I was 16. He told me he loved me. I believed him.
I remember thinking in the moment that this wasn’t right, that this wasn’t how I should have felt. I remember thinking that the problem was me, who just didn’t want this and didn’t feel comfortable. Not in the slightest. I’ve never felt more unsafe or more uneasy than in that moment, for I knew what was coming. Had I done something to insinuate this was what I wanted? Did I give consent unknowingly?
He pushed me onto the floor and held me there, relentlessly telling me that this was what I wanted. More than that, he told me this is what he deserved. After all, he’d been waiting for three whole weeks since we began dating.
During those weeks, I found myself in agony, walking around school hand in hand, knowing the kinds of messages he would send after the final bell rang. I never anticipated how quickly things would change once we decided to move beyond a friendship, nor did I want things to turn out the way that they did. I now understand the patterns and signals of abuse more than I ever thought was necessary, and they scream at my past self everyday. How could I not predict it? How could I not understand the danger I was in? Those first weeks continue to haunt me all these years later.
I was only 16 when I found myself on an irreparable path of destruction and abuse, just like the ones I had always been warned about. I never thought it would be me. It couldn’t be. Growing up, you always hear stories about things like this and wonder if that could happen to you. Maybe if you’re careful enough, it won’t. Maybe if you’re smart enough, strong enough, confident enough, etc., it won’t happen to you. But the reality is, none of that matters. No measure of intelligence, strength, or confidence can serve as a proper shield against sexual assault or abuse, for it is so much deeper than that. It’s deeper than the movies you’re shown or the books you’re encouraged to read, it’s deeper than a manipulation of the physical body, and it’s far deeper than what my 16-year-old mind could understand and fathom at the time. I knew that I loved, but who knew how deeply that would complicate things?
He was my best friend, and I was his. I loved him, and that is what so heavily blinded me. We grew into what I believed to be a good relationship from the greatest friendship, something I never thought could go awry or cause such immense pain. From the start of our relationship, though, there was a great shift in dynamic. I remember feeling both confused and concerned that so early on, we were encountering frequent disagreements, many of which revolved around sex. I remember him asking me, not yet one full week into dating, if I was ready to take the “next step” of our relationship. I told him no, that I wasn’t comfortable and didn’t feel ready. I was young, and although I hadn’t yet begun to identify or address the ever-growing pit in my stomach upon having to say “no” and stand my ground, I was scared. I knew that wasn’t what I wanted, but I also knew that I loved.
In my heart and in my mind, I knew that I shouldn’t have had the concerns I did from the start, nor should I have ignored the red flags that were placed in the line of my vision time and time again. I understood that it wasn’t healthy or respectful for him to be asking me everyday whether or not I was ready, when I was finally going to consent and want that for our relationship, or attempting to guilt me into pleasing him by victimizing himself as he compared our relationship to those of our friends, many of which he claimed “had more fun” and “experimented more” than us. He told me that’s what he deserved, that he had done so much for me and always supported and loved me. So why, he asked, couldn’t I do this one thing for him? He would explain to me time and time again his position and would defend his aggression and persistence by self-aggrandizing, never failing to mention that he believed himself to always be the one who was forced to compromise, give up what he wanted, and put me first. He tried to persuade me every moment he could find, urging me to “just understand” what it was like to be him, a teenage boy in a 3-week sexless relationship. He pushed and pushed and pushed, always framing it as a transaction he was so justifiably owed. I owed him my body, and I owed him everything. He deserved it. Who was I to deny him?
Weeks later, when I found myself on the floor of his living room, arms pinned down, and clothes being torn off, it was all a blur. I felt everything and nothing all at once, somehow hoping the world could stop so that I could think straight. I told him no, but his hands continued to travel down my body, ultimately reaching the button on my jeans. He unbuttoned them, and again, I removed his hands. Twice. Thrice. My heart beat faster, and though I spent weeks convincing myself I wasn’t afraid of him, I was terrified. My blood ran cold, and I became paralyzed. I froze, and though I felt the tears welling behind my eyelids, I could not release them, nor could I speak. I held onto the guilt of freezing up for years. How could I have not been stronger? Spoken more? Fought back harder? Fighting or fleeing was not even an option in my mind. I couldn’t think, and thus I couldn’t move. The tears spilled down my cheeks as I lie there in silence, wondering how I had gotten here. What I had done to deserve this. What I could have been punished for. Why I was unable to even function.
It’s taken me 6 years to forgive the 16-year-old me in that moment, who found herself unable to even breathe, let alone continue to resist and fight after having done so consistently. I understand now that that was a trauma response, and both my body and mind were unable to do what I believed they should have. Still, it’s hard to swallow. I never imagined myself to be anything but a fighter, and it’s easy to assign roles and actions to yourself when the experience is yet to be lived. Should I ever find myself being sexually abused or assaulted, I would fight. Or I would run.
I did neither. I couldn’t.
That may have been the first time I felt violated, but it certainly wasn’t the last. I never felt safe, and I never felt comfortable. I never felt whole, and I rarely felt appreciated, let alone loved and cherished. After initially pressuring and manipulating me into sex within the first weeks, the trend only worsened with time. He would push me to have sex with him everyday, and we would for months at a time, for he always threatened me with expectations and guilted me into believing I somehow needed to serve him and his insatiable desires. Everyday without fail, he would touch me without consent, in spite of my consistency in telling him “no.” He would continue, with an undeniable aggression and a look in his eyes that I will never forget. There I would end up–in his bed. As soon as he would finish, it was done and he never once cared to ask how I felt or if I was even okay. It became ostensibly clear to me that all he wanted was to get off, and that’s what he expected everyday. Soon enough, the problems moved far beyond solely unwanted sexual advances and assaults. He consistently held things that I had told him in confidence over my head and would threaten to blackmail me when things weren’t going the way he wanted or expected them to, and I was told from some of my close friends that he constantly reached out to them in order to complain about our sex life, my body, what I was or wasn’t giving him, etc. I never understood his behavior in general and the way in which he viewed our relationship and consequently treated me to be abusive at the time. I knew what he was doing during those years was not normal, but I couldn’t allow myself to believe I was a victim of abuse in the relationship, because somewhere along the way I had internalized his sick proposition that I did, in fact, owe him something. And that my love, companionship, encouragement, loyalty, and heart was not enough for him or any relationship I found myself in. I didn’t believe it to be possible for him to be abusing me because I had convinced myself that being in a relationship with him made that impossible. As a 16-year-old, I didn’t understand that being in a consensual relationship did not imply consensual sex. That being in a consensual relationship didn’t necessitate this kind of treatment, nor did it mean that I was so disposable that I owed him things. I thought that my love for him inherently counteracted and rectified the horrible things he said and did to me, and I thought and talked myself into believing that I could not have been mistreated, because I had decided to love him.
I’ve never lost touch with the shame I felt throughout the entirety of the relationship, nor even now, years later, in telling all of this. I wasn’t able to get myself to tell a single soul until just last year when I explained my experiences to a few close friends, and I truly never thought I would be here, writing this post. Every word brings a kind of agony and pain so deeply-seeded in my experience, but simultaneously offers an odd release and catharsis. The truth really does set us free, and I’m only reminded of that more and more as I continue to lean into the discomfort and embrace the pains of the past in moving forward. Though (after years of studying and learning) I understand far more about what sexual and psychological abuse and assault look like, I continue to carry the burdens of guilt and to comprehend that the shame is not mine to bear. These moments and this time continues to appear in my mind as distant memories from time to time, and the anguish appears to be ever-present. Even so, I’ve never felt more in-touch with the things that happened to me as my mind continues to slowly unravel them, unpack things I had sown away for what I intended to be forever, and deepening my understanding of myself and what used to be. Accepting that these things happened to me was an internal war I waged for may years, and I used to feel ashamed for even pondering the thought. But the truth is that it did. Part of me thought that simply acknowledging the reality of what I’d been through would somehow make it impossible or more difficult to move beyond, or that it would delegate me as weak, a victim, or incapable in more ways than I could imagine. This was an unfair burden to place on myself, and I speak now in order to alleviate and prevent others in similar positions from doing the same. Remaining silent and postponing healing does not make you braver; it only deepens and intensifies the wounds that have been inflicted upon you and that you never deserved. Not speaking is not in itself an act of valiance or virtue; do not fall into believing that your protection of your abuser makes you more courageous than you have always been.
You are brave without protecting others. You are brave for protecting yourself. You are brave in speaking your truth. You are brave in living a life most authentic and beautiful to you. You are brave within your own mind and within your own life. You are brave all on your own.
You are brave.
You are brave.
You are brave.
This world and society has a way of indoctrinating into our minds that rape and sexual assault only happens in dark alleyways by a man with a weapon while walking alone at night, or that sexual abuse implies the weakness or ignorance on behalf of the victims. Realistically, abuse is everywhere. It is everywhere, and it is fervent and undeniable.
Every 73 seconds, a person is sexually assaulted. 1 out of every 6 women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted), and 9 out of every 10 victims of rape are female. About 1 in 33 men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Furthermore, 55% of sexual assaults happen at or near the victim’s hime, 15% occur in an open public place, and 12% occur at or near a relative’s house. In addition to the falsified narratives perpetuated through our being taught only about aggravated assaults in alleyways, what they fail to teach us is that our love or care for somebody does not negate the abusive way in which they behave in a relationship. You can know somebody, love somebody, and even be in a relationship with them, and there is still a high potential for abuse to occur. Do not abandon yourself so deeply into believing your experience is impossible. The body remembers even what the mind does not, and the pain and trauma is undeniable and often long-lasted. I gaslit my own experiences and pain for many years, and I’m only just beginning to come to terms and understand all that happened to me.
“No” does not mean “convince me,” and neither does “I’m not sure,” “I don’t like that,” or “I’m not comfortable.” Only “yes” means “yes.” Endgame.
To anyone who has ever experienced this kind of pain or suffering, I am so deeply sorry. I hear you, I see you, I know your pain, and I believe you. Even if you never choose to speak, to write, or acknowledge the truth of what you have so bravely endured. You deserve to feel safe and validated, and if you struggle to find a space in which that is available to you, I will be that space. We will create it together.
All my love,