Reflections on Truth

This is not a post I particularly want to write, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, and I think not writing about it would be worse.  It’s about something that happened to me quite a long time ago, and I’m putting it under a cut, because it’s pretty personal, and it talks about sexual assault.  And I’ll be screening all comments, for similar reasons.  Also, note that some of the comments include people discussing their own experience of sexual assault, which may be distressing to read.  I certainly found them so.

There was an incident shortly after I broke up with my first boyfriend.  One could describe the incident as rape; I prefer not to, because I think stupidity, selfishness, and a sort of self-centred, optimistic deafness played a greater part in the situation than malice or power, but it’s certainly true that on that occasion he didn’t take no for an answer. Or, to be more accurate, he kept on asking until I couldn’t say anything – I simply couldn’t say yes, because it wasn’t true, but I couldn’t bear to say no, either.  I was unable to speak at all. So there was certainly a level of emotional blackmail there, and if I ever have a daughter, I’m going to make damn sure she knows that you don’t need a logical justification for saying no to someone, and that if one no isn’t enough, there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting the hell out.  My general naiveté certainly played a large role in the situation.  I think he asked if I was alright afterwards.  I said I was.

My first boyfriend wasn’t actually a bad person.  He was, on the whole, a patient, kindly type, with a pretty good sense of humour.  And, you know, he actually thought he was in love with me, which is incredibly attractive when you have always assumed that nobody would ever really like you.  I was in love with him, too, and stayed in love with him for months after he broke up with me.  We still saw a fair bit of each other, in fact.

After the incident, I didn’t stop being in love with him.  I remember quite clearly going home that night and thinking to myself “What was that?”, and then another, colder voice in my brain said “No. I’m not going to think about it.”  And I didn’t.  I tucked it away in a box somewhere in my mind and for all intents and purposes, it wasn’t there, it had never happened, and I continued being desperately in love with my ex-boyfriend and telling everyone how wonderful he was.

Then, about nine months later, the person I was with at the time made a joke, and all of a sudden, there it was.  I remembered everything.  It was a fairly big shock, actually.  It was still a while before I told anyone about it.  I knew that it was my fault. After all, it was really an impressively stupid situation to get into, and I was ashamed of that, even once I accepted that it really wasn’t my responsibility.  I was very naive on a lot of levels – it had never occurred to me either that he wouldn’t mean exactly what he said, or that he would imagine that I didn’t mean what I said or that I would change my mind.  I don’t think it occurred to him that I wouldn’t…

When I did start to talk to people about what had happened, I got a mix of reactions.  I was now living in a new city, so most of the people I knew well had never met my ex.  The person I was with at the time said it was rape, pure and simple.  I wasn’t really comfortable with that idea.  Mostly, people believed me, which was a relief, and didn’t tell me off for being stupid, which was a surprise.  I did get odd reactions from a few people, though.  A couple of friends didn’t say anything, but made it clear from their reactions that they thought I was doing the embittered ex-girlfriend thing.  After all, hadn’t they heard me go on and on and on about how perfect he was and how much I loved him and missed him?  And this after the alleged incident!  In all honesty, I can’t blame them for their scepticism.

Then I went back to the city where my ex lived, and caught up with a few friends there.  One of them asked me something about my ex, and I told him an abridged and more mutually-responsible version of what had happened.   He went very quiet, and that was the last conversation I ever had with him.  And, shortly afterward, that entire social circle melted out of my life completely.

I didn’t actually notice for a while.  As I said, I was living in a new city and had new friends, and while I missed the old social group, I figured that people do lose touch.  Though when some of that social group was in town for an intervarsity event, the people I ran into were a little weird around me.

I have no idea what, if anything, was said in that social group about me.  Most probably, the friend I’d spoken to just found the whole thing too hard to deal with, and the best way of avoiding thinking about it was avoiding me.  But I do wonder occasionally if I became that crazy woman who was spreading horrible rumours about my ex.  I mean, I was a little bit crazy around about that time, so again, I’d understand if people assumed that this was the cause, not the result, of that particular story.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it?  I can tell the story now, with the benefit of nearly twenty years of hindsight and a lot more maturity and understanding of how people think, and I can sound sane and analytical and logical and entirely believable.  But even I can see why people might not have believed me at the time.  It was one thing for my new friends to believe me – they knew only me and had no reason to presume I was lying.  But mutual friends were a different story.  They knew my ex.  They knew he wasn’t a bad person.  Ergo, they knew I must be… overreacting, say.  Not necessarily lying, just a bit unhinged.  Unreliable.  Someone to avoid.  And again, how can I blame them?  Nobody wants to believe that someone they’ve been friends with for years would hurt someone else.   And if the someone else in question lives elsewhere and has been acting pretty weirdly, all things considered, it’s pretty easy to decide which person is the reliable one and which one is lying.

And maybe they were right.

After all, I did lie.  I lied to just about everyone.

I lied to myself, when I told myself nothing had happened, it wasn’t real, I wasn’t going to think about it.  I lied to my friends when I kept telling them all that I was in love with him, even though I felt really weird and tense being anywhere near him after the incident.  I lied to my ex when I told him everything was alright.  I lied to pretty much anyone I said I trusted in the year after that happened.  And then I lied even more to myself and others when I thought I was over it and it was all behind me.  I mean, yes, it pretty much is these days, but it certainly wasn’t when I first thought it was.

And that’s the problem with this whole meme about women lying about rape.  We do  – just not in the direction people think.  And then we are often so messed up by the whole thing that we don’t sound as though we make sense anyway.  I mean, look at me – I didn’t tell anyone about the whole business until a year after it happened.  I stayed friends with him for months afterward.  I didn’t confront him directly, but instead talked to others, quite elliptically, at least at first.  And in between, I alternated between being really hyped up and bouncing around with mad enthusiasm making unwise decisions which really could have worked out badly for me if I hadn’t been very lucky, and hiding in my room and not eating for weeks on end. Oh, and then there was all the ringing of my ex because I missed him and loved him and wanted him to come back.  I hate remembering that bit.

Does that sound like someone you’d believe?

(And I very much doubt my ex was behaving in any manner that didn’t seem perfectly sane and sober during this same period.)

I don’t even know where I’m going with this post any more.  I think I’ve officially lost control of it.  But if you’ve ever wondered why I get so hopping mad when people talk about how women lie about rape and how Julian Assange was obviously set up or any of that other bloody rubbish that the internet is so fond of sharing with us, that’s why.

Sometimes, the reason we look crazy is that crazy things have happened to us.

Sometimes, the only lies we are telling are the ones you want to hear.

5 thoughts on “Reflections on Truth

  1. The rate of PTSD after rape is 50%. That’s higher than the rate of PTSD caused by combat, because rape is such an appalling violation. I’m in that group. Of course we sound crazy. And it’s a massively traumatising event that causes you to do all sorts of mental gymnastics in order to keep going, so even if you don’t develop PTSD, you still most likely sound crazy. All the more so when it was your partner, which it is for two thirds of rapes.

    I wish I didn’t know these stats by heart. I wish I didn’t know that 50% of disabled women are raped or sexually assaulted, rising to 90% for learning disabled women. I wish I didn’t have reason to suspect that it’s a gross underestimate, because I know a lot of disabled women. Most of them came forward, amongst friends, during #MeToo or at another time, to say they’d been raped. Of the rest, they’ve hinted at it.

    I have a medical condition that causes sex to be painful unless very carefully approached, and even though I showed signs of this as soon as I started having sex, none of the doctors I saw over and over flagged it up. So I wasn’t getting support, treatment, or a doctor asking why a small, frightened disabled woman was going in repeatedly with injuries. If you look in forums for these conditions, there are women (it’s mostly women who get this condition) reporting partner rape again, and again, and again. Many of them are still married to the man doing it, and cannot understand that what is going on isn’t just an awkward but inevitable part of marriage. Because this is what years of abuse does to your head.

    I’ve been raped by two exes. I reported the first one to the police. But not straight away, because when it had just happened, I stopped eating, I stopped sleeping, I couldn’t stop thinking about killing myself, and I also couldn’t sit down without severe pain for a month because he’d put my back out. I still have chronic pain from that injury. So the delay of a few months made me look untrustworthy, the fact that I was in the middle of a breakdown made me look worse, and the police were, of course, vile, including refusing to look at the pile of medical evidence about the injuries. Being met with hostility when you report the rape also makes you more likely to develop PTSD. My best friend at the time was an old childhood friend, and his sister is a cop. When she was working in thr Family Protection Unit, she was formally taught that 90% of women alleging rape are lying. I guess they have to justify how they brush off most rape victims. One of my problems was apparently that I went to the sexual health clinic for thr ongoing injuries, because like you I was in denial during the relationship, and then went to the specialist sexual assault clinic for tests afterwards. No one told me that only A&E would count.

    With the second ex, the relationship went on for six years, and was like boiling a frog in how it gradually got worse. After it ended, I managed to call it sexually abusive, and spent a whole considering whether it was coercion (it absolutely was). A few years later, something sparked off memories. I realised that the weird time a year into the relationship, where I had an excruciating shoulder injury that caused me to lose the use of my dominant arm for a month and be completely conked out on two heavy opiates at once, was full of drug rape. It turns out that drug rape is not just young women having their drinks spiked at clubs. I looked at it every way possible, and there’s nothing else it can be called. The sex, the horrifying amount of sex, was on record, because I developed suicidal levels of PMS (known as PMDD) in that relationship, and the app I used for recording my fertility signs to predict the PMDD gets you to record when you have sex. The level of medication was such that I couldn’t walk in a straight line, let alone consent, and couldn’t really move when it was going on. I remembered enough to know it had happened, and that it did not in any way resemble consensual sex. At the time, I was grateful that he helped me brush and wash my hair, because I couldn’t do that.

    It had taken me ten years to name it. I still get doubts because of that, worry that I’m somehow lying to myself and the people I’ve told. I haven’t reported it to the police, of course. No point in putting myself through hell for no reason. I doubt I’d have been taken seriously even if I’d gone straight to the police while injured and semi-conscious, with tests clearly showing the level of opiates in my blood, and of course I didn’t, because I was so woozy I usually couldn’t even make a phone call. They were strange moments in a month of blinding pain. I don’t think I’ll get detailed memories back, and I don’t want them.

    This time my friends believe me, because I’ve got a better group of friends these days, and I’m better at explaining it. You shouldn’t have to carefully curate your friends group and your conversation to be able to tell people about something awful that happened to you. No one needs to do that if mentioning that their house burned down. Good luck if it’s your body someone tried to burn to the ground.

  2. By the way, you know that struggle about whether it’s fair to call it rape, because maybe you didn’t indicate clearly enough that you were not consenting? I went through this too. I think most of us do. Something very odd happens in the brain when you keep saying No, or Not tonight, I’m shattered, or Ouch, or Hang on, I think I’ve pulled something, and the other person acts as if they haven’t heard. It is such an appalling thing for someone to do that you blank on it, and you’re probably freezing up anyway, as is a usual response to rape. Your brain refuses to believe it’s happening, that someone you love could do that to you. So you end up concluding that it’s your fault, and maybe they just didn’t hear. I too reached the point where I was so worn down I stopped protesting and stopped saying anything at all. That’s not on me, it’s on him.

    Of course they bloody heard. Of course they understood. Of course they can tell the difference between someone enthusiastically participating and someone who has stopped moving and is occasionally saying things indicative of distress. I could never make a move on someone in that state, could you? And get off on it?

    Most importantly, if you or anyone else reading this feel guilty for not saying the exact word No, don’t.

    It turns out that humans don’t use the word No all that often, and yet manage to communicate refusals though a number of sophisticated means, that are routinely understood from toddlerhood onwards. Sexual predators like to pretend that they didn’t understand they were being refused. There’s an excellent article here looking at a study on the subject which debunks that.

    • Yes, I think it is very common to try to find ways to blame ourselves. I’ve often wondered if this instinct to self blame is actually a weird attempt by our brains to make us feel safer – well, if I just say no *the right way* next time, then obviously, he will understand and he won’t keep going. Therefore, I will be safe in future and this won’t happen again. It gives us the illusion of control over the situation, and allows us the opportunity to not hate our attacker, which in a situation where one can’t easily leave may actually be a relief. But it’s very maladaptive in the long run, of course, and it turns us away from paying attention to the person who is actually at fault.

      Great article, by the way – I’ve read it before, but it’s a good resource to share here.

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