When there are soap storylines about rape, or newspaper articles about rape stats going up or down, or protest marches demanding women’s right to walk alone at night/wear what we want without getting raped, there’s often an assumption that we all know what that word means. That we don’t need to describe or analyse or explain what we’re talking about – there’s a neat little four letter word to do it for us.

I’m saying ‘we’, but really I mean ‘I’. I thought I knew what rape was. I thought I was enlightened – I didn’t buy into any Daily Mail crap, I knew that most rapists were husbands or friends rather than strangers lurking in bushes, I knew it was about abuse of power and not some uncontrolled outburst of lust.

But still, I didn’t identify the painful, humiliating things that were happening in my bedroom as rape, and not just because it was a woman doing it – I think if my partner had been a man it would have been the same. I just didn’t connect with the way rape was talked about in daily life, in the media, or on ‘awareness raising’ posters with pictures of shouty men and slogans like “You don’t have to stand for this!” So here is my experience of what rape means in the context of an abusive relationship, how it starts and how it feels…

1) It doesn’t usually involve physical violence. I never experienced being physically forced or held down and was never left with any cuts or bruises.

2) It gets defined as ‘sex’ by the abusive partner. My partner was able to define for me what was ‘normal’ in a relationship, what sexual practices were ‘normal’ for lesbians, and claim that everyone else she’d ever had sex with had loved it and she couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. She would rape me, call it sex and then get angry with me for not being interested in sex. I therefore felt guilty for not being interested in sex and felt that it was my problem/fault.

3) The abuser will start grooming their prey from day one, making her feel that she is responsible for the wellbeing of her abuser and needs to care for/appease her, isolating her from friends, the gay scene, or any possible other sources of information or conversations about sex.

4) It feels humiliating, shameful, dirty and/or physically painful but the abused woman is manipulated into believing that these feelings are her problem, something to feel ashamed or inadequate about. She therefore doesn’t see her experiences as abusive as she feels that she is responsible for them, not the abuser who is making her feel this way.

5) The abuser co-opts other sources of information into propping up the distorted worldview she is creating. It’s not exactly hard to find porn or erotica that suggests that sex is violent and painful and that women are submissive and enjoy this. It’s not hard to find books, TV programmes, magazines, newspapers, music videos and films that suggest that women secretly just want to be dominated by someone more powerful, or that most women ‘like it rough’, or that sex is something worth putting up with in order to sustain a relationship. The feelings I listed above – humiliation, shame, feeling dirty, pain – are all clearly not good ways to feel when you read about them here on a blog about domestic violence, but we constantly see these feelings being eroticised and are told that they are ‘sexy’.

I wish so much that I had heard alternative messages while I was being abused. I wish there was dialogue among women about what ‘rape’ really means and what ‘sex’ really means. I wish rape and domestic violence were not stigmatised and that I could say what I’ve said here to every single woman I meet. I want to write a rousing final paragraph with a call to action but really, I don’t know how to change society. I just know that it’s time for women to start talking about rape and it’s time for those women who HAVE been talking about it for years to start being heard.

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