Content Note: graphic description of sexual assault
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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 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
Scarleteen, for this space to share