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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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One of the many reasons why it took me so long to realise that my relationship was abusive was that I had just never heard of the idea that women could be perpetrators of domestic and sexual abuse. The idea of an abusive woman is one that makes a lot of us feel uncomfortable as it completely goes against our society’s portrayal of women as caring, motherly, docile and passive.

This means that when there are high-profile cases of women perpetrating or facilitating violence or abuse, the media rushes to portray them as utter monsters, extreme aberrations who have violated the rules of femininity in the most horrifying way possible. They are vilified to a far greater extent than the men who perpetrated the violence – Maxine Carr, Myra Hindley and Vanessa George attracted far more vitriol than Ian Huntley, Ian Brady and Colin Blanchard. This is not helpful for survivors as it portrays female abusers as rare, grotesque extremes when the reality is that as with male abusers, they are not easy to spot – they aren’t obviously different from other people on a day-to-day level and often lead conventional lives with partners and children. Abusers are not ‘other’, they are ‘our’ partners, parents or friends.

Because of the way female abusers are demonised in the media while male domestic and sexual violence is minimised, excused or most often not reported on at all, sometimes feminists will react against this by saying that female abusers are ‘often controlled by a man’, ‘usually have been abused themselves’ or are ‘different’ to male abusers. Again this is not helpful for survivors. We need to place full responsibility for abuse with abusers. Every individual abuser, male or female, makes a choice to do what they do, to cross a line morally. It is also important not to perpetuate the myth that abusers have often been abused themselves – survivors have enough to deal with without being told that we’re likely to go on to become abusers, and this simply isn’t true – if it was, there would be far more female perpetrators than male as more women and girls experience sexual and domestic abuse. ‘I only do it because I was abused as a child’ is just another excuse from perpetrators which we must not buy into – the vast majority of survivors do not choose to later become perpetrators.

Most domestic violence is perpetrated by men against women, because we live in a society where being male continues to be associated with being powerful and in control, where our view of sexuality is not yet woman-centred, where science tells us that men are ‘naturally’ violent, where women are encouraged to put the needs of others before their own while men are not, where men in straight relationship are likely to earn more and so are more able to perpetrate financial abuse….. and so on…. However, when speaking or writing about domestic abuse, we do need to acknowledge that it takes place in same-sex relationships and that women can be perpetrators. This fact needs to be more commonly known if we are to raise awareness and prevent abuse in lesbian relationships. 

The fact that some abusers are women does not contradict the concept of services for survivors being women-only. I would like to see a refuge specifically for women who have experienced same-sex domestic abuse. I didn’t turn to my local refuge for help because I was afraid of being the only lesbian, that I would experience homophobia from the other women there or from staff, that I wouldn’t be taken seriously, and that as a woman my partner would find it easier to track me down, make phone calls pretending to be me, gain entry to the refuge etc.  A specialist refuge could deal with a lot of these problems. Similarly, a men-only refuge could help gay and bi men who have experienced domestic abuse. But these fantasy (for now) LGBT refuges compliment and build on the incredible work done by the women’s refuge movement in the last 40 years, and women-only refuges provide amazing support to thousands of women and children escaping male violence every year.

Nor does the existence of female abusers contradict the idea that we can use feminism and the concept of gender inequality to understand domestic abuse. Abusers in same-sex relationships appropriate concepts of gender and power to perpetrate their abuse. For example, my partner used the idea that sex is about power, and requires a dominant/active and submissive/passive role, to justify raping me. She appropriated male power to perpetrate abuse. When we have created a society which does not condone abuse, control and violence, which does not celebrate power, which does not minimise and excuse abuse, which does not associate sex with domination and eroticise power dynamics… when we have created this feminist society, there will be no more abusers, male or female. There will be no more domestic or sexual abuse. This will not happen without feminism, and it will not happen until we as feminists develop our understanding of domestic abuse in lesbian relationships and incorporate it into what we already know about gender and violence.

1.1.12 – Edit: I just came across a really good blog post from 2008 addressing women who are abusive/violent. I am so pleased to see another blogger writing about the need for us to not make excuses for abusers because they happen to be women or waste any understanding or empathy on abusers which should be going to survivors!

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.

I am committed to raising awareness of domestic abuse in lesbian relationships. I want all gay women to be aware that this happens in our community and not to judge survivors. I want more (ie any) specialist services for lesbian survivors. I want hospitals, the police, refuges, rape crisis centres and anyone who works with survivors to be aware of and know how to support lesbian domestic violence survivors.

But I also feel a real sense of solidarity with ALL survivors: gay or straight, female or male, black or white, disabled or able-bodied. I also feel solidarity with survivors of all kinds of abuse: domestic violence, sexual violence, prostitution, and female genital mutilation. We share so many of the same experiences – shame, guilt, self-blame, silencing. I have learnt so much and been supported so much by reading about survivors of all these types or abuse, from all these different backgrounds.

When we reach out for help and find out how little there is for us, it’s really tempting to get angry with other survivors for getting more support/attention/money than us. To feel that it’s unfair that straight women get more support than gay women, or that domestic violence services seem to be bigger and better funded than sexual violence services. It’s essential that we focus on the bigger picture and remember who our real enemies are:

1) Abusers

2)  Society, for condoning their behaviour and failing to support to survivors.

Straight women survivors and those who support them are not our enemies, they are our sisters. We are ALL important. We ALL deserve support. There needs to be far more support for ALL survivors. Abuse needs to be recognised for the epidemic that it is and as a society we should be taking responsibility and ensuring that no expense is spared in supporting some of the most vulnerable women, men and children in our society. Services should not have to compete against each other for funding, all should be funded.

We must never let politicians, the media or anyone else divide survivors and encourage us to argue among ourselves. This helps no-one except abusers. I believe very strongly in the importance of specialist services who can serve a specific group and the specific issues that group faces: women-only services, men-only services, lesbian-only services, black women-only services… but all these groups need to work together. Our voices will be so much louder if we come together and demand adequate support for us all, rather than trying to shout each other down. Our voices will be so much louder if we say “there is no either/or – the government and society needs to recognise all forms of abuse against all categories of people and we will accept nothing less.”

There are so many threats to support services for survivors at the moment – we need more, bigger, specialist services and instead the government has the audacity to threaten us with cuts. They want to divide and rule – and that means we need to unite and resist.

Dear Dr Evans,

A few years ago, I was in a relationship with a rapist. Unfortunately, I didn’t even realise she was a rapist. I had to be instantly available to be penetrated and to service her whenever and however she wanted. She referred to this as ‘sex’. I had never come across any information that contradicted this. All the films, magazines, songs and porn I had grown up with had taught me that sex was something men did to women. That women loved the fact that they were available to be fucked at any time and that their pleasure came from knowing that they were pleasing their man. My partner was not a man, but I understood that she was the dominant and I the submissive partner in our relationship. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t enjoy being a hole to be penetrated on demand, when I had been brought up to know that as a woman this was what I loved most. I felt guilty; I was not pleasing her, I was not enjoying this thing called ‘sex’ that everyone else seemed to love.

After years of shame and humiliation, I built up the courage the come to you about my dirty secret, my failure. You were the first person I had spoken to. I told you that my partner couldn’t penetrate me, that she was unhappy, that I didn’t know what was wrong with me. You couldn’t examine me because I reacted with so much pain to being touched anywhere near my genitals.

You asked if I had been sexually abused as a child; I said no. You said that penetration isn’t the only way to have sex and asked if my partner and I did other things sexually; I said yes, because she used to rape me orally as well. Then, you told me to go to Waterstones and look for a book on lesbian sex, and prescribed me vaginal numbing cream.

How dare you. How dare you reinforce to me that I did indeed have a duty to allow my partner to penetrate me whether or not I was aroused, whether or not I wanted it. How dare you reinforce to me that it was all my fault, my problem. How dare you ignore me when my body, conditioned by years of abuse, couldn’t bear to be touched and tried to tell you what I couldn’t.

Just so you know, the cream worked really well. It was a lot less effort for her to rape me after that, she was very appreciative. I was shamed into silence and it was years before I spoke to anyone about it again.

I’m not angry with you. I think you’re a good person and you wanted to help me, but I do think you need to know that domestic and sexual abuse can happen in gay relationships too. You really missed an opportunity with me – you could have been the first person to talk to me properly about sex and relationships. Maybe next time a woman in my situation comes into your surgery in my situation, you will treat them differently. I really hope so. Please do not ever prescribe vaginal numbing cream to an abused woman ever again.

 

With best wishes,

 

Violet

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

When I first came out of my abusive relationship I was full of self-blame, taking all the responsibility on myself and giving none to my abuser. If what had been happening was sexual abuse, how come I didn’t say no? Did that mean I wanted it? Was there something about me that needed to be dominated and kept under control?

The way we understand ‘saying no’ just doesn’t work with sexual violence. When someone has more power than you, either physically or through emotional or financial manipulation, looking her in the eye and saying “No” is a complete waste of time. She will ignore it, or respect it at the time and then be angry with you the next day for being ‘frigid’, or demand that you have sex with her a few days later in a way that’s even more painful and humiliating in order to teach you that you shouldn’t have said ‘no’ in the first place.

Looking back, I can see that actually I said ‘no’ to her all the time. She just chose to ignore or dismiss all the different ways I told her that I was not enjoying what she was doing to me. Here’s just a few of the things I did and said that mean no:

  • Washing straight after sex means no
  • Avoiding sex means no
  • Moving her hand away when she tries to grope me means no
  • looking unhappy during sex means no
  • never initiating sex means no
  • “I’m tired” means no
  • “I’m busy” means no
  • “Hurry up and get in over with” means no
  • avoiding eye contact all the way through means no

We can be a lot less forgiving of ourselves than we are of our abuser. If my girlfriend leapt off the bed without making eye contact and went off to the bathroom to wash the minute we’d finished having sex, I would be really worried. I’d want to talk to her, to know if I’d done something wrong. My abuser just ranted at me: “I don’t like it when you go and wash your hands, it’s as if you don’t enjoy it. You do enjoy it, DON’T YOU?”

We have to stop blaming ourselves and buying into their excuses and hold them to the same basic moral standards we hold ourselves to. If you place your hand on your girlfriend’s arse and she gently moves it away, would you (a) get the message (b) keep molesting her until she gives in while ranting endlessly about what a frigid selfish bitch she is? If you answered (a), Congratulations! You are not a rapist. We would never dream of doing option (b) to our partner, so she had no right whatsoever to do it to us.

When we are in relationships with so little control, so little self-esteem, so little independence, still we find tiny little ways to resist. Always somewhere some little part of us kept saying no, kept resisting, even when it could only do that in the tiniest most secret ways. Whatever abuse we’ve been through, there is something strong inside all of us that our abuser could never destroy, and that is what gives us hope and makes us survivors.

It took me a long time to realise that I was in an abusive relationship.

I thought I knew what domestic abuse was – a 6-foot thug beating his poor defenceless wife every night while the children cowered in the corner. I felt a lot of sympathy for the women involved but didn’t think their experiences had anything to do with me or my life.

I didn’t know that domestic abuse could be sexual, emotional or financial as well as physical.

I didn’t know that it could happen in lesbian relationships.

I didn’t know it was happening to me.

It was the first relationship I’d been in with another woman. Abusers will often (but not always) target women who’ve never had a serious relationship before, or who have only ever been in straight relationships. It means that she can take advantage of our lack of experience and knowledge about what being in a lesbian relationship is like. She can present her behaviour as normal and acceptable – “this is what gay relationships are like”, “all lesbians have sex this way”, “all the women I’ve been with have loved doing this, I don’t know what’s wrong with you”… and of course “we don’t need to spend any time with other gay people now that we’ve got each other”, “the scene is really predatory, you wouldn’t like it” to make sure we stay away from other same-sex couples who might give us any information that contradicts what she’s telling us.

So the first lesson I was taught was “everything that happens in this relationship and everything about this relationship is normal. If there’s anything you don’t like or that makes you uncomfortable, that means you have a problem.”

From there, over time she made me feel that everything that happened in the relationship was my responsibility, and anything that went wrong was my fault. It worked just great for her – verbal abuse? Angry rage? My fault for provoking her. Making me have sex when I didn’t want to? My fault for not caring enough about her sexual needs. It got to the point where she actually blamed me for the weather – when it rained on our seaside holiday that was somehow my fault! – and I believed her.

There were so many other steps I had to go through before I could name my relationship as abusive. Realising that I wasn’t to blame for everything that went wrong, when the woman I loved most was telling me that I was. Realising that if something made me feel hurt, then I needed to listen to those feelings, not ignore them or view them as weak, when the woman I loved most was telling me that my feelings were unimportant. Realising that my partner chose to yell at me, chose to insult me and swear at me, chose to sexually assault me, when the woman I loved most was telling me that she had no choice and that I provoked her anger and her sexual violence.

I couldn’t begin to seek support until I realised that I was experiencing domestic abuse. But before I could realise that I was experiencing domestic abuse, I needed support. The more we talk about domestic abuse, the more we get it onto blogs and on facebook and in magazines and on TV and in books and in conversations and in posters in cafes and on buses… the more we talk about it, the more women will get the chance to have that revelation.

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