Yesterday I wrote about abuse existing on a continuum. I wrote that when we ignore covert abuse, give it a free pass, shove it under the rug and only recognise overt abuse we continue to create a society that has no healthy yardstick by which to measure. That when we insist that things on the “lower end” of the spectrum aren’t “actual” abuse, “actual” rape that we help to gloss over warning signs, and unhealthy behaviour. We normalise them. In some cases we even romanticize them. And as a result it makes the lines between discipline and abuse, anger and abuse, flattery and harassment, sex and rape; blurry.
When I read the article I shared earlier yesterday (I Let My Husband Rape Me and Here’s Why) the following quotes jumped out at me.
I didn’t say no for a long time, but I didn’t want it, either. I didn’t like it. It didn’t feel good….. Sometimes I was asleep when he started. I told him over and over I couldn’t stand that, but he did it any way.
I didn’t grow up in an evangelical environment like the author of that article. I didn’t grow up in a religious environment at all. But I did grow up in western society.
My mum never kept me in the dark about sex, but most of my sex education came from Dolly and Girlfriend magazines.
My parent’s marriage was loveless, I had no examples of what a healthy family looked like, let alone a healthy marriage. My concepts of love, romance and happy marriages or families came primarily from Sweet Valley books, Brady Bunch reruns, pop songs and Dawson’s Creek.
My definition of rape was wide enough that at least by the time I was an adult it included the stories my mum would tell about being a teenage girl in the 70’s. Boys who expected you to be on the pill so therefore you had no “legitimate” reason to deny them sex. You accepted the date, that means you agreed to sex.
It wasn’t however, wide enough to counter the “marital duties” myths that abound even in secular sources.
I was educated enough to know that a guy who tried to pressure you into having sex before you were ready was a douche, that a guy who cheated or dumped you because you “wouldn’t put out” was not worth your tears, and that blue balls was a myth used to try to manipulate girls into sleeping with them.
But all of those things are about losing your virginity, not about negotiating sex in long term relationships. Relationships where you might have extremely different sex drives, different thresholds for touch, different beliefs about what was and was not normal sexually.
at 21-23 on my third serious boyfriend (who would later be my husband) I had been on the pill for over five years. My hormones were fucked. My once perfectly acceptable sex drive and enjoyment of sex had plummeted to nothing. It would take me another five years to figure out that the pill was to blame. I was also developing GAD, (ironically enough as a result of gaslighting myself into believing that my relationship with A was better than it actually was. But well, he wanted to marry me one day, and I desperately wanted to be part of his family, and I really wanted to believe that he was the man of my dreams) which meant that I had great difficulty switching my brain off or relaxing. I had to be really in the right headspace for sex, and could lose my interest completely in a heartbeat thanks to a wayward thought, a touch in the wrong place or the fact that it was taking so much damn effort to get my body to respond even though I wanted it.
And all my life those comments like “if you don’t meet a man’s needs you shouldn’t be surprised when he looks elsewhere” were seeping into my subconscious. (Though I had read and thoroughly highlighted Passionate Marriage at some point during this stage, I was also still reading articles and books that encouraged women to just do it because he wants to, well into my 27th year.)
I had no concept of healthy compromise when it came to mismatched libidos or a partner who didn’t like sex. I had no idea that it was the pill causing my lack of desire and enjoyment. I had no way to “fix” the problem (which I assumed was a problem with me) and having already had my very first boyfriend cheat on me because I wouldn't put out, I was terrified of it happening again. So for years I had obligation sex. Just get it over with already so we can do something else, so you’ll stop pestering me.
Even at the time I remember feeling disengaged, wondering why any guy would be satisfied with or want to have sex with a woman who was so obviously not there. Not enjoying it, not wanting it, not “there” with you in the room. Just a body. I felt like a prostitute, or a sex doll. It didn’t fit with my definition of rape, but it certainly wasn’t enthusiastic consent. The books and articles, often by female marriage counselors said that it was being a good partner, compromising, giving, loving. What it actually was is being complicit in my own dehumanisation.
Rape isn’t just forced sex: it’s any sex without consent, it’s sex when you can’t consent, coerced sex, manipulated or blackmailed sex, sex with threats, or sex when you don’t have a choice.
My ex wasn’t abusive, but honestly, it could have been.
If he’d had just a few more narcissistic tendencies.
If he’d been just a bit more socialised to expect sex no matter what, if he drank more, if he had a need for control.
It could have been.
When we normalise things that should be if not red flags, at least orange flags, and then dismiss and minimise the red flags, how can we expect to stop abuse from continuing?
Amber Barnhill said
I don’t blame myself for everything that happened, but I don’t entirely blame him either. In the end, he was just as much a product of his environment as was I
And this is true of my ex (A) as well. He was raised religious, but in a fairly standard non-extreme catholic family. Sex wasn’t talked about in his family, when characters started kissing on TV his dad would say “right, off to bed everyone.” But his parent’s were fairly affectionate. He grew up seeing his dad giving his mum “a pat on the rump” and coming up behind her to give her a kiss when she was cooking. This was his model, his idea of a healthy marriage. It’s what A and his brothers learnt and absorbed as how you interacted with your wife, as how you showed love and affection.
I as an outsider saw his mum often react the same way I always did “will you leave me alone, I’m busy.” I could see the body language that said, I don’t actually like it when you do that. Not all the time, sometimes it was wanted. But the lack of reading her body language was there. It’s not surprising that A ignored my body language, that he was blind to my frustration. He’d been taught it.
His sex education, certainly didn't’ come from his parents. He went to catholic schools his whole life, boarding school from grade 8-10. He didn’t board at the school, it was a small town, and the boarding house was for both the state and church school. The boys used to peek on the girls in the showers. That’s just “how it was”. I met his best male friend from the boarding house early on in our relationship. Bogan was an entirely accurate description. I was very glad he lived so far away, I didn’t want his influence on A. Not that his other friends were much better. In grade 10 they moved to the city, he got transferred to an all boys school, much to his disgust……. His friends from senior were his groomsmen 10 years later. Still very much in his live. One would shamelessly flirt with me, things like “Feel free to have a shower, I can help you out if you want.” The other treated his girlfriend like his personal slave. He was abusive. And generally misogynistic. He’s pretty much the poster boy for 4Chan. It took him quite a while to figure out how to deal with me, because I was pretty much the strongest woman he knew. It took probably 5-6 years for me to earn his respect. He never had mine. He and A would play videogames together for days, watch horrid videos on youtube, and Archer. When we were at his house, which was common as it was often used as planning headquarters for things we were doing for Rovers, no one would even say anything to his girlfriend (including me, because at the time I went with the crowd) unless it was ordering her to bring something, or yelling at her to shut up. I would often bring a book or beg to leave because I couldn’t handle the sexist crap they would watch.
This, as far as I knew, was just guys. It’s what guys did. Yes Jon was a douche, but……. In reality his friends activities weren’t that different from the guys I’d been friends with in high school or my brother or any other guy in their 20’s that I knew.
He was socialised to be blind to the sexisim, to not stand up to the misogyny or harassment or abuse. And I had been too.
Early in our relationship he didn’t watch much porn, he prefered to read it. But over the years that changed. He would regularly bring up a desire to try anal, which I had told him early on was off the cards. He would refuse to believe that I knew my body's likes and dislikes better than he did. At one point he asked if I would let him sleep with other people. I seriously considered it. Our first fight was over him saying that he wanted to have sex with someone else “right now”. He would flirt with other girls all the time, and I thought I was just being a “cool” girlfriend, accepting the fact that he was always going to look. I used to ask him what he rated the girl at the supermarket or the waitress. I’d fully bought into the pseudo-feminist mantra that “owning” or flaunting your sexuality was empowering. That playing to the male gaze, and helping men to sexualise women was a good thing. At 25 I was jealous of girls we were friends with from interstate who would sit in the laps of other guys, flirt with and talk dirty to them, strut around in clothes that left nothing to the imagination (in 3 degrees c), and talk in the shower blocks about guys other than their partners that they wanted to screw. One of them was married. She’s now my ex’s fiancee. By the time I realised that it really wasn’t appropriate for a girl who had a habit of talking dirty to men who were in relationships, to use my husband - whom she’d admitted to having a crush on (and he her) as her sounding board and primary support system after her marriage broke down….. It was too late.
But a week before she confessed her “love” for him an incident happened between A and I. I had now been off the pill for a bit over a year. My sex drive was slowly returning, but I had trouble with orgasams. Wether I had actually orgasamed, or just gotten to the top of the roller coaster only to have the power go out, by body would go super tingly and I couldn't handle and more stimulation. If I hit that point before A came, I’d need to finish him off by hand because I truly could not handle the way it felt for him to continue. This had been our normal MO for quite some time, and A had never seemed to have a problem with it. But he’d been skyping and texting and emailing with this woman for a month and a half at this point, and they regularly talked about issues in our relationship, regularly talked about sex, and now he was convinced that he was missing out on something. That he was entitled to get to keep going.
And one night he did. I’d asked him to stop. I’d tried to move away, and he told me “no, I have to”. The subtext was “I deserve to” not “I have to prove my manliness” or “I have to be in control” or even “F-you bitch”. But the subtext didn’t make much difference to his actions. He kept going. I shut down.
And just like Monica Tan
I don’t know how to write what happened next without sounding pathetic. All I will say is that it was an automatic reaction. It came on without consideration. I burst into tears.
I crawled off the bed, sat on the floor at the end and cried. Trying not to be too loud because we were at my mum’s house. It was 2 days before Christmas.
That’s the most violent bit of the story. I call what he did “rape-like”. He called it “pushing my boundaries”. You say tomato, I say sexual assault
Only I didn’t.
In his defence, he did. He seeing me sit there crying was immediately guilt stricken, and came and sat beside me. He apologised. He said something along the lines of “Now I feel like an arse, I raped my wife.”
And I went into minimisation mode. “No, no it wasn’t that. I don’t think that at all” all the while crying uncontrollably.
My reaction was too involuntary, and its intensity too high, to say that nothing bad happened. Something happened. And it had the whiff of rape
I didn’t want to see him that way. I didn’t want to view him badly. Still over 4 years after our split, despite him seeing his son for about 18 Hours a year, despite him telling me that his family (and I) only thought that we were managing to rebuild our marriage because “I’m a good actor”, despite finding out that he had cheated on me 6 times during our nearly 9 years together. Once a year because “I needed to feel someone desprately wanting me seually, begging for me.” despite how much of our relationship I now look on as unhealty sexualtity, I still dodn’t want to think badly of him. I still don’t want to call that incident assault. I still minimise and think but it wasn’t “real abuse” it wasn’t “real rape”. I loved him, we don’t like to think badly of people we love and admire. That’s why it’s so easy to ignore warning signs. That's why it’s so easy to victim blame and minimise the perpetrator’s actions because “he’s shuh a stand up guy”. That’s why friends and family will literally overlook known and reported abuse because they don’t want to believe that someone they love could be ‘like that”. And it’s why we perpetrate the myth that a rapist is a stranger in a dark alley. That a pedophile is a stranger in a white van. That it’s more dangerous for a kid to go to a public toilet alone than to have a sleepover at their cousin’s house. That girls and women just shouldn’t go out “dressed like that” or “to those places” - that they are safest at home. Despite the statistics.
We don’t want to see it.
And when you take willful blindness to abusive or unhealthy actions and words, and combine that with a culture that normalises sexual mistreatment of women and has no examples of healthy sexuality. We breed men and women who think that that treatment is acceptable. We breed women who are complicit in their own exploitation, and men who wouldn’t recognise what they are doing as wrong if you it was spelt out in giant flashing letters that shouted “this is wrong” at them every time they did it.
It’s not that we don’t say that rape is wrong, that abuse is wrong. It’s that we don’t truly know what they look like.
Hi I'm Nicole