“Don’t penetrate me.”
A familiar ache. Two small fingers in, pressing hard, scratching raw, into the sacred soft pink of me. La concha, my Argentinean friend taught me. In hindsight, it was the same acidic sear as before, but at the time, in the cold shutter silver moment, it was a dull new ache, and I said “No, don’t penetrate me.”
I remember kissing in the darkness, our teeth mashing painfully. I remember throwing back glass after glass, wanting to be free, loose, normal for once. Sex was hard for me now, after him, and I just wanted to be able to go home and fuck somebody, be fucked for once, to be held by someone, loved. Oil slicks of vodka burnt my throat on the way down. I remember us stumbling back, dark pavements and dark air, punctuated by a few starry street lamps in the corner of my blurred vision, me saying “don’t penetrate me.”
It was the first time I had uttered that sentence, used that word, and it felt too big for my mouth. I remember saying nothing as we undressed each other. I remember wanting to say something – to ask her how she was, what she wanted, what “no” meant to her. To tell her about me, what I wanted, what I absolutely couldn’t have done to me anymore. I remember trying to ask, “do you want to” and her saying “whatever you want”. I remember asking again, not satisfied. I remember her slapping me. I remember never asking for that. I remember trying to have a conversation about sex, trying to speak, trying to make it safe for both of us, her two small fingers inside of me instead, hurting, hurting.
I think I said it again, “don’t penetrate me”, and then we changed, from me on top trapping her long brown hair to me at the bottom again. Long brown hair in my mouth. In my eyes, in my ears. Throat throttled, chest choking just like old times, but still I managed to say it again. “No, don’t penetrate me.”
This time there was a thick hot tongue – a familiar stab, familiar enough to alarm me this time, to drag me past the fogginess and force me to remember the last time it was like this. From the last time it was like this, I had learnt to say bright clear things like “No, don’t penetrate me.” From the last time it was like this, I had learnt afterwards, that screaming “no” is the only way people believe you meant no.
She was small and thin, though. She was a woman. No one would believe me this time. I didn’t believe me. She told me to leave. She was tired and she had to get up early the next day. I apologised for keeping her up. I thanked her. I found the door. I found the stairs. I found the street. My legs began to move, one stone foot in front of the other. My body knew this routine. It had tread these steps many times before, different routes but many times. My lenses drifted out of my eyes in little pools of tears and all the street lights became huge yellow blurs. I staggered home, amidst the parallel rows of stars.
I have been raped by men, and I have been raped by women. I have been raped by strangers, and I have been raped by lovers. I have been raped within university, and outside of university. I have been raped in single beds, and on double beds with pretty floral patterns, and on club floors, and in places I don’t remember. It’s certainly a high body count, but I don’t think I’m so unusual. My abusive relationship with a man is the one I talk most publicly about. I’ve reported him to the police, I’ve spoken at Reclaim The Night, even written a couple of articles. As difficult as it is, it is relatively the easiest narrative to tell because the other three people who have sexually abused me have been women.
Even though I know that sexual abuse is equally bad when committed by anyone, some part of me is more dismissive and flippant about the abuse I’ve experienced from women. Other people are too, someone once asking me if it surely wasn’t “that bad” to be raped by a woman, as a woman would be “softer”.
Over the past year so much of my recovery from my abusive relationship with a man has been down to learning about gender and sexual violence. It’s vindicating to piece together my experience of being raped by a man under a feminist light – it makes sense, the socialisation, the entitlement, the toxic masculinity. Our society is misogynistic, and sexual violence as a patriarchal tool to perpetrate this misogyny is very real. I’ve got my Male Tears mug, I’ve been known to share a #notallmen meme or two. But it’s uncomfortable to think about how femininity factors into sexually abusive behaviour. Discussions (especially cis het feminist discussions) around consent and sexual violence operate on a dichotomy – that abusers are always men and victims of abuse are always women. But like all dichotomies, this is a false dichotomy.
As a queer woman, I can’t exist in this dichotomy – my experiences don’t count. The way queer existence is treated as less important by society, and feminism, is a whole other issue. But even more importantly, this dichotomy is part of a larger problem, where we believe that only a certain type of person can be an “Abuser”. When we create a myth of the archetypal Abuser, we restrict who is allowed to be a victim. We simultaneously hold women to impossibly high standards to prove they have been abused by men, and relegate male survivors, queer survivors, and survivors of abuse by women, to nothing more than footnotes. And we are able to deny our own complicity in abuse, because neither we nor our loved ones will ever fit into this caricature of who an Abuser is.
I have come across my share of manipulative, wilfully cruel people who rape and sexually abuse out of desire to gain power and fulfil their own insecurities. I have also come across people who do not have the words to ask and the skills to listen when it comes to consent, whether it’s amongst families, friends or partners.
Consent isn’t just about sex – it’s about communication and respect around boundaries in any kind of interaction, ranging all the way from sharing spaces to touch. But it’s a skill none of us are taught and none of us are good enough at practicing. Touching without explicit verbal permission, without asking, without talking about it first, or ever, while intoxicated, by assuming, to fulfil unhealthy needs, without checking in, without truly creating a safe environment to say no – these are all things we do as part of all our relationships, whether in a sexual environment or not.
We all live in, and perpetuate the norms of our society, which denies all of our bodies the rights to safety, autonomy and consent. Some bodies more than others – bodies of colour, female bodies, trans bodies and disabled bodies being more subject to regulation and control, from people and by the state. We are all responsible for perpetuating different forms of oppression, which is a form of abuse. We are all capable of being abusive and all, to some degree or the other, will have crossed boundaries and acted non-consensually. It’s not as easy as conflating masculinity, mental illness, or evil with abuse and washing our hands of it.
As someone with Borderline Personality Disorder and a survivor of sexual abuse in my childhood and adulthood, I have a difficult relationship with abuse and accountability. Accountability is hard – I don’t want it! I’ve always known abuse to be a thing that is done to me. It’s painful and alienating to live with being abused, but it’s comforting in its continuity and tenacity. Part of recovery has been creating an identity for myself outside of victimhood, without belittling or blaming victimhood. My trauma makes me confuse affection with sex; it makes me want to use my sexuality in unhealthy ways, to make people stay. Having to acknowledge that I am capable and culpable of acting non-consensually and coercively, but that my trauma is also valid, is something I am learning and something that this attitude of “only men abuse” does not help me with.
I am learning that consent is not, as I was taught, a brake system, where men push as far as they can get and it’s up to women to stop it. As Shannon Perez-Darby puts it, this script hurts everyone. It’s a script where men can only ever want sex, and women are always at fault for not saying no at the right time. It’s a script that makes consent about power, which is never going to be helpful to marginalised people. What happens when there are two people navigating consent who are not used to having power? Consent should be a conversation that everyone takes part in. Trauma makes it difficult to speak – there have been so many times when I have wanted to check in on my partner during sex but my own experiences with rape have made me mute, choking on flashbacks and touch memories while I perform outwardly on the surface. Being a survivor and attempting to have sex means having to navigate trauma and accountability as part of consent all at the same time.
I am learning. It is painful. It is a process of trying, fucking up, learning how to apologise, trying again, fucking up in different ways. I hope that we can start to have alternative rape narratives. Narratives which acknowledge the roles of gender and patriarchy in sexual violence but also validate queer experiences and existence. I hope that I continue to learn – how to speak, how to ask, how to listen, and how to say no.