Continuing our week of articles focussing on Alternative Sex Education with Bristol Speak Out, Chloë Maughan addresses the lack of education regarding sexual violence, explaining how ‘no’ isn’t always accompanied by a struggle.
I only recently started using the ‘r’ word to describe what happened. It took me four years to get there, after years of referring to what he did as something that felt less scary to say out loud. I used to call it ‘coercion’: the way he kept going when I explicitly told him over and over that he was hurting me. He said it was ‘normal’. And for a long time I believed that.
I believed it was ‘normal’ when he slid his hand beneath the elastic of my waistband, after I told him I didn’t feel comfortable. He complained, asked if I was being serious, made my discomfort out to be something irrational. And I just
I believed it was ‘normal’ when I had to take a trip to the pharmacy to get the morning after pill, after he’d slipped off the condom without a single word to me. When he violated my consent, my autonomy, my body, once again.
I stayed with him for a few months after that. Convinced the four weeks I spent bleeding and bruised after he raped me were normal parts of first time sex, and not the trademark signs of trauma.
It still hurts.
Four years on and I still flinch when someone grazes their hand between my thighs. Sometimes I start to panic, and have to push my partner away just so I can grab for air. Sometimes I spot blood on the tissue when I go to “clean up”, and feel for a moment like I’m back there.
I haven’t had sex for 18 months.
I’d spent a long time trying to push past the problem, and ignore the imprints he’d left on me. But it was starting to show in my relationships, my boyfriend grew insecure about the orgasms that never came, and the pain he felt like he was putting me through. The pain that I’d believed was normal until I’d met him, 2 years and 4 partners later. We tried working on my issues together. We stopped sleeping together for a while. I used dilators to retrain my muscles, and the pain started to subside. But then came the panic.
Despite the physical recovery, the emotional effects deepened. I became more distant and disengaged, and panic attacks became a regular thing.
I never told him how bad things were.
We broke up. I slept with new people. And for a while I successfully ignored the trauma. I had my first one-night-stand, and my second. And then my second rape.
Even now I feel unfair calling it that. It wasn’t malicious. It wasn’t planned. And I don’t even think he knows that it happened.
Things had started off fine. We both wanted it. And then the detachment started and I found myself absent, waiting for it to end. I said, and I remember this clearly, “I think we should stop.” But he didn’t, and I couldn’t find a voice strong enough to make him.
I just lay there, absent, while another man borrowed my body.
I stopped trusting myself that night. I knew I wanted it to end but I couldn’t stop it. There wasn’t a voice big enough inside of me.
You see ‘no’ isn’t always accompanied by shouting or struggle. Sometimes it’s the question intonation at the end of a sentence. The sound of uncertainty. Sometimes it’s tearful eyes, clenched thighs.
Sometimes it’s silence.
That was never taught in school. Sex stood as an opt-out agreement, where the burden was placed on the person saying ‘no’, and not on seeking agreement. There is a coercive nature to that arrangement. Where ‘yes’ is assumed, the need to pause is positioned as an abnormality, that leads all too often to a state of endurance, discomfort and pressure, whether intended or not. It’s all too common to feel the words stick to your throat. Not wanting to make a fuss, to offend or insult. Not wanting to learn what happens if they disagree.
I haven’t had sex for 18 months, and I still flinch when someone grazes their hand between my thighs. And when friends joke about sex, I join in, as though I haven’t spent the last year and a half worrying if I will ever trust myself with someone new. I haven’t had sex for 18 months, but my voice is bigger now, and I know next time I’ll know how to speak out.
Photo by Chloë Maughan