This is a guest post by Barbie
[Trigger Warning: detailed descriptions of rapes in an abusive relationship]
At the heights of our relationship, I loved him more than I can say. At the depths, I lost a sense of ownership over my body and feared for my life. As far as I knew then, love and abuse of any kind – emotional or physical – were supposed to be mutually exclusive. But as our relationship progressed, it increasingly involved elements of both love and violence, and I lived them side-by-side. My belief that the two could not coexist prevented me from acknowledging the abuse, and it stopped me from getting out.
Ken [name changed] was the perfect boyfriend. Or, the perfect fiancé, depending on when we’re talking about. He was kind, nurturing, and supportive. He encouraged me to go to the college of my choice even though it would take me several time zones away from him. When we got into fights, he worked to understand where I was coming from and to empathize with me. He memorized my favorite foods and surprised me with them when I visited. He was loving and funny and gentle. He encouraged me to be friends with anyone I wanted, and to spend time with them, even if it sometimes meant foregoing a skype date with him. He could always make me smile. He loved to make me laugh.
He also held me down and stimulated my clit while I was trying to take a nap. I wasn’t awake enough to know what was going on until I was about to come, and by then I was too overwhelmed by sensation to talk. Afterward, I tried to figure out whether I was allowed to not have liked it. I thought, I never specifically told him not to wake me up by making me come, so maybe he thought it would turn me on. He was just trying to give me pleasure. In the end, I decided I was being ungrateful by not appreciating it.
He also grabbed a fistful of my hair, pushed me to my knees, deep-throated me, and came in my mouth. The rules we had explicitly worked out for oral sex were that I was the only one who could initiate it, that I could stop when I wanted, and that he would always pull out before ejaculating. But he was highly aroused from making out a moment before, so I figured he probably just forgot our rules. We had spelled them out in detail to keep me from being triggered about previous assaults, but people forget things like that when they’re turned on. Right?
He also fingered me without asking first, but he held me while I shook and cried afterward and told me that he loved me, and I was grateful to him for being so nurturing while I was upset.
He also hit me in the stomach while we were making out. When I was done gasping for air, I asked him to please not do it again. He promised, and I said thank you. I was glad that my boyfriend was so considerate of my preferences.
He also pinned my wrists above my head and felt me up while I cried and begged him to stop. But he said he was sorry afterward, and he didn’t penetrate me, so I decided I was lucky. He promised to never do it again.
He also put me in a headlock and felt me up while choking me until I lost consciousness. I woke up lying on the bed with my back pressed against his chest. He was asleep, one arm still across my throat and the other cupping my breast. I thought of moving, but I was afraid to wake him up.
The day after he choked me out, my body felt like it does after I’ve had the flu and have been vomiting for days. When he started touching me that evening, I asked him to stop. He got angry and told me that I was the one who had invited him to touch me. My exact words had been, “You don’t have to sit across the room if you don’t want to.” I felt too sick and sad to argue, so I didn’t.
The day after that, I still felt like someone had boiled me. While I was lying in bed, trying to rest, he tried to spread my legs. I kept them pressed together. I thought – I honestly thought – that he would figure out that I was trying to sleep and leave me alone. When he couldn’t spread my legs, he grabbed my elbows, turned me briskly over onto my back, and pinned my wrists above my head. He hit me in the stomach multiple times, alternating between that and stimulating my clit. When I tried to move my hips away, he began fingering me. When I tried to get my wrists free, he laughed. When I begged him to stop, he took his fingers out but kept my wrists pinned and resumed stimulating my clit.
“Are you sure you want me to stop?”
“Yes please, stop please, please get off.”
After I begged for a while, he let go of my wrists. Then he asked me to give him head. I was in too much pain and shock to speak, so I just shook my head no. He told me that the things he did to me turned him on, and that if I didn’t give him head, he would get blue balls. I remembered an article from a feminist blog I used to read in high school about how any man who doesn’t want blue balls can take care of it himself, so I shook my head no again. I was still too shocked to speak. He looked furious and I thought he was going to hit me, but he got off me instead, and I stumbled to the bathroom to take stock of the damage. I wondered if it was safe to break up with him. I decided it wasn’t.
He assaulted me again the next day. I stayed with him. I loved him.
I’ve heard the “that’s not love” lecture from so many people by now that I have it memorized, so really, no need. If you still feel agitated, go lecture your favorite stuffed animal. Come back when it’s out of your system and you’re ready to listen. Ken and I are no longer together, but I stayed with him for months after the events described above, because of that lecture. Here’s why.
Treating love and abuse as though they are mutually exclusive does serve an important goal. It reminds us that a loving relationship should not involve abuse. Unfortunately, ideals often do not reflect reality. And when the two contradict, a rigid emphasis on the way things are “supposed” to be can pressure us to deny what is.
It works as follows. When you’re in an abusive relationship, you have one fact and one question.
Fact: You love him.
(Unfortunately, some psych studies have shown that the unpredictable nature of abuse can actually intensify feelings of love in intimate relationships).
Question: Is this abuse?
Then someone tells you that love and abuse are mutually exclusive. If he’s hurting you, it’s not real love; if it’s real love, he’s not hurting you. But whether or not it is abuse is still a question to you, and your love for him is the fact. If you accept what your friends are telling you, that love precludes abuse, then you conclude that it can’t be abuse.
When I first began to talk about it, a few friends just listened and offered their support. They gave me a light in the dark, and I am grateful beyond words. The problem was, it was impossible to tell who would respond this way.
Some friends told me that since we were in love, Ken could not have been trying to hurt me. One even told me that he was probably trying to turn me on by pressing forward when I begged him to stop. That friend said that maybe I should be more careful with what signals I give, because as someone who loved me, my fiancé was looking out for those signals, and was just trying to give me what I wanted. From these people, I came to believe that the abuse was my fault: somehow I had given signals to Ken that I wanted to be choked, hit, and raped. These friends never used that last word.
Other friends told me that since he hurt me, he and I had not been in love. These friends did use the word “rape,” but it came with strings attached: to “deserve” their support, I had to hate Ken, and I had to agree with them that I had never loved him. Otherwise I was too “frustrating,” or “setting a bad example.” But I couldn’t hate him, and I did love him. We had names picked out for our future children, and I had wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. From these people, I concluded that anyone who called it assault, abuse, or rape was wrong. I concluded that since I couldn’t stop loving Ken, I didn’t deserve the support of others. I also concluded that other people’s feelings about what happened mattered more than mine.
One more thing.
I have a black belt in martial arts. Prior to my assault, I taught sexual assault prevention courses for 5 years. Here’s where the “it’s not love if it’s abuse” really haunted me.
Every time that Ken was assaulting me, a livefeed of actions I could take scrolled across my mind. When I was on my knees and he was shoving his penis down my throat, I thought of grabbing his balls and twisting them, or digging my fingernails into his thighs. When he put me in a headlock, I thought of jabbing my fingers in his eyes or pinching the skin on his arms. When he pinned my wrists and fingered me, I thought of kneeing him in the stomach. That would surprise him enough to loosen his grip momentarily, and if I have my hands free, I’m a dangerous girl.
I didn’t do any of those things because I loved him. I could not bring myself to hurt him.
Friends from both sides of the mutual exclusion perspective – “it was love, so it wasn’t rape” and “it was rape, so it wasn’t love” – focused a lot on the fact that I knew how to fight. Friends in the first category told me that if I really hadn’t wanted it, I could have fought him off, so I must have wanted it. They told me that Ken must have expected me to fight back if I didn’t like it, and since I didn’t, how could he have known I didn’t want it? Friends in the second category told me that since it wasn’t love, the reason I refrained from hurting him could not have been because of love, and therefore I should have used physical force to defend myself. Everyone used the word “should” a lot.
So. Where did that leave me?
Stranded in mindfuck city, that’s where. I think all survivors of sexual assault spend some time here, and we all have to find our own way out. I’m on my way now thanks to a good therapist — if you are struggling with these issues, I cannot stress how important it is that you find one too. Even if money is tight, there are many ways to find low-cost mental healthcare. Not every style of therapy works for everyone, and neither does every therapist – what matters is finding a good fit with someone who understands you, who you can trust, and who conducts a style (or styles) of therapy that you experience as helpful. It took me multiple tries to find someone who could help me, and it was worth it: the importance of therapy in helping me rebuild a life worth living after trauma cannot be overstated. Here is what I’ve learned so far:
1. If I could have, I would have.
At face value, it might seem that there are lots of things I “could” have done to prevent what happened. Still, I did everything I could. Sometimes the most I could do was cry. Sometimes all I could do was lie there and try not to look too unhappy in case I made him angrier. It makes sense in context. During my assaults, I dealt with more than Ken’s physical restrictions: I also dealt with restrictions from my own reactions of surprise, shock, fear, illness and exhaustion, and above all, an overwhelming aversion to hurting someone I love. I could not override that. If I could have, I would have. I did not want to be hurt.
2. Lack of physical protest does not equal consent.
There are a billion reasons why a person might not protest physically before or during sexual assault. See above. Ken did not need me to twist his balls off to look at my face and understand the effects of his actions.
3. I have a right to my feelings, even if others disagree with them.
It is not anyone’s right or responsibility to tell anyone else what to feel. So if you think a survivor of sexual assault should not love the person who assaulted hir, keep that to yourself. It doesn’t matter how good your intentions are. You are making things worse. You have accidentally teamed up with the rapist to communicate to the survivor that the most central parts of himself – his body, his emotions, his mind – belong to someone else. Ignoring any person’s natural reaction to the things other people do to her, and trying to make her change that reaction to what you expect or want it to be, is how assaults begin. The violence in our relationship did not begin when Ken put his hands on me. It began when he decided that his feelings about his hands on me mattered more than mine.
What makes me ache is that for years, both during and after the abuse, I treated myself this way. I fought my emotional reactions and tried to change my feelings to what they were “supposed” to be, what I wanted them to be, with no regard for what they actually were. I tried to change the memories of love and violence to match what is “supposed” to happen in the world, rather than what did.
I understand why I did this. I can’t imagine anyone wanting these memories, this horrible combo of anger, sadness, love, fear, and shame. Still, these emotions, these memories are mine. Attacking them, and attacking myself for having them, does not work for me.
Instead, I am now working on accepting the facts of my life without preconditions, simply as they are.
I loved someone.
I think he loved me.
He hurt me.
I knew some ways to stop him.
Sometimes that confuses people.
Sometimes that confuses me.
I don’t have to have all the answers.
My life has meaning.
My life has love.