When we think of sexual abuse we think of rape and other physically violent acts. Often, though, the abuse in a relationship is insidious. Society normalizes several of the ways it manifests, clichés about gender reinforce harmful stereotypes, the victim's kind heart and loving intentions are weaponized against them, and it can often take years to even begin to acknowledge that something isn't right.
I recognize that sexual abuse is wide spread and highly variable from one situation to another. All I can speak to here is my own experience. I am sharing my story now in the hopes that it will bring awareness to those who are being fed stale and damaging banalities so they can hopefully find their voice. I also ask all those who do not identify with my story to take to heart that there is a difference between playful flirting and coercion, and that a friend who 'can't keep up' with their partners sex drive may be reaching out for more than jokes and platitudes. The moment they feel uncomfortable with the intimacy in their relationship their is a problem. Please, validate this for them.
It started gradually. I had always had a decently high drive, yet my then-boyfriend wanted sex more often than I did. When I would tell him I was tired, stressed, or just not in the mood he would often push, ever so gently (at first). Maybe he would offer me a back rub that he had no intention of sticking to, or try to kiss me and see if it could turn into more. If I continued to tell him no he would then begin asking for other things. If I didn't want sex maybe I could still give him head or a hand job. It didn't matter that I needed rest or support, he needed to get off. In very little time this need of his quickly turned into something I was aware of every single day. If I pulled away from a kiss that was escalating, said I was too tired, or worried about burning dinner when he randomly tried to pull me away from the stove there were loud sighs, angry movements around the house, and sulking. I knew that if we had just had sex the day before, he was slightly more likely to let it go that day. Once we got to two nights in a row without anything I knew he would push. After that he would begin getting cranky, grabbing his crotch and looked pained whenever he looked at me or touched me at all. And so I began counting days.
"I'm tired tonight, but I'm closing at work tomorrow. If I skip tonight I'm going to have to stay up even later tomorrow when I'll surely be exhausted. I might as well just do it now, so I can hopefully get some sleep later." I tried to hold on to pleasure and desire, but they do not flourish in those conditions.
To hear him describe things you would think I should take this all as a compliment, or even a sign of love. I was his ultimate fantasy. Everything about me turned him on. I was just so beautiful he couldn't help himself. He wanted to feel connected to me. That was his love language, and I wasn't speaking it enough. Even sweet compliments were often punctuated with a lip bite and 'mmm' or grabbing himself to show me what I did to him.
I was able to brush all of this off as 'boys will be boys' nonsense until we began having children. Even when I was so sick I lost 20 pounds in a month and needed to be hospitalized I would be asked to 'at least' give him something if we couldn't have sex. I found myself looking forward to the 6 weeks postpartum when I was told I couldn't safely have sex. I was grateful for a poorly repaired tear that needed to be fixed, giving me another month without having to make excuses. By my third pregnancy I was saying I was sick on days when I felt fine, just to see if he would let me off the hook.
I blamed motherhood, or aging further into my twenties, for my now non-existent libido. I thought there must be something wrong with me. I drank special teas, read as many articles as I could, and reached out to friends. I was constantly reassured that our sex life was far more active than anyone else I knew, and that it was normal not to want sex every single day. I was met with stereotypes about the ever-lustful husband and the frigid wife. There was even a news story about a woman who forced herself to have sex every day, for a year, to bring her sex drive back. I honestly considered giving that a shot. Instead of worrying that I was forcing myself to have sex when I didn't want to my husband was behind the idea.
Over the years I spoke to him several times about the pressure I was feeling, and how it was pushing me further and further away. I even went so far as to put a complete moratorium on sex, stating that I did not want to hear a single word about it until I decided to make the first move. This brought me about a week of semi-peace, before his moods began to shift, and I knew I couldn't keep the environment in the house pleasant if I pushed it much further.
Sex was often painful, and again I questioned what was wrong with me. The burning from lack of lubrication would often become too much to take, and I would have to run to the bathroom for a break. It didn't matter that I was clearly hurting and not in the mood, he would sigh and make me feel guilty until he finished. As sex became more and more painful I figured out that three times a week would typically suffice, so long as I did other things to keep him happy most other nights.
He thought this constant attention should boost my confidence, but it accomplished exactly the opposite. I felt no autonomy over my body. I struggled through my teenage years to love my body for its appearance. I now struggled in adulthood to heal from that space because my body was not my own. I did not feel desirable and powerful, I felt objectified, weak, and ashamed.
I changed into the sweatpants he hated before he came home from work, stopped dancing as I made dinner, asked him to go into another room when I would exercise, and became adept at side-stepping hugs and dodging kisses. He would get angry, of course, but that was more tolerable than the alternatives.
This constant struggle for autonomy threw my body into fight or flight, and often made physical contact nearly impossible. Just like a child who giggles uncontrollably at the threat of being tickled, my hypothalamus was being stimulated and flight or fight was being triggered, causing me to become extremely and painfully ticklish nearly all over my body. I learned to ask for a massage before trying to be intimate, in an attempt to trick my body into relaxing and allowing any other form of touch. This gradually decreased in effectiveness, as I clearly knew what was coming, and would tense uncontrollably the moment things changed.
I finally began seeing how selfish he was during my third pregnancy. When I was too sick to do absolutely anything he would ask me to talk dirty to him while he jerked off. He would beg for stories of past lovers, reinforcing his manipulative compliment that I was his 'ultimate fantasy.' I hated this. I hated talking dirty, making up stories, and having to speak in this way. I told him this nearly every time1 he asked, but he persisted. The fast rocking of his arm combined with the smell of his sweat as he pressed me against him would leave me running to be sick as soon as he finished. He was now not only stealing my voice in the present, but reaching through time to claim my past power and pleasure for his own. It made my skin crawl, and I became utterly repulsed by him. With the intensified senses and nausea of pregnancy I would struggle to kiss him, or even hug him, without tasting bile.
As the sexual abuse grew, so did the verbal, emotional, and eventually physical. He never threatened me. He would even say that it was always okay for me to say no. But when I did the consequences were always there, despite me asking him not to behave this way - Sulking, brooding, sighing, being grumpy, and the guilt of not performing the way my partner needed. In the end orgasms were currency in our relationship, and they were my only chance at buying peace.
The normalcy of this was is so ingrained in our collective consciousness that despite my attempts at seeking help, I was often made to feel like this was just the way things were meant to be. On occasion I would even have women tell me they wished their husband had the same appetite. Women commiserated and offered solidarity while laughing about faked headaches, but no one ever questioned whether this was acceptable. One day, finally, I reached out to a group on Facebook that is dedicated to body and sex positivity for women. A few of the comments were similar to what I had heard before, but one person called things out in a way I desperately needed to hear,
"He is taking your consent. That is not how consent works. Anything that is not an enthusiastic yes is a no." That is what finally opened my eyes to the fact that what he was doing was more than just obliviously making mistakes. We had spoken. I had begged him to stop. He was choosing to ignore my rights to my own body, and manipulate me, to fulfill his own vile and selfish needs. After over a decade of enduring him I finally saw his reprehensible actions for what they were: Abuse.