise glint in her eye and a glass of sherry. There are medical articles, listicles, even wikihows. But while everyone has a notion of what to do to heal themselves after a breakup, putting that into practice can be hard.

It doesn’t help that our social media feeds are littered with messages  about “self-care.” Self-love and authentic care of yourself are essential parts of any healthy breakup. But this care often looks messy, complicated and long. Frustratingly, it’s a lot harder than posting a hot pic of yourself on Instagram and watching the likes roll in (as fun as that might be). While having a night in with a facemask and bubble bath are important self-soothing techniques, they are only part of a wider project of authentic care.

Self-care after a breakup requires a significant amount of work. And when you are hurting, the last thing you may want to do is work. Being in the midst of a breakup inevitably involves a little bit of self-doubt, and maybe a little more anger with yourself. Our natural instinct may be to look back on our actions with shame, regret and, perhaps worst of all, curiosity. There is always the nagging question of why things didn’t work out – and, what we could have done to fix it.

I like to think that I’m quite good at dealing with breakups.

I try and force myself to sit with the pain, confronting the things that hurt me and the things I did that hurt the other person. It’s a profoundly uncomfortable experience. It’s also a healing one. However, full confession, I also have the worrying tendency to think I can just decide that I’m not sad anymore. This inevitably leads to the following: getting dressed up, drinking slightly too much as a ‘confidence booster’, getting increasingly sad about my ex while dancing and then crying on the train because no one tries to flirt with me.

Whether you initiate the break up or not, it is easy to self-blame.  A relationship not working, even with someone you care about deeply, can lead you down the endless rabbit hole of asking why. My gut reaction is always the same: that I’m never going to find someone who will love me or find me attractive again. When you’ve been in a relationship, it can be frightening to be alone. So, like many people, my reaction is to seek external validation.

In recent years, being single has entered the vogue of popular culture. In my mind, there are two classic frames. Either you’re a pining mess always yearning for someone you can’t have, or you’re someone who is completely at home with their freedom. You’re the Fun Hot Single Friend! You have as much sex as you want! You have flings with interesting people! You tell stories at the dinner table about your escapades! With characters like Ilana from Broad City, Nola from She’s Gotta Have It, Alice from How To Be Single or even Fleabag from, well, Fleabag, as examples , a wave of writing, television and film has celebrated being single authentically. For women and for LGBTQ+ people especially, there is a world out there of relationships to have, of mistakes to make, of hurts to experience and learn from. Being single is, more and more, something to aspire to rather than to be ashamed of.

Freedom is one of the most wonderful parts of being single. But for me, it’s too easy to get trapped in that. My instinct is to throw myself into new experiences and new people. Instead of embracing freedom, I’ve come to realise that this is me running from it.

This is why lockdown has been a strangely empowering experience for me. 

Without clubs, bars and crucially, other people, I haven’t been able to go down the tried and tested route of a club or a bar or a pub where someone is interested in me. Even dating apps have fizzled. While I have done my share of swiping, not being able to meet people in person makes it hard to keep conversations alive.

It’s been an important moment – understanding how to be okay with not wanting a relationship. And learning that the antithesis of that is not always throwing yourself into casual flings.

For me, it’s been a time to learn how to be alone without any external validation of my attractiveness, my funniness or my worth as a person. Those deep-seated insecurities are alleviated when you’re being dated or flirted with. Now, I’ve had to learn how to draw from that within myself.

Perhaps the most crucial thing I’ve learned is that freedom isn’t just about physical and sexual liberation (even though that is incredibly healthy and important). It also looks like focusing wholly on your own needs and your own pain. After a break up, it can also look like evaluating your mistakes in a healthy way.

Lockdown is a difficult experience. Not being able to see your loved ones, having no outside stimulation and being trapped in one spot can be very detrimental. But with the right resources and support, it is also an opportunity to really reflect on what brings you joy.

From a purely self-love perspective, lockdown can be a good opportunity to dwell on what makes you happy. To my surprise, for me, that has been learning to sit with my loneliness. Being single during lockdown has been empowering. Most importantly, it is a lesson that we all have the things within us to fulfill ourselves – by ourselves.











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Late Bloomer: A Guide To Orgasm After Rape

When my assault happened, I was stunted in my sexual exploration, and I had no choice but to start anew. I’ve learned it will always be an ongoing battle for me, but a possible feat. Scarleteen readers confronting a comparable situation should know there’s hope for you too. Reclaiming our right to pleasure combats apathy by demonstrating our capacity to enjoy again. While we can’t reverse rape, recovery begins when we remember we have alternatives.

Content note: This story contains details about sexual assault

I wish I could forget my rape.

Surely other survivors share a similar sentiment, a collective longing for a magical erase button. Naïve at nineteen, I visited my best friend in college, glad to assert my newfound independence in her faraway town. To be abused somewhere I felt safe among peers seemed like a cosmic blow to my struggling self-esteem. Though I didn’t realize it then, my path to healing would be tormented by uncertainty, weakness, and exacerbated by my detachment. A stranger in my own skin, I once thought I’d never find comfort in my body again.

Experiencing orgasm seemed like a myth perpetrated by television. As a late bloomer, I also never experimented much due to my delicate blend of Catholic guilt and repression. I barely comprehended my sexual trauma, let alone how to rebound from my violation.

Rape is a weapon of war. It’s a forceful invasion on personal property, a pillage rooted in heteropatriarchy, destruction, demoralization. Coming to terms with sexual assault can mean facing humiliation, tribulation, or possibly ostracization, factors made even more discouraging during adolescence. Escapism or avoidance are normal defense strategies. By unpacking our pain, however, we learn to master our psychological scripts, to rewrite our own narratives. When my assault happened, I badly wanted to return to my routine, to lead a healthy love life like my friends. Stunted in my sexual exploration, I had no choice but to start anew, enduring my memories on a panic-inducing loop. In striving to maintain stability since, I’ve learned it will always be an ongoing battle for me, but a possible feat. Scarleteen readers confronting a comparable situation should know there’s hope for you too.

Whether sexually inexperienced or wondering how to regain sexual agency, assault survivors should prepare for an introspective undertaking into a rewarding domain. Reclaiming our right to pleasure combats apathy by demonstrating our capacity to enjoy again. While we can’t reverse rape, recovery begins when we remember we have alternatives.

Heal, Take Time To Process

It’s important to grieve what’s lost. I repeated this to myself frequently following my sexual assault, sourcing strength from a sheer resolve to retain my identity. Though I didn’t want the trauma to change me, I still couldn’t deny my resulting shame. I also thought I’d never crave sex again. Worse, I feared I lost even my ability to lust.

Looking back, I realize the first step toward healing is accepting what happened frankly, weighing facts not as ammunition, but as a channel to recoup control. Rather than fixating on small details, you can tangibly acknowledge your assault, and accept you may be different due to it. As complex human beings, we comprise the sums of multiple junctures in our lives, not just a singular episode. Rape isn’t the end of the road. Consider it a new start to your chosen journey of discovery. Heartache can convert to cultivated resilience when remedied with bravery and the conviction to mend, forgive yourself, and remember all wounds inevitably improve. All you may need is some time.

Don’t Force It

It helps to understand what cues your trauma responses in order to avoid them or see them coming so you can be ready to manage them.

If having sex or masturbating isn’t appealing, you don’t have to feign desire to meet some unspoken criteria. Maybe you won’t have sex for another year, or perhaps you’ll feel aroused again soon after your rape. Determining I wasn’t ready yet, I abstained for at least six months. I even found masturbating difficult. Whatever your own time frame, strive to patch your psychological injuries alongside your physical ones. You can build trust by socializing with friends, meditating to practice mindfulness , or search for another form of emotional relief. After my assault, I attended more local drag shows, which provided a happy distraction from my anguish.

Most of all, I learned to stop suppressing my feelings, anticipating I’d miraculously rehabilitate. Crying, hopelessness, and confusion are standard reactions to distress, and circumvention is rarely conducive to recovery. Don’t shun whatever your personal healing process is.

Work To Consciously Change Mindsets

Recognize sex as potentially pleasurable. When we choose it, it is a consensual liberty we can make willingly, wantonly, and, when others are involved, with mutual respect. A mind-body disconnect is a common coping mechanism among many survivors, and can remain long after your assault. Fostering physical intimacy can empower from within.

To repair entrenched sexual trauma, try to consciously change your mindset first. It’s normal to initially shy from your mirror due to dysmorphia or embarrassment. To nurture a raw love for my rallying body, affirmations such as I will feel safe again and It’s not my fault helped me during my own recuperation. Aside from positive associations, you can also address any underlying agitators you may have. I’ve spent years unraveling subtle ways I repressed my lust during youth, including never masturbating and disguising the word “vagina” with a euphemism. You can explore your anatomy, and don’t be afraid to follow natural curiosities. Only we control our own sexual gratification.

Reconnect With Yourself

For sexual assault survivors, reaching orgasm can feel like a litmus test for mental endurance.

Beyond prior preparation, attaining a pleasing peak demands patient determination to relax and let loose. Before you become intimate with someone else, I suggest you reacquaint yourself with personal gratification. You can explore extra avenues of desire to get in-tune with your needs, like physical touch, erotica, or sex toys. Listen to your intuition. Experiment with masturbation when you feel comfortable and safe enough. It’s okay if your experience is conclusively anti-climactic. I bought my first vibrator at twenty, and didn’t orgasm until a year later. With any partners, communicate your preferences and establish clear consent agreements and boundaries, but don’t push your threshold if you’re suddenly taken out of the moment.

When I first asked my therapist how to reclaim my sexuality, she suggested respiratory techniques to ensure I’m grounded in the present. For example, breathe deeply through your abdomen to boost circulation and decrease tension, directing concentration toward your pelvic area. Though it’s instinctual to hold your breath when almost reaching climax, try to resist the urge. With this awareness, you’ll gradually grasp that easing up enhances satisfaction. To counteract distractions, I also focus on my physical surroundings or somatic sensations during sex or masturbation, which allows me to orgasm easier. Continue testing your own trial and errors.

Check-In When You Check-Out

Don’t be alarmed by disassociation. Zoning out can happen anytime, anywhere, even when you are enjoying yourself. Many survivors describe sexual fulfillment as an unpredictable minefield after sexual assault; as a subtle switch from ecstatic to numb. I’ve also come to predict these obstacles every so often, whether masturbating or achieving orgasm otherwise. At first, I can be excited to test a new position with my boyfriend, consumed in heartfelt passion. In the next minute, I’m suddenly sobbing because a specific maneuver awakened my latent trauma. While every case differs, I’m left equally shaken each time.

Don’t give yourself a hard time when your body abruptly relives a past event. You’ll undeniably be jolted from your pursuit, but the prospect isn’t gone forever. You can work through these foggy episodes to creep closer to orgasm, presumably while also nearing reassociation. Drink warm water or tea, exercise your ligaments, and be sure to slow your breathing once more. Check in to notice when you’re checking out.

Open Up and Find Support

Vulnerability warrants measured courage. While opening up about assault may be difficult to contemplate, finding reliable people to talk to ultimately makes a significant difference. I attend weekly therapy sessions. With new partners, I try to speak honestly about my trauma when I’m secure enough. Sporadically, I also turn toward the Internet to research complex topics, like rape trauma syndrome and secondary victimization. Whether to a paid professional or a close friend, articulating your feelings help gain outside perspective, and highlight what requires attention. Turning thoughts to words can also later transform guilt into healthy coping mechanisms. For many, it’s also cathartic.

If you’re uneasy about revealing your identity, online anonymity is another viable option for those seeking support. In addition to working directly with survivors, Scarleteen’s forums promote inclusive discussions on sex education to soothe your concerns.

Remember: Recovery Isn’t Linear

Welcome failure as a learning curve. Scars may fade, but it’s impossible to simply brainwipe sexual assault.

Years have passed since my rape, and it still haunts my nightmares on occasion. Sometimes, my subconscious slips farther into darkness, swelling with vivid flashbacks of my incident. I have days I believe I’ve made no headway, even after orgasm or sustaining an intimate relationship.

No one has a tidy trajectory toward self-growth. One instant you may be invigorated, and the next, reality can prove more grueling than expected. I know regression can make it seem as if all progress has been lost, but setbacks are also part of our individual endeavors. Float in your emotional riptides today, so that tomorrow you’ll be free to feel again. Only by embracing the negative can we fully lean into our deepest desires, fears, and discomforts. I’m still understanding this too.

late bloomer: a guide to orgasm after rape











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The Attunement Bridge: Healing From an Affair

Many factors contribute to recovery from a relational rupture.

The post The Attunement Bridge: Healing From an Affair appeared first on The Gottman Institute.











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A Series of Letters I Wish I Could Send to My Younger Queer Self

Letters from the author to himself in his teens and early 20s, as he tries to sort out multiple facets of his identity.

Age 13:

Hey, Mo!

You aren’t used to being called that yet, but it sounds good, right? I know you’ve never really connected with the name you were given, and that you wish you had another name, or a cool nickname people would use. Give it some time; you’ll really like this one, I promise.

It’s so easy for you to realize you have crushes on boys, but I wish you’d notice the crushes you’ve had on a couple girls, too. You’ve spent a lot of time daydreaming about what might happen when your penpal Rachel comes to visit; those daydreams have a lot of kissing in them, don’t they? You won’t wind up kissing her, but it might be helpful to remember that you wanted to. It means something, and I promise that it’ll be clearer eventually.

You cry a lot, and the world doesn’t feel real sometimes; your dreams are often the most vivid and memorable part of your day. I know you don’t feel safe talking to anyone about how bad you feel so much of the time, and I know you don’t feel safe seeking help because things went so badly the last time an adult learned how upset you felt. I’m sorry it’s so hard right now, and I’m sorry that you aren’t being offered the help you need. I’m so upset on your behalf about that. I wish I could offer help from where I am. I wish I could trust that anyone else would notice how badly you need it.

Also, I know you felt like you didn’t have the right words to express why it felt so wrong when your dad compared same-sex marriage to someone marrying their dog, but I’m glad you got mad and got into an argument about what he said, even though you weren’t sure how to win it. Your heart’s in the right place. Keep that anger safe; you’ll need it later.


Age 16:

Mo.

We have to talk about your friend Tiffany. You think about her a lot. Her smile is amazing. She’s so clever and creative, and you love spending time with her. You pass notes in school constantly, and you get a little thrill every time you find one in your locker. I doubt you’re reading these words without smiling at least a little at the thought of her.

Mo, you sign your notes to each other with “Your Forbidden Love.” You call each other that all the time. It’s a joke between you, or so you both say, that you’d be in love if you weren’t both girls. Doesn’t it seem like maybe you have stronger feelings for her than just friendship?

Now that you think about it, doesn’t it seem obvious?

Do you remember the time you wound up together in the prom dress section of a department store when you were hanging out at the mall? Neither of you needed fancy dresses, but she suggested you try some on, anyway. She picked out a style and color you never would have chosen for yourself, but somehow it was perfect. You weren’t sure why it felt like such a special moment, to see yourself in something new that she chose for you, but you felt beautiful in a way you rarely did in those days. That shade of red will never stop reminding you of her.

I know you have reasons to believe she might not be able to accept your feelings any more than you can right now, even if she returns them, but I wish you could understand how you’re feeling now and not in a few years once she’s gone away to college. It’s a special thing to feel so strongly about someone else; I want you to be able to feel that admiration and love for her fully while it’s happening.

You’ve gotten a few books out of the library that say they’re about gay or lesbian experiences. You’re pretty sure you’re straight, but there’s a subtle pull coming from these books; you want to see if anything in them resonates with you. But you don’t live in a queer-friendly area, and the resources in your library aren’t up-to-date. The novels you manage to find aren’t uncomfortable and alienating to you because you’re straight; they’re uncomfortable and alienating because they were written in the ’70s, or written by straight people, or focused more on suffering than on any sort of joy in discovering one’s queer identity.

I wish you had something to read that felt relatable to you. Something about close friendships and longing and “jokes” that never quite felt like a joke, not really, about how you love each other. A narrative in which you could see a reflection of yourself, so you might be able to fit all these pieces together sooner. You’ll feel silly, looking back, when you do figure it out, but I understand why it’s so hard to understand your feelings now.


Age 19:

Congrats! You finally figured out that you’re attracted to women. I’m so glad for you, truly. I know you were worried, for a while, that you were faking those feelings somehow, or just pretending you had them.

There’s more, though, and I know it makes things more complicated. Once you got to college, remember how happy you were to be able to start introducing yourself as Mo to more and more people? How you kept thinking about how nice it was to have a more gender-neutral name, but never thought too much about why that seemed important?

I know you remember how much of an impact Gender Outlaw made on you when your best friend loaned it to you. How striking it was to read about someone saying they didn’t identify with their assigned-at-birth gender, but that maybe they weren’t the “other” gender either. That maybe gender wasn’t a category with only two options.

It’s all still percolating in your mind right now, and I don’t want to push you towards any particular conclusion. But when you’re doubting your feelings here, when you worry you’re making it all up, I hope you’ll think about Tiffany.

Think about how obvious it is, now, that you had feelings for her. How clearly you can see that affection written across your friendship. How easy it was to push those feelings aside firmly enough that you never quite sorted things out when you were still spending time together.

Think about the clarity you have about those feelings now. Let yourself be confused or uncertain or overwhelmed by your thoughts and feelings about gender, sure, but don’t doubt yourself. Don’t try to argue against how you feel.

Everything feels like it’s changing, and it is. I can’t say it’ll all be easy, but I can tell you it’ll turn out all right.


Age 21:

Mo,

Hey. I know things are really confusing right now. That you aren’t sure who you are, gender-wise, or even who you want to be, and that this uncertainty is eating you up inside. I know that it really is all right—truly—to be uncertain, and I also know that knowing this won’t make you feel any better just yet. There’s not much information out there for trans people, and almost nothing for trans people who don’t fit into a rigid binary system defined by a very specific idea of “traditional” gender roles. It doesn’t mean other people like you aren’t out there, because they are; there just aren’t many spaces for you yet, and you haven’t found all of the ones that are out there.

I don’t know if this will comfort you, but it’s the truth: your feelings, your identity, will continue to change. Even after you make some pretty big decisions about your gender and your life and how you want to present yourself to the world. What’s important to you, in terms of the language you use for yourself and the way you want others to see you, is going to keep changing. It’ll shift again and again; the general shape will be the same, but the edges will shift and blur and change. Above all else, I want you to know that that’s fine. It truly is.

So much about what you know about the lives and feelings of trans people is confined to your tiny local community of mostly-strangers, your partner, and the often alienating, occasionally helpful communities and resources you’ve been able to find online. Sometimes it feels like there’s no room for ambiguity in the trans experience, that your lack of a clearly binary, definitive sense of identity means you aren’t trans at all, that you’re mistaken or pretending or just not enough of anything to count.

None of that is true at all.

What’s wonderful, and what I hope you can hold out for and take hope from, is that before long you’ll have a huge community of friends with similar feelings about gender; even those whose genders are very different from yours will understand, deeply and intimately, the way you feel about your own. They’ll get you. You can all provide support and understanding for each other, and you’ll be able to see, as time goes on, how many of you there are. How incredibly varied the experiences of trans people turn out to be when we feel free to share them without worrying that our access to medical care will be taken away if we step out of line, when we’ve carved out spaces for ourselves in person and online.

Your gender is a block of beautiful, fragrant cedarwood you can carve and shape as you see fit; you can use whatever tools you like, and any sharp edge or fine detail that looks good to you now can be filed or chiseled away if it feels wrong later. It’s a flamboyant cuttlefish, small and shifting and strobing with color, remaining the same shape even as its appearance changes. It’s whatever you want it to be, and while I know the ambiguity hurts right now, I promise that pain will fade into acceptance and love as time goes on.

Take some of that love and bounce it back at yourself. Try to be compassionate when you think about your younger self who somehow made it through everything to get you here. Look how far you’ve come! I’m so proud of you.











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Warm Weather Rituals of Connection: Ideas for Couples and Families

Here’s a list of warm weather activities to try together!

The post Warm Weather Rituals of Connection: Ideas for Couples and Families appeared first on The Gottman Institute.











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Staying Seen: Being Bi in Relationships with Straight People

When you identify as queer but enter into relationships with heterosexual people, or those with of a different gender to your own, it can feel odd to consolidate these two parts of your identity. You’re not straight, but society can perceive you that way – where do you fit in, exactly? 

When you identify as queer but enter into relationships with heterosexual people, or those with of a different gender to your own, it can feel odd to consolidate these two parts of your identity. You’re not straight, but society can perceive you that way – where do you fit in, exactly? 

I knew that I wasn’t straight when I was in my teens. I knew that I wasn’t gay either; if we were to go by the Kinsey scale – for all its faults – I’d hover around a 1 or a 2. This was confusing for me to come to terms with. I was surrounded by casual homophobia and toxic masculinity – the sort of “locker room culture” that is so damaging to young men, yet didn’t feel able to really challenge it despite knowing inside that I wasn’t heterosexual.

It was a weird situation where I felt as if I was in some sort of purgatory, drifting in a weird zone between different concrete identities.

Despite identifying as bisexual, the vast majority of my sexual and romantic experiences have been with people who identify as women. This wasn’t ever something I had consciously planned: it’s just so happened that I lean more towards women than men in my attractions and opportunities, and this has been reflected in the makeup of my experiences. As a result, I’ve variously been straight-passing when in relationships with women, and have also had people assume that I am gay when my relationship status hasn’t been disclosed. Regardless of my sexuality not being anyone’s business, this brings in tropes that demonstrate how society often perceives and represents bisexuality.

There often seems to be an assumption that men who say they’re bisexual are actually gay, for example, and that women who say they’re bisexual are actually straight. Is attraction to male bodies considered the default? Those assumptions sure make it sound that way. There’s almost an expectation that eventually, you’ll pick a “side” when such narratives are incredibly damaging. It can make us feel pressured to “pick”, when there’s really no reason why we should need to. A bisexual man could be with a woman his entire life – but that doesn’t for one second mean that he’s straight. Alternatively, he could be with men and men only, and this wouldn’t make him gay if he didn’t identify as such.

Bisexual men have to deal with toxic masculinity, homophobia, and biphobia, too. 

Biphobia exists amongst people of every sexual orientation and identity, and it can leave us feeling unsure as to where we fit in. Acquaintances and peers may assume you’re straight if they only see you in relationships with women, and also might assume that you’re down with their casual homophobia. Alternatively, they may think that you’re gay, and trying to come out gradually by identifying as bisexual. The revolutionary notion that you could experience attraction to people of more than one gender isn’t often even considered – people often think in binary terms, and it can be difficult for them to unlearn those patterns of thinking.

The sad reality is that, because of ignorance and bias about bisexuality if you’re open about your queer identity, you may also risk deterring some potential partners. Studies have shown that some straight women perceive bi men as being less attractive than straight men, so it’s easy to see why a queer man in relationships with heterosexual people could feel the need to keep quiet. Unfortunately, it’s perhaps unsurprising that bisexual men are considered to be less attractive by some, as bisexuality can invite connotations of femininity. These ideas are generally rooted in biphobia, and even if your partners don’t realise it, they may harbor certain biphobic ideas like this.

At school, in the locker room, or on the field, young men are constantly policing each other in terms of expressing masculinity, and at a time often when insecurities are often at their highest, it can be hard to come to terms with your sexuality on top of that. Particularly if you’re treated as one of the guys, you may be worried that coming out will change how you’re treated, whether or not you have any sort of romantic or sexual attraction to your friends.

How many queer men have had a conversation with male friends that’s gone something like, “It doesn’t bother me that you’re, you know, bi or whatever – just as long as you don’t try anything with me!” or, “You’re cool – you’re not one of those gays who are like, ‘in your face’ about it”? A stereotype remains that bisexual people are hypersexual, and want to sleep with anything that moves – it can get to the point where you’re telling friends of the same gender that actually, you aren’t even attracted to them in the first place, which can be pretty awkward.

Growing up, dating, and entering into relationships while bisexual can be an absolute minefield. While bisexuality forms only part of your identity, it can often feel as if people see your sexuality before they see you as a whole person. In short, don’t shy away from owning your identity. Whether you identify as bisexual, queer or even questioning – you shouldn’t hide who you are.

There are some things you can do to help manage tricky situations which may arise while dating, as difficult as they may seem.

Talk to your partners – Although it’s not your responsibility to educate them, if your partners ever harbor biphobic or heteronormative ideas, it can be beneficial to try and  talk things through. Tell them how you feel: they may not understand what it’s like to be in your shoes. They might not even be aware of their own biphobia at all, so this can be a good starting point.

Be open about your identity (where and when it’s safe for you to do so) – Work on being proud and confident in who you are. Embrace your identity, as ultimately your partners should love and respect you for who you are, your bisexuality very much included. Rather than locking away parts of yourself, it’s always better to be open and honest about yourself. Essentially, if your partner doesn’t accept your sexual orientation, they probably aren’t right for you. You can start the discussion around intersectionality, looking at both your own identities and those of your partner.

Encourage your friends and partners to be open with you – Maybe your friends want to become better-informed, or have questions or worries. It’s best if you can be open with each other, and that includes them opening up to you. Conflict is a healthy element of all relationships – what matters is how you handle it.

Address your own internal biasesInternalized biphobia is a real thing experienced by many bisexual individuals, not just men. Is your internalized biphobia stopping you from expressing yourself fully? This is a journey that you and your friends, family or partner might be able to travel on together. As you grow and unlearn ideas, the people around you may be able to do the same.

super fancy glasses in bisexual pride colors and the title of this piece











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