Courage – what is it exactly? Since I started telling my story on this blog I have had many women (both friends and acquaintances) tell me how brave I am to be writing about my life and thanking me for doing so. And when I say my life, I don’t of course mean the entirety of my life. Thankfully, there have been many sunny and pleasant moments in my life too. What I mean is the sexual abuse and assault that I have had to deal with during the course of my life. This is (mostly) what this blog has been about: trying to write about and make sense of what has happened to me, from the hindsight of middle age and with the new-found wisdom, support and vocabulary of the MeToo movement.
These past eight months, since the news about Harvey Weinstein broke, have seen me examine, re-examine, and cross-examine my own life, honestly, and with new-found knowledge pertaining to what sexual violence actually is. I’ve been a card-carrying feminist since my early 20s, and this recent process has involved a complete overhaul of my own feminism, as well as a complete revision of my sexual history. I never realised, even as a feminist, just how much of my abusive past I had simply pushed down, how many men I’d made excuses for, or worse, still had unrequited feelings for. Abusers, coercers, womanisers and rapists alike. I sadly realised that almost every relationship I had been in with a man had involved some form of sexual abuse, coercion, exploitation, gross power imbalance, or sexual violence. Not to mention the accompanying emotional abuse, which always, always goes hand in hand. Then there are the female friends I realise I had let down: women who had tried to tell me their rape stories and I either didn’t believe them fully, or I didn’t understand why they had stayed. For these women I have written a poem called I’m Sorry. I am truly sorry that I was complicit in a culture that allowed the systematic sexual assault of women, but thankfully I now know better.
About my poetry: when I started this blog I had intended it to be a platform for opinion pieces and essays like this one. But I quickly found that poetry was the easiest, and most appropriate way for me to express all of my MeToo stories and feelings. In a poem you can capture raw emotion with a few words or lines; you can obscure and disguise identities, and you can release feelings without having to construct coherent sentences, as I am now. Writing coherent prose is helpful too, but when I write this way I am always one step removed from my feelings. I’m using the more rational, critical and analytical parts of my brain, which is satisfying, and calming too, but rarely offers the catharsis that writing a poem does.
The problem with poetry is, as I said above, it obscures and disguises. It can be cryptic and unclear to the reader. I have used it so much because it has been the only way I have been able write about some of what happened to me, especially the worst of what happened. This is why, when women friends tell me I’m brave for speaking out about my experiences, I shrink a little inside. Am I really brave? Or am I hiding behind the obscure words of my poetry? The reality is, I’ve only written clearly (in prose) about the more peripheral experiences of sexual misconduct I’ve experienced, with the exception of one piece: Not Quite Here Yet: Living in the Aftermath of Child Molestation. I’ve spent much time discussing some of the less damaging things that happened to me, for example, in my piece Why My Teeth Clench and My Shoulders Seize Up, to demonstrate that we are still living very much in a culture that hates and hurts women. These “lesser” things are not trivial, but they are far from the worst things that have happened to me. I’ve not written very directly at all about the relationships that I endured that were, actually, the most abusive. The keywords here being abusive and relationship. It is within an abusive relationship that systematic, lasting damage can be done to a person’s mind, body and self-esteem. Abusive relationships break people down, more often than not, women.
With all this in mind, and after a long preamble, today is the day I wish to be truly brave and tell you – in plain prose – about some of the more damaging relationships I’ve been in. As Australia has some of the toughest defamation laws on the planet, I won’t be naming and shaming. It is far too dangerous for me to do so in any case.
TRIGGER WARNING: discussion of child molestation, sexual coercion, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, assault and rape. Please take appropriate self-care before, during and after reading this if you are likely to be triggered, or simply do not read any further.
When I was 4 years old, me and my brother were molested by a male babysitter in his late teens. You can read about what happened, and the effects this experience had on me in my piece Not Quite Here Yet: Living in the Aftermath of Child Molestation. I won’t go into this here as I’ve detailed it thoroughly already.
My first significant relationship with a boy at highschool (from age 14) involved persistent coercion to engage in sexual activity, the intensity of which progressed as time passed. His love letters from the time are full of coercive pleading and pressuring. I wasn’t much interested in sex at that age: my body wasn’t ready for it or aroused by it. I just wanted to be loved and have someone to be close to. Things at home weren’t great – I was subjected to emotional abuse there and had distant relationships with core family members. I received almost zero guidance on relationships or sex, other than to avoid them. This cold home environment primed me to seek love elsewhere, and to normalise neglect and abuse. The attitude at the time (late 1980s) was that boys were sex mad (“boys will be boys”), and if you weren’t interested you just had to keep putting them off until you couldn’t anymore. You’d eventually have to give in. So I did. I eventually gave in to each new request, terrified my parents would find out, but desperate for love and closeness. I got that, sort of, but at a price. The relationship was deeply troubled in other ways, mostly due to infidelities on his side. I thought that was all a normal part of love: with no guidance from my parents, I was left floundering. I realise now that a boy who truly loved me would not have coerced me, no matter the decade, and no matter the social attitudes towards sex at the time. Decent people question and transcend such things. Sadly, I lost my virginity to him, and looking back, I can no longer delude myself that it was a romantic or meaningful occasion.
The Worst One
After this relationship, I became involved with another boy from school. We got together in our final year of highschool and were together for a tumultuous two years. I’ve written a rough, but deeply honest poem about this relationship, called I Christen Thee Asshole. He is also the subject of many other poems on this blog as frankly, there is so much abuse from him to process. I find this relationship very hard to write about (in prose) as I consider him the most abusive man in my relationship history. He turned out to be emotionally abusive from very early on. For example, he called me a slut and shamed me when he found out I wasn’t a virgin. He demanded I pay him money for petrol to drive to my house to visit me, and calculated the amount meticulously. He drove me to a dark place in his car one evening and lectured me about how I was fat and unhealthy for about half an hour in order to wear me down; I know now that I was in fact very slim and svelte and gorgeous and that this was just another control tactic of his. He cheated on my repeatedly and relished telling me about it. He abused marijuana and it became the centre of his life: where would he score his next bag of dope from and when would he get to smoke it? He kept me isolated from my friends; we hung out with his one adoring, clueless side-kick instead.
All of these things sound bad, but the worst thing he did was treat me like his personal sex slave, repeatedly. I was there purely for his pleasure, and to try out whatever sexual act he’d heard of or read about that day or that week. Where he got this information from, I have no idea. The internet wasn’t around, so I assume he consumed vast quantities of porn. He failed to read my body language and my disinterest – all of the ways in which I was saying no to him, and which a perceptive and loving partner would have detected. He insisted on sex in public places: in cars in dark and isolated (scary) spots, public toilets, and in his parents’ house when they were home. This was all titillating to him, apparently, but I felt both dead inside and humiliated. I went through the motions because I was emotionally worn down by him and because I didn’t know I could expect better. I was scared of him – he was strong and starting to show signs of violence by kicking and punching holes through doors and walls. He diminished me, my achievements and talents, my abilities as a musician. I was merely there to provide sex and to nurture his needs. He was never interested in my sexual pleasure or making me orgasm. He became jealous and furious when I told him I could make myself come. He coerced and manipulated me sexually, constantly, at a time when I hadn’t been taught that it was OK to say no. I was also still desperately seeking love and closeness. I felt so alone after my previous boyfriend had left the country and my closest friend had left highschool. The reality was, all this man loved was himself: his narcissism and sociopathy are apparent to me now. He once cut up an insect in front of me when it landed on a painting he was working on. He drove me around stoned and/or drunk, and to dealers’ houses, putting me in danger repeatedly. When I moved away to study interstate for a year, he punished me by cheating on me repeatedly even though we’d decided to keep going with the relationship and to be monogamous. His behaviour was so disgusting that even his mother had a rant to me about it, and offered to drive me home one day after finding out about his latest transgression. Whenever he was caught out seeing another woman, he would laugh at me maniacally. He would never apologise – blaming me for living interstate and being unavailable (I travelled back a dozen times that year alone to visit him). I honestly think he relished hurting me.
This man also raped me. On top of all the emotional and sexual abuse he had subjected me to, this particular incident stands out as his clearest violation of me. It is the event that still gives me nightmares. Over and over, I said no to him that time. We were alone in a dingy bus depot toilet, out the back of the building. I’d just travelled back from interstate to see him and he was there to pick me up. Everyone else had gone home. The rest of the building was locked up and the weekend streets were deserted. He pressured me over and over to have sex with him, in the toilet, and I was so terrified of him and his persistence that eventually, after what felt like five minutes of saying no, I gave in and said yes. I convinced myself that if I said yes it couldn’t be rape, even thought it was, and even though both he and I clearly knew I didn’t want it. He raped me in a filthy, isolated, cold toilet. I dissociated during the event and pretended he was another man, in order to mentally survive it. He’d just had his long hair cut short, so that was easy to do. I still remember his smug grin: it was the same look he had on his face when he cut up that insect – one of pleasure over controlling another being. He felt entitled to my body and to use my body in whatever way he liked, purely for his pleasure.
It sickens me to know that this man now has a good job, a wife and a family, and that he will never suffer the consequences of his actions. I cannot name him now for fear of retribution. I told no-one at the time, not even my close female friends. I didn’t go to the police. I have no physical evidence. I eventually said “yes” that one time, though under extreme duress, so technically he didn’t rape me. Technically. Spiritually, mentally and physically he did rape me. I told one other person – the next man I had a relationship with – the following year, and he reflected back at me just how abusive this relationship was. After I told this man, I didn’t tell anyone else for another 13 years, when I told my current partner. Even though I have been in therapy on and off since 2001, I didn’t tell any of my therapists about my rape until this year. I buried it deep within in order to survive.
The law doesn’t help or support women like me; society, until recently, condoned such behaviour. It is almost 26 years since I was raped, and it still affects me profoundly on a daily basis. After MeToo, there have been so many revelations and stories of systematised, normalised sexual violence towards women emerging. The flood of stories is like a tsunami and appears unstoppable. It seems that almost every woman has been affected. Today I have told you part of my story, including the very worst part of my sexual history. There is more to tell, but that is for another day. I hope that in coming forward and speaking plainly, as I have today, I have validated other womens’ experiences and empowered others to speak out. We women must continue to speak to one another and to seek solace in one another’s support. I have not named and shamed; to do so would be too risky to me, but I have detailed several instances of sexual abuse, that, until recently, were considered a normal part of a woman’s life. I’m not quite sure where things go for me from here on. Maybe this is the end of my storytelling, maybe just another stop along the road. I do know that I have a strong compulsion to share, to reveal, in case this voice is taken away from us all and we are silenced once again. Am I brave or am I stupid? I don’t know. All I have is my voice, and I know that I have to use it. If that helps other women process their own abuse and helps change social attitudes surrounding sexual violence towards women, then that is a worthy cause indeed.