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I saw this list on a leaflet about sexual violence I picked up and couldn’t believe how well whoever wrote it seemed to understand me and know how I feel. It amazes me how survivors of all kinds of sexual violence from all kinds of backgrounds seem to have so many feelings in common. To someone who isn’t a survivor this list probably seems really obvious but everything on here I have had to learn or relearn since leaving my abusive relationship. I wanted to share it as I hope it will help other survivors.

  • I have the right to be treated with respect
  • I have equal respect for myself and for other people
  • I have the right to say ‘no’ to sex I don’t want
  • It’s OK for me to change my mind
  • No-one has the right to hurt me in any way
  • I can take responsibility for my behaviour that may be harmful to myself or others – I am open to change
  • It’s OK for me to make mistakes – I can learn from them
  • It’s OK to express my feelings, thoughts and opinions

Survivors of all forms of domestic and sexual abuse come under a lot of pressure to ‘move on’ and ‘get over it’. Sometimes this comes from family, friends and partners who are used to us being strong, and find it difficult to deal with us when we are vulnerable. When we are dealing with the effects of the abuse we are less available to provide emotional support to those around us, and this can be hard for them to get used to. Our loved ones often desperately want us to go ‘back to normal’, and find it hard to accept that we will never be able to go back to the person we were before we were abused, or before we began to speak out about the abuse. Healing takes time, but for those around us if we don’t seem to be getting ‘better’ or making progress it can feel as if they are not doing enough. Advice not to dwell on things, or to be grateful that it’s over now, is well-meaning but can cause extra distress for survivors as it makes us feel that we are being selfish in trying to express and deal with the effects of abuse or that there’s something wrong with the way we feel.

The pressure can also come from the media – for example in soaps characters will have a ‘rape’ storyline for a few episodes and then once the storyline is over this aspect of their experience is never referred to again. In other TV dramas, an episode will start with a character getting raped or having memories of childhood abuse and end with her telling her family (who of course are always supportive and believe her). She is then able to go ‘back to normal’ and again her experience is never referred to in future episodes – creating a myth that ‘telling someone’ is the end of a difficult process when in fact it is often the start. I have also read accounts of survivors’ experiences in magazines which often end with “and then I met my wonderful husband Bob, had 2.4 kids and lived happily ever after,” suggesting that all we need is a new non-abusive partner and everything will be fine.

Finally, there is pressure from ourselves. We internalise all of these messages. We have also been told by our abuser that our feelings are unimportant, we have to deal with them ourselves and not trouble others with them, that we are hysterical/needy/a burden. I don’t know how common this is, but in my relationship if I was upset about something I would confide in my abuser, and if she felt that it was something worth being upset about she would comfort me, and if not she would belittle and ignore me. This created a pattern where even now I still feel that I have to get my emotions validated by other people who will judge whether they are worthy of their time and concern, rather than my feelings being important in and of themselves. This is a problem when those other people are telling me to hurry up and move on.

Healing takes time. Once we have overcome the practical problems of getting away from an abuser – whether that’s changing the locks, closing the joint bank account, or moving into a refuge – we are still left with dealing with the consequences of months or years of having our self-esteem destroyed, our independence eaten away, and we are also left dealing with painful and traumatic memories of rape and violence which we often had to suppress during the relationship. I remember the first time I phoned the national domestic violence helpline:

“I’m sorry to bother you, I should be over it by now.”

“Recovering from abuse takes time – how long ago did you leave your partner?” 

“Four hours ago – I can’t understand why I’m not over it yet!”

There are so many everyday incidents which make me realise how bad things were, or how much abusive behaviour has become normal to me. Like the other week when a friend stayed over  – it took me an hour to prepare her breakfast (my sausage-frying skills leave something to be desired), and to my astonishment instead of sulking or ranting at me for taking so long, she said “Thanks, this looks great.” Or last week when I had to tell the person I live with that our electricity bill was going up – again, I’d prepared myself for a sulking and ranting session and instead she said “That’s annoying, but thanks for calling the electricity company and sorting out the direct debit.” Little moments like these make me realise retrospectively how unacceptable and shitty my ex’s behaviour was, and can be quite shocking and upsetting.

While dealing with any kind of emotional trauma takes time, I do think there are good reasons why sexual and domestic violence survivors in particular often find themselves still angry and banging on about it years later, many of which are listed in this powerful article. Our abuse is not understood. It is not accepted. We have to choose between not telling people, or telling them and dealing with ignorant reactions. We have to read every day in the papers about rapists and abusers being found not guilty, of women being accused of ‘crying rape’ and disbelieved, of pathetically short sentences. We have to hear our friends making rape jokes in the pub, and watch as everyone laughs. We have to stay silent. Many of us never meet other survivors and never have the chance to share our experiences, and feel as if we are the only person this has ever happened to, that we will never be over it, we will never be normal. But we ARE normal, if by ‘normal’ we mean ‘common’. 1 in 4 women in the UK experience domestic violence. There are millions of survivors, but still our experiences are ignored, disbelieved, over-simplified or reduced to unhelpful stereotypes by the media. I feel ready now to move on from my abuse, but I can’t until the society I live in and the people around me move on in their attitudes to sexual and domestic violence and their treatment of survivors.

As a survivor, I feel grateful to organisations like Women’s Aid, Refuge, Broken Rainbow – unfortunately I didn’t use them as much as I could have, because it took me so long to recognise that what I was experiencing was domestic violence, but it makes me feel glad, and safer, to know that they are there.

But the one thing that I found more valuable than anything, and without which I think I would be in a lot worse state right now or possibly even still in my abusive relationship, was the love and support of a good friend.

My friend didn’t judge me. Even if I’d have stayed with my abuser she would have been there for me. She didn’t treat me like I was stupid for getting into and staying in an abusive relationship. She believed me, she listened, she never expected anything in return. She didn’t tell me what to do, but supported me and trusted me in making my own decisions. She treated me like a good person who deserved love, and that made it possible for me to begin to believe that about myself. Every day I went home to a partner who, through the way she treated me, told me that I was stupid, worthless, unloveable. I was only able to begin to question these messages because of my friend’s love and faith in me.

Friends, sisters, parents – so many other survivors I have read about or spoken to have talked of having people who were there for them when they really needed it.  Just like survivors, supporters of survivors are all around us, they don’t look different to other people, and they don’t talk about what they’ve experienced. Anyone can be a supporter. They don’t win awards, no-one writes books or magazine articles about them, but there are so many people out there who change and even save lives everyday without anyone noticing except for the survivor they helped.

When I think of the scale of the problem of domestic violence, how it happens in every country and culture in the world, the sheer number of abusers who are out there, it’s easy to start feeling hopeless. The people like my friend- the supporters- are the people who give me hope.

Sex is another one of those words that no-one ever bothers to stop and define because we’re all supposed to know what it means. This is really bad news for women because it means when we’re being told all the damn time that sex is great/fun/healthy/something we should be having at least 3 times a week each one of us has a completely different definition in our heads of what sex actually is, based on personal experiences, what we’ve been told, what we’ve read or seen in films. It’s also really really bad news for women in abusive relationships because our abusers get to define ‘sex’ for us. If this is you, ignore whatever crap your abuser has told you about what sex is and read this instead:

1) Sex is fun and pleasurable for BOTH women. If you don’t enjoy something, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. You do not have to learn to like it. A respectful partner will not expect you to do anything you don’t want to. Different women enjoy different things and nothing is compulsory.

2) Sex is not the same thing as intercourse. Intercourse means a penis penetrating a vagina. Often when people use the word ‘sex’ this is what they are referring to, but actually intercourse is just one of many types of sex. Your partner may use the idea that penetration is the only ‘real’ type of sex to try to manipulate you into penetrative sex that you don’t want. Sex is actually far more varied than this and you can have an exciting sex life that doesn’t involve any penetration at all, and many lesbian couples do.

3) To give an idea of some of the different ways of having sex that are common in lesbian relationships, JoAnn Loulan surveyed 1566 lesbians in the US and Canada between 1985-87. The study may be 25 years old, but women’s bodies haven’t changed in that time so the practices probably haven’t a great deal either. She found:

80% penetrate the vagina with fingers

67% have oral sex (stimulating the clitoris with the tongue)

11% penetrate the anus with fingers

10% penetrate the vagina with a dildo

5% practice bondage

 Compare what your partner has told you is ‘normal’ with the percentages here. So if for example your partner says that vaginal penetration with fingers is normal and everyone does it, actually 1 in 5 lesbians don’t do this at all. Of the other 4 in 5, some will do it every week, some once every few years. In some couples one partner may enjoy being penetrated while the other doesn’t and that’s OK too.

This survey is also quite limited in that’s it’s still thinking inside the penetration=sex box. Touching each other’s clitorises (clitorii?) or rubbing yourself against your girlfriend is not just foreplay or a run up to proper penetrative sex. It IS sex. It gives us orgasms, it feels good and it is an end in itself. The idea that clitoral stimulation is foreplay/childish/a precursor to the main event is a myth which belittles women’s sexuality and bodies.

4) Sex is not about power. If one partner penetrates the other this isn’t about one partner conquering/dominating/asserting ownership or  control over the other but an act of trust, equality and giving and sharing pleasure. There is no need for a dominant/active and a submissive/passive role. Many couples choose not to have these roles at all. Others will adopt and act out these roles occasionally, often alternating between these two roles in different situations. There is also absolutely no need for sexual behaviour to translate into other areas of the relationship, ie because one partner has a certain role in bed this doesn’t mean she therefore gets to be more in control/dominant in terms of making decisions, controlling finances etc.

5) And finally, on the subject of ‘normal’… why does this even matter? Sex is not about what everyone else is doing, it’s about what YOU BOTH want to do. Heterosexuality is normal (ie common), but that doesn’t mean we all have to do it. If we didn’t live in a culture which holds penetration up as the only real way to have sex, maybe the way we all have sex would be completely different. Or not. Clearly the only way to find out is to have a worldwide lesbian revolution – who’s with me?

Survivors are really good at minimising the abuse we’ve experienced. We don’t talk to our family or friends about the abuse for a lot of reasons, but one is because we don’t want to bother them. We don’t use helplines, refuges and support groups because we don’t want to take up their precious time when they could be helping a ‘real’ survivor. When we do use the support services we need, we have ‘imposter syndrome’ and worry that they’re going to be cross when they realise we aren’t a serious-enough case to deserve their support.

Most survivors could come up with at least 10 different endings to the sentence “My abuse wasn’t as serious because….”

“… it was only emotional abuse”

“…she didn’t actually hit me, just pushed around a few times and tried to strangle me once”

“…the relationship only lasted 6 months, some women are abused for years”

“…she only raped me a few times, it’s not like it was every night”

“…abuse from another woman isn’t as serious”

“…I have a good job so I could have afforded to leave”

“… she only made me have oral sex so it’s not like it was real rape”

Who is this fictional ‘real victim’ we’re all comparing ourselves to? The woman who was viciously beaten and raped every single day for 50 years by her 7-foot husband in front of their children? The one who deserves all the support and compassion and help? I don’t think we need to go out and find her. We already know what she’ll say: “My abuse wasn’t as serious, because…”

This is another example of how we internalise abuser bullshit. Look at all the quotes above – they’re straight out of an abuser’s mouth. “It’s not like I hit you or anything.” “You’re lucky, a man would never settle for just oral sex*.” “It was just a little shove.” “It’s not like I’m expecting sex* every single night, but you haven’t given me any for a month now and I’m sick of waiting.”

It’s time to stop listening to the abuser’s voice inside our own heads. Lets listen instead to our own feelings. Are we hurt? Do we feel unhappy, alone, used? Does the abuse feel serious? Do we need someone to talk to? No-one else, especially not our abuser, gets to tell us whether or not our feelings are valid or important. Each of us is a unique individual with a different experience, a different story, a different way of coping with what we’ve been through. None of these should be minimised or dismissed and none are more or less important. We are all important. We deserve to have our voices listened to, our needs met, we deserve to feel happy and loved and we don’t have to justify that – not even to ourselves.


*Rape of course gets redefined by the abuser as ‘sex’ to make it seem normal

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