Trigger warning for abuse, rape fantasies
So I feel like opening my big mouth about some things I’ve experienced, things I’ve been taught, things I’ve been taught to ignore and make excuses for. Things I’ve been punished for speaking about before. And since this has kind of been a season of exorcising personal ghosts for me, I first want to address a past experience that’s been shoved away and hushed up for several years now.
I had my first boyfriend when I was two. We spent the majority of our time together having tea parties with stuffed animals representing characters from Barney the Dinosaur, singing “Skip to my Lou,” and…skipping. Skipping to our actual Lou.
Boyfriend #2 didn’t come around until I was eighteen; my parents disliked the idea of teenagers dating, especially exclusively and not in the company of a large group of friends, and I was shy and awkward. I had trouble letting even my oldest friends in, trouble communicating, trouble knowing what I wanted to communicate in the first place. Self-awareness wasn’t a high priority in the environment of my youth; there were even some who denounced any effort to know oneself as selfish and wrong. My youth group made a point of reinforcing “traditional” gender role expectations, encouraging girls* to be passive and boys* to take action. We were being groomed for a future of conservative, white bread, heterosexual marriage. And one day he asked me out and I had no reason to say no, so I said yes. I mean, sure, he’d thrown basketballs at my head before, and there was that time he flipped me out of a hammock onto a concrete floor, but that was all in fun; he liked me. I should feel flattered.
It started out pretty Okay, I guess. We wrote notes back and forth. I liked that–I was still very shy, and since, by my current standards, we hardly knew each other, conversation was somewhat intimidating. Before long, he was confessing his undying devotion and demanding mine in return, moving faster, faster, faster. He often seemed depressed, expressing dejection because he “expected too much from me,” prompting me to deny it and reassure him. No, no. Of course I love you.
But my offerings, though more than I felt I could safely handle to give at the time, were too small and awkward for him to accept. He kept pushing for more and more commitment, taking more extreme measures to ensure maximum time alone with me. If I expressed discomfort, or even a desire to sit with friends instead of in dark corners, alone, “I didn’t love him enough. I was hurting him. I didn’t care what he needed, I was only concerned with myself. Relationships require 100% from both parties, and he was putting in his effort, and now it was my turn.” I’m sorry. I love you. I’ll try harder, I’ll work on it, I’ll be better.
He started kicking me in the shins. It was a game. The objective was to see how hard he could kick me with his hiking boots before I winced. I wore the bruises like a badge. It meant I was brave and strong, it meant I could master my pain, my emotions. It meant I finally succeeded at something he wanted me to do.
Then came the phone call, the request to “change for him.” I’m not putting words in his mouth. I was horrified and immediately withdrew, undoing all the precious progress he’d made with me the past few months. He apologized and said it was okay, I didn’t have to change for him. It was obviously a great concession on his part. I couldn’t understand why, if he liked me so much, he suddenly wanted me to be different. He explained he was only trying to help me become a better person.
He told me he expected us to get married the summer he graduated from high school. I did not look forward to a bleak and endless life legally tied to him, was not anxious to be the little babymaking housewife he obviously intended me to be, and I told him so. I told him that although I knew I was probably going to be forced into that life, I didn’t want it and I wanted him to know I was deeply opposed to it. And he said, “What, so you think you can just do whatever you want? That’s not how it works. The husband’s the head of the home.” When in a little act of rebellion I began posting this song everywhere, he said, “What’s that supposed to mean? You’re mine.” He showed me a list he’d written describing in detail various coercive sexual acts he fantasized about, and when I was upset, it was because “girls* don’t want sex☆.” He blamed my anger on PMS, and when I denied even experiencing that phenomenon, he repeated, “Oh, you’re just PMSing. All girls* do.”
There were so many little things–too many to list–and it added up to an overwhelming environment in which I felt irrevocably trapped. I had trouble breathing and sleeping; I was always always paranoid and afraid I’d somehow misstep and say the wrong thing. I often did say the wrong thing, apparently, and he never let me forget it…or how generous and forgiving he was for continuing to Love fucked-up me. But the little things were so little, it was difficult for me to pinpoint where things had gone wrong. No one else appeared to think anything amiss, and he twisted past events and conversations so much, I thought the problem was just me, I was going crazy. I was misremembering. But I was oh so lucky to have such a caring person in my life. Of course I was extremely depressed, but I honestly felt so disempowered, I had no idea how to get out; I didn’t believe it was even possible. So I did the only thing I felt able to do; I pulled away, tried to put as much distance as possible between us.
One day, I was skimming the newspaper and ran across Dear Abby’s list of warning signs of abusers…
Pushes for quick involvement. Comes on strong, claiming, “I’ve never felt loved like this by anyone.” An abuser pressures the new partner for an exclusive commitment almost immediately.
Jealous. Excessively possessive; calls constantly or visits unexpectedly; prevents you from going to work because “you might meet someone”; checks the mileage on your car.
Controlling. Interrogates you intensely (especially if you’re late) about whom you talked to and where you were; keeps all the money; insists you ask permission to go anywhere or do anything.
Unrealistic expectations. Expects you to be the perfect mate and meet his or her every need.
Isolation. Tries to cut you off from family and friends; accuses people who are your supporters of “causing trouble.” The abuser may deprive you of a phone or car, or try to prevent you from holding a job.
Blames others for problems or mistakes. It’s always someone else’s fault if something goes wrong.
Makes others responsible for his or her feelings. The abuser says, “You make me angry,” or “You’re hurting me by not doing what I tell you.”
Hypersensitivity. Is easily insulted, claiming hurt feelings when he or she is really mad. Rants about the injustice of things that are just a part of life.
Cruelty to animals or children. Kills or punishes animals brutally. Also may expect children to do things that are far beyond their ability (whips a 3-year-old for wetting a diaper) or may tease them until they cry. Sixty-five percent of abusers who beat their partner will also abuse children.
“Playful” use of force during sex. Enjoys throwing you down or holding you against your will during sex; finds the idea of rape exciting.
Verbal abuse. Constantly criticizes or says blatantly cruel things; degrades, curses, calls you ugly names. This may also involve sleep deprivation, waking you with relentless verbal abuse.
Rigid gender roles. Expects you to serve, obey, and remain at home.
Sudden mood swings. Switches from sweet to violent in minutes.
Past battering. Admits to hitting a mate in the past, but says the person “made” him or her do it.
Threats of violence. Says things like, “I’ll break your neck,” or “I’ll kill you,” then dismisses them with “Everybody talks that way,” or “I didn’t really mean it.”
I was completely shocked. Not all of the signs fit (as far as I knew), but an alarming number of them did, and I wondered how many check marks you needed before it qualified as abuse. Then I decided that if you have to wonder, it probably does. I’d never heard of emotional abuse; I was under the impression that abuse was always physical. So I started doing some reading, and I was floored. It was such a relief to realize that I wasn’t insane and I wasn’t just making a big deal out of things, and that there were ways to get out and to heal.
So I broke up with him. I was thrilled to hear the rumor, which he started himself, flying around that he’d dumped me; I’d expected him to put up a fight, not help me out. So I confirmed our breakup when people asked. Then he approached me angrily, wanting to know why I hadn’t discussed it with him. He wouldn’t take “I’m leaving” for an answer. For weeks, he continued to stalk me, choosing seats directly behind me, getting up and following when, panic-stricken, I moved to get away from him. He would block my path when I tried to leave; he’d reach out and poke my arms and touch my shoulders. When I responded angrily, forbidding him to touch me, he said, “I can do whatever I want. I can touch you if I want. You can’t stop me.” He kept calling and I kept hanging up.
It got so bad that I finally broke down and asked for help. We were at a youth conference with a large group of students from the church I attended at the time, and I had to enlist some bodyguards, friends who patiently let me hide behind them, who sat on either side of me for protection. On the last night, the group gathered for prayer, the youth pastor asked for prayer requests, and for the first time, I said the words, “I was abused.” I didn’t name names or give details; I just wanted help. And I thought a group of people who’d dedicated their lives to following the principles Jesus had taught should offer sanctuary to those in need.
Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. The youth pastor’s wife sat helplessly in my dorm room, watching me form angry magnetic poetry on the mini-fridge, whispering with another youth leader about the best way to handle my outburst. The first thing they asked was whether I wanted to reunite with my ex and start over. I laughed in their faces. They concluded, a bit uncertainly, that where he’d stepped out of line was simply overstepping the boundaries of a dating relationship; he had, they said, tried to take on a role that was inappropriate to any man you weren’t married to. I refused to speak to either of them for the remainder of the trip.
It was worse at home. The youth leaders informed my parents of the horrible thing I’d done. They were furious and called an emergency meeting in our living room with the youth pastor, his wife, my ex, and his parents. That’s seven people bombarding me with accusations and hurt looks, demanding I recant and not only delete anything negative I’d written about the situation online, but publish an apology. These were dangerous things I’d been insinuating about him; I could seriously damage his reputation! I felt so attacked, so panicked, I spent the entire two hours trying to disappear into my chair. Eventually I couldn’t handle any more and left the room, ignoring the imperative to at least come back and say goodbye to our guests.
And I continued to read. My approach to healing was very DIY, out of necessity. My mother caught me with a book about psychological abuse and its effects, and she called another conference with the youth pastor and his wife. They were all extremely uneasy with my choice of reading material and warned me to be very careful, as the book was a secular one and most likely offered some advice and opinions contrary to the design for the family as described in Christianity. The only time anyone even mentioned therapy was when my mother threatened to send me to a counselor to address my own abusive tendencies and unravel why I’d make such accusations of a nice Christian boy. I’d ruined her friendship with his mother, and it was unforgivable.
To everyone who participated in the systematic destruction of my psyche and refused to help me put it back together, and to every Christian who enables abusers and blames their victims…this is my personal Fuck You.
☆This particular girl* actually doesn’t want sex, but is nonetheless sex-positive. I was enraged, etc., etc.