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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.

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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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