Being raped by a strange man at knife-point was my first experience of sexual violence. It was the first time that I did not consent, that I shouted ‘No please!’ and this was ignored. It was the first time that my body was not mine and that I was simultaneously empty and full of poison.
Except that it wasn’t.
In the space between then and now it has become possible to see that the rape that occurred on that Friday night was merely such an obvious and recognisable act of violation that it broke open and made visible all the other violences I have previously experienced.
In acknowledging the horror of that experience and in recognising my pain, fear and anger it has become possible to recognise other experiences that hurt, frightened and angered me, even though at the time I was unable to see them in this way.
It is as if that experience, which I have unflinchingly named as rape, which I have relived over and over, which I have been unable to ignore, has made possible a new way of seeing, of naming and of acknowledging what is sexually violent.
In an attempt to reclaim my body, mind and spirit post-rape I have been forced to recognise that many of my sexual experiences have been violent. I do not mean violent in the same way as the rape was. I do not mean that I have ever been physically threatened or hurt by the men I have had sex with. I do not mean that I have ever said no and this has been ignored. I do not mean that I have been too drunk to consent and someone has had sex with me anyway.
These are the things that I have always used to measure and understand the boundary between sexual violence and consent. But this understanding does not capture how I have felt in sexual encounters. How on many occasions I have not wanted to someone to kiss me or touch me or have sex with me but I have let them anyway. How on some occasions I have imagined that I am somewhere else while these things are happening. How I have just waited for it to be over.
It never felt possible in these moments to articulate this violence, either to myself or to my partner. Recently friends have shared similar stories of uncomfortable paralysis, of not wanting but quietly waiting for it to be over. We have laughed (and cried) about this together. These conversations have made it clear that this is not simply about my sexuality and my sexual experiences. Rather that it is about the violence of normative, unquestioned constructions of female sexuality. Because for as long female sexuality continues to be tied to passivity and compliance there is no real space to say no.
In trying to reconstitute my sexuality, I have begun to reimagine consent, beyond saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’, beyond force and threats, beyond being under the influence of substances including alcohol. I have begun to imagine consent as the real possibility of making a free choice.
I imagine it as trusting and valuing the self enough to keep it safe from implicit, silenced, disguised kinds of violence. I imagine it as overcoming all kinds of self-doubt and hatred that makes it almost impossible to hear what the self wants or doesn’t want. I imagine it as the reconstituting of a polite, modest, quiet sexual passivity.
I wish it had not taken that terrifying night to make me see and be able to speak these things. I wish I could have spared myself many traumatic moments that made me doubt and hate myself even more.
But I have hope.
I have hope that laying bare the lies that I have been told and have told myself will make possible an alternative way of being. I have hope that I will be able to trust and value my body, mind and spirit in ways that I have not being able to do before. And I have hope that in doing these things I will be able to experience myself and the selves of others in non-violent and previously unattainably wonderful ways.
This hope forms a significant part of my daily attempts to reconstitute myself in less violent ways. It demands a renegotiation of how I view and exist in my own body, as well as how I interact with the bodies of others. It involves an untangling of notions and practices of gender, sexuality, desire and love.
In fact, it requires a rethinking and a redoing of almost everything – a daunting but necessary journey to embark on.