Trigger warnings: sexual abuse, rape, unwanted touching
Written by Arianna Belluardo and Gaia Bargelloni
I do not think about sexual abuse very often, but when I do, I picture something scary; an unlucky woman, caught by a creepy man in a dark alley in the middle of the night. There it is: sexual abuse; so uncomplicated, hard to even mention because it so violent and scary.
If this is the sole image – we, as a society have of what being abused means, no doubt I did not realize that I have been abused until a few months ago.
I was not raped in a dark alley by a man I had never seen before in the middle of the night.
I still cannot admit to myself that something messed up was going on there, this is perhaps my way of doing so.
With this article, we are claiming our own experiences, by exposing our testimonies for the first time, and trying to learn something from them. We are closing the circle to our own trauma.
“Was my boyfriend an abuser? Probably not. Was I abused? Yes, I was”
I was laying in bed, not doing anything specific, just thinking, doing some mindfulness. I was going to go to the movies with my boyfriend at the time that afternoon . I do not know why, but something popped up in some dusty alley at the back of my brain, and suddenly I remembered some disturbing details.. It is hard to explain, when you do not exactly remember or forget something, it is just in your brain, sitting and waiting for you to uncover it.
When I was 18, I was dating this guy, older than me by almost five years, he was my very first boyfriend, my very first everything, for that matter.
On our third date we went to the movies, and he touched me. His attempts to touch my privates failed only thanks to the fact that I was wearing high-waisted pants and it was hard for him to get access.
It is rather sad that a piece of clothing was responsible for my safety, but alas.
My heartbeat was racing, my breath short; I had a panic attack right there, on my seat.
I just told myself that I was nervous because that was my first time petting with a guy. I told myself that It was just my ill and deviated mind that made me anxious many times after that. Panic attacks, physical pain, tears, laying on the floor not having the strength to even get up, not being able to enjoy healthy and safe sex. It was all on me, I never even tried blaming him, because I never specifically said no. It must have been my sick mind, tricking me into not allowing me to be happy. This is something so many women go through, the sense of guilt and the inability to recognize that something bad happened to them, and that just because we did not explicitly say no, it does not mean that we wanted it.
I did say no actually, once. In the beginning, I was being asked for intimate pictures every day. I felt awkward and embarrassed, so much that after expressing my fears more than once I specifically remember saying that it was enough. When I said no, I meant it. The answer I got was “I do not think that I am even pressuring you into doing anything”, ah, gotta love gaslighting.
Looking back at this, no wonder why I never explicitly said no to him; I was being painted as a prude, someone who is just so afraid of sex that won’t even send a picture. I felt so small, insignificant, and inferior every single day, that I would have done anything to keep him with me, even doing things I did not want to do.
When I was about to have sex with him I thought about running away, intentionally missing the bus stop and go straight somewhere else instead. I should have done that. I should have, but I did not. I did not listen to myself, I wish I could hug that girl and tell her that it is ok to wait, take her by the hand to school instead of to his house.
Sometimes I wish I was just one year younger, I wish I was underage, 17, too far to reach for him and in some way protected by the law, that if something happened to me, I would still be a kid. A poor kid. But no, I had been 18 for four months, officially, I was a high functioning adult, responsible for her actions. Hence, the weight is all on me to bear. The weight of reading his text saying “sometimes I almost feel like I’m raping you” over and over in my head.
Was my boyfriend an abuser? Probably not.
Was I abused? Yes, I was.
The two things are not opposed, they can coexist. The fact that maybe he did not realize that something wrong was happening, and that he, in good faith, thought that I would like what he was doing to me, can be true. It may have not done it on purpose, he may have not seen the signs. I never said no to my boyfriend, besides that one time, and even though it was clear that I was fragile and intimidated by the situation, I would tell myself that it was not his fault, maybe he just did not read the room.
However, my pain and my feelings exist. Here, is a question of recognising the sin, and not punishing the sinner.
His intentions, his motives, and whatever his reasons might have been, all of that does not erase the fact that I felt uncomfortable, pressured, and that to this day I still feel enraged, sad, miserable, and scared when I think about it.
If we learn to assign to everyone their own responsibility, and we start seeing abuse as something more complicated than just a simple and desise “no”, than we will be moving forward into finally becoming a society free of its enrooted rape culture.
“He was somebody that I believed to be a friend and that I trusted”
When you move to another country by yourself at seventeen years old and have to rebuild your support system from the ground up, you get very close very fast with the people that are experiencing the same thing as you, which does not leave you enough space and time to judge them and understand who they truly are as a person as you would do in your normal life .
That is what happened when I moved to a foreign country for the first time: there were five of us, three guys and two girls, all foreign students coming from different parts of the world. We all became very close and would lean on each other during the most difficult parts of our experience abroad. I blindly trusted these people without knowing them that well truly.
As 17 year olds do, we used to buy wine and beer to get drunk together at each other’s houses, which often led to the five of us often sleeping and sharing the same bed because we all had a curfew. I was never worried about that, these were guys I trusted, they were my friends. Well I was wrong, fast forward to our last hurrah before all of us would go back home for the last time.
We partied all night and a lot of alcohol was consumed. It was just four of us and we all slept together in the same bed. My memories from that night are quite fuzzy, the only thing I remember is waking up feeling hands touching parts of my body that I did not want touched. I was going in and out of consciousness so I never said a clear no, I did not move away from him, I just kept feeling his hands on me in places that I did want them.
The next morning I did not remember anything, my memory was fuzzy and I was not sure what had happened. It came back slowly in the next few days where I realized that one of the guys had groped me while I slept .
In the last 5 years since it has happened I have not dwelled much on the events, I repressed the memory away and “moved on”. When I think about it even now, I mainly gaslight myself by telling myself that I misunderstood his actions or that maybe I had given him some kind signs that he interpreted as consent.
He was the one guy I trusted the most in that group and I was in denial that he would be able to grope me when I was half asleep and drunk next to him. I have blamed myself for sleeping in the same bed as guys, for drinking that much that night, and I keep asking myself if I had given any signs to him that would make him think I wanted to get groped in the middle of the night. The answer is no, it was not my fault, I was with friends that I trusted and he abused that trust by taking advantage of the situation.
I blame myself a lot for that night, I feel so much terror at the knowledge that something even worse could have happend, I blame myself because I put myself in that situation.
I downplayed it a lot, pretending it did not have any effect on me, especially because what happened to me is not as serious as what has happened to many other people. I have been trying to accept the fact that my feelings about that experience are valid and that I am allowed to feel extremely violated and accept that that event had certain effects on me that last to this day. Until two months ago, I had not even ever brought up the topic to anybody, keeping it to myself for almost 5 years, telling myself it was nothing that I needed to get over it and that it was not something to make a big fuss about. I am sad to admit that a part of me still believes that, sometimes I have to stop and convince myself that my experience is valid and that it is still trauma.
When I think about him, I honestly do not feel angry, actually I am not sure how I should feel, I have repressed it for so long I think I am just indifferent at this point. He was somebody that I believed to be a friend and that I trusted, that did something that hurt me, probably he felt that what he was doing was not wrong, since I had been labeled as a slut by those people for the entire year and my friendly behavior was interpreted as if I was asking for it. To be honest, I have never had to feel a certain way about him because I simply never saw him again, never heard from him again. I am not sure what I would say if I had to face him again.
The thing about sexual abuse, is that it is not so uncomplicated. It is not that clear, not always at least. The mistake I made for so long was to see this as a simple black and white picture.
These are only two of the many stories that people our age have in common, the more we are open about it, the more we find people who have been through the same. We know we are not going to change the world with an article, still, this is an important step for us and ,we hope, for someone else out there who might fight the courage to share their own story.
Edited by Joanna Sowińska, artwork by Teresa Valle