This is a piece written by a woman who has experienced rape. If it is difficult reading, I can only imagine how it was to live first-hand, day in and day out, over long years. I have translated it because it is International Women’s Day. I have also translated it because, 22 months after the Stormont assembly was reconvened, it has still not managed to provide funding for the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre.
Rape: an act of violence by which a non-consenting person is forced into sexual relations.
But also, and in particular: “A rape is a non-consensual sexual relation, with or without penetration, with friend(s), with a stranger, with or without physical violence. Rape is not only the stereotypical image of a big, bad guy following you down a dimly-lit street with a weapon, it’s also the moment when a NO is not listened to.
I have decided to write this text to tell the story of one of my misfortunate adventures with a man. The misfortune in question began four years ago, but I still think of it often, and feel the need to share my thoughts in that regard.
The issue is a form of ‘soft rape’ (you might say), one of those rapes hidden in platonic, loving or conjugal relations. It is perhaps the most common kind of rape. It is also the kind we don’t speak of much, because it’s not one of those ultra-violent car-park rapes where a stranger uses physical force to submit us to whatever he wants by beating us. It is insidious rape, rape disguised by love, the rape of a night out with friends, domestic rape, rape by a boyfriend…
I wanted to tell this story, it’s context, my situation at the time and how I view it now. I wanted to tell it to help girls who have experienced the same thing to talk about it, or simply not to feel alone faced with this kind of abuse which, for many, “isn’t as violent as all that” (Oh, but that’s not really rape!”). I also wanted to tell it for myself, to put it in the past once and for all.
I was seventeen, he was a close friend (I’ll call him A). We saw each other every day at school and were very close. After a few months, we began to sleep together from time to time, but we weren’t a couple. One of our ground-rules was that if one of us began an exclusive relationship, we would stop having sexual relations. It wasn’t very fair, I don’t think, because he was in love with me, but he accepted the terms of the contract. Time passed and he left to study in Grenoble (he was a year older than I). Our relationship stayed the same but we saw each other less.
After a while, I met another guy and got into a relationship with him. He was very jealous and refused any idea of non-exclusivity, which I accepted. So I spoke to A about this relationship and told him I no longer wanted to sleep with him. He took it badly, but he accepted it (not without various kinds of psychological pressure…) Of course, we’d stay “friends.”
One day he invited me for a weekend at his in Grenoble. There I am, an evening with friends, we drink, we smoke, we go to bed. He tries to touch me. I tell him I don’t want to, because I’ve got this boyfriend that he doesn’t like and because I just don’t want t any more. He insists, I persist, we fall asleep.
During the night, I wake up to his hand in my pants, touching and penetrating me. I’m shocked, I pretend to still be asleep but move to a position in which he can’t touch me so ‘intimately’. He waits a few minutes (of course I couldn’t fall back to sleep), and softly moves my legs to turn me back and spreads them. He starts again. I’m sickened, I feel bad but I say nothing because I’m afraid and ashamed and I feel guilty. I’m petrified by surprise and disgust. For a moment, I can stand it, not knowing what to do nor how to react and then, not being able to let it happen, I get up and go to the toilet, still in silence. I return to sleep at his side in the hope that he won’t start again. In fact, he doesn’t start again but the damage is done. The next day, it’s as though nothing happened.
I said nothing because I felt guilty. He did everything to let me know he loved me and I told myself I shouldn’t have provoked him by going to sleep at his (a common state of mind I had absorbed), and then I was ashamed and didn’t want to confront him with his violence (which for me wasn’t really violence because he hit me after all, and it was more than anything a proof of his love). Perhaps also because I din’t want to accept that a close friend could do that to me without a problem, that he could treat me like an object, placing me where he wanted with no regard for my wishes. I also felt guilty regarding my boyfriend on whom I’d cheated. And if he found out, he would reproach me for having slept in the same bed as A thinking nothing sexual would happen (because obviously, sleeping in the same bed means wanting sexual relations). I was trapped.
As it wasn’t the first time this kind f thing had happened to me, and as I’d grown up in an ultra-sexist environment, I didn’t consider it very serious. I was simply disappointed and could neither identify nor analyse the feeling of profound disgust that I felt towards myself and my body. I had only a knot in my stomach and because (for many reasons) I often did, I stopped to notice it. He had disappointed me but nothing more; the disgust and the anger were towards me and my body.
Time went on and I saw him less and less because my boyfriend (who didn’t trust me at all) had a fit any time I went to see my friends. In the end, I saw them very occasionally, or never. Until the day I broke up with the jealous boyfriend and began to go to see them again. He [A] was now living in Lyon, I in Grenoble. We would only see each other at the weekend, we were still friends but there was a distance between us because the ‘incident’ had destroyed my trust. And then he got a jealous girlfriend, and monopolised. They eventually broke up.
We celebrated New Year 2005 at his house in Lyon. I accepted to sleep in his bed, saying specifically that we wouldn’t sleep together. He hugged a few times, he wanted to “take it further,” I refused and we went to sleep. And in the night, the same scenario, his hand in my pants, his fingers penetrating me. Except this time I reacted. I told him to stop it, not to start again (it was the first time I had mentioned what had happened almost a year before). He said that it was because my skin was too soft, I was too beautiful, he loved me too much. He couldn’t stop himself… And the next day when he had left for uni and I woke up, I found a letter.
I hope you slept well all the same. I wanted to excuse myself for last night, I would have liked to to say sorry at the right time, but I couldn’t (I suppose I didn’t want to be in the wrong…). But you know, at this point, I can’t really work out our relationship. And as well, you’re so many things to me: my best friend, the one I’m most attracted to in the whole world…
I missed you, we started hugging and I couldn’t stop myself from trying to take it further. I hate myself for what I dared to do again, but please, know that it’s not out of any bad intention, I just want to give you pleasure because it makes me happy when you’re ‘content’ (it’s not really the word I wanted to use, but ‘happy’ would have been repetition).
Writing this letter, I can’t (unfortunately) stop myself seeing you sleep beside me, caressing your skin, I’d love to know why…
Before, I thought letters like this were for idiots and cowards. Which means either that I’m an idiot or a coward (or both), or that I have difficulty expressing myself with you. I think that, despite everything, I’m hugely intimidated by you, that up to now I’ve been trying to hide that deep inside me but I understand now why people write this kind of letter: in reality, it’s a great way of letting off steam. It’s doing me a lot of good, writing this.
I hope this letter won’t frighten you too much, that you won’t be too upset with me for what I did to you, and you’ll give me a little hug when I see you again.
I’d often thought of this letter since daring to speak of what happened, and asked myself where it was. Recently, I found it by chance. I’ve decided to interpret and analyse it according to what I’ve become today:
It begins with a soft word, as though making up for the violence of the act:
I hope you slept well all the same.
This first sentence displays a lightness, a total unawareness regarding the violence, as though he’d taken all the duvet, or left the heating on full all night. As though it were something that had just made my night less pleasant. Whereas there’s violence, transgression, disrespect in his act. There’s a denial of me as a subject capable of choice. Because my decision-making faculties didn’t work in his interests, he waits until I’m in a position of weakness and presents me with a done deed.
to excuse myself
The choice of expression is steeped in meaning, the semantics revealing: he forgives himself and expects me to do the same.
I would have liked to to say sorry at the right time, but I couldn’t (I suppose I didn’t want to be in the wrong…).
There was a refusal to acknowledge the act, the transgression of the ‘no’, going beyond my limits at the time. He needed, therefore, to minimise. He needed a little time to find a way of putting things that didn’t bother his conscience, while appearing to acknowledge his fault. Paradoxically (and I think he did it despite himself), he does acknowledge his general wish to dominate with “I suppose I didn’t want to be in the wrong…” – a rhetorical mistake.
But you know, at this point, I can’t really work out our relationship.
What I see in that is an attempt to find an excuse, to justify himself. For me, it’s not a question of working out the relationship (or of bringing it back to life), it’s a question of considering my wishes, my decisions. It’s a question of deciding and choosing for myself, as an individual, what happens to me.
And as well, you’re so many things to me: my best friend, the one I’m most attracted to in the whole world…
“It’s because I love you that I hurt you.” It’s more difficult to resent someone for loving us. “You’re not going to blame me for doing something out love?” It seems to me that “you’re a significant person in my life” begets a certain pressure. If I react violently, if I consider the act for what it is, I deny his feelings and am responsible for breaking things off. He acted only out of love, a love that’s beyond him. That puts the nature of the relationship at stake; “you mean so much, I don’t want to lose you,” as though it weren’t the act itself, but my reaction to it that created the situation placing him at risk. If things were broken off, it wouldn’t be his fault, but because of my reaction. He puts everything on me, the responsibility for the consequences of his act on my reaction.
I missed you, we started hugging and I couldn’t stop myself from trying to take it further.
There shouldn’t have been any hugs at all. Hugs have but one thing in view: sex and penetration. They’re already close.
He can’t control himself, he couldn’t stop himself because we hugged, because I provoked him. You have to do nothing at all if you don’t want to wake up with hands on your body, fingers in your vagina. My desires and limits don’t count. Only his desire and what he wants is important. He denies my freedom of choice as soon as it runs against his immediate interest. And, of course, it’s stronger than he is, he didn’t really choose it.
I see it as a remnant of the myth of Eve and the apple (a myth which the Church has long used to establish Catholic patriarchy). In making woman a demon, a temptress who always provokes man, it suits to place all the horrors of male domination on her shoulders. In particular, shifting it onto us, justifying and founding the will (conscious or not) of men to subjugate our free will and conscience to their desires, put simply to consider our intelligence equal to theirs and evolving at the same level.
I hate myself for what I dared to do again
Punishment of the self; I don’t need to hate him since he’s already doing it. And I can’t blame him for his actions as he’s already blaming himself, in his way. He’s trying to show here that he feels ‘what he should feel’ regarding his act, that he’s reacting the right way: I’m aware of what I’ve done so, you know, it’s not that horrible…The “again” is the only mention of the fact that it had already happened, as though it weren’t really that serious.
He started again because the first time, I let it happen (for all those reasons I’ve already mentioned, but also) in considering that what he did was horrible enough that he should realise alone the extent of his violence. But in reality, as the little boy hasn’t been punished, he thinks he can say it again without further risk. He doesn’t bring his personal ethics, morals, into his act, his desire alone decided it. He refuses to consider the damage he created within me. It’s a little like the attitude of westerners towards those living in countries under their economic power. “No, my way of life does nothing to create misery over there, it’s nothing to do with it,” or rather, “So what if I create injustice, I want that, now.”
but please, know that it’s not out of any bad intention, I just want to give you pleasure because it makes me happy when you’re ‘content’
After all, he didn’t do something so bad because he wanted to do me harm. He disassociates the will that drove the act, the act itself and its consequences for me. For me, all things have their consequence and you have to predict them, he couldn’t not know he would damage since, awake, I refused. “Just want to give you pleasure”: when I say I don’t want something, he thinks it gives me pleasure to present me with the done deed, in breach of my will. As though ‘stimulating my so-called erogenous zones’ without my knowledge would give me pleasure, all the more when I said I didn’t want it. “It makes me happy”: I decide for you what makes you happy, and do it to make me happy. That says it all.
Writing this letter, I can’t (unfortunately) stop myself seeing you sleep beside me, caressing your skin
That’s what’s difficult for him, of course he can’t control himself. I found it somewhat capricious – nothing should resist him. After ‘the incident’, he continues to do what he thinks is the most that he can. He doesn’t say that, perhaps, the best thing to do would be to just leave me alone. He paints himself as weak when it’s an act of domination he’s carried out, and he’s recognised (earlier and despite himself) his desire to dominate, to take the decisions.
I’d love to know why:
It’s very simple: his freedom of choice goes beyond mine, because his desires and choices are worth more than mine and because he doesn’t respect my limits. He tries the ‘let her decide’ but since my decision didn’t suit him, he chooses to deny it. The idea of ‘let her’ is also significant: it is he who decides my possibilities of choice.
Which means either that I’m an idiot or a coward (or both), or that I have difficulty expressing myself with you.
He vaguely evokes the idea that he could be an idiot or a coward, but he prefers to stress the fact that he can’t express himself with me. It’s that the situation is difficult for him, and that’s why he acts in that way. It is he who is faced with a problem, he who needs help and that’s my role. I have to put my pain aside and think of him – poor baby – in a difficult situation (I dominate him by the love he feels for me, as though it were a deliberate, conscious act on my part, the result of my wishes), to console him by telling him it’s not that serious.
I think that, despite everything, I’m hugely intimidated by you, that up to now I’ve been trying to hide that deep inside me
He raises his existential problems regarding me as though they justify his act, as though they caused it. He prefers not to tell himself that nothing justifies such a denial and that it is unforgivable. What’s more, he focusses on himself. Not for one moment in his letter does he mention the pain that he created in me. He doesn’t even think about it. He sees only what is a problem for him. He doesn’t try to imagine the consequences afterwards for me and my relationship with my body, it’s just an unpleasant moment and that’s all.
I intimidate him? That’s why he allows himself to place his fingers in my vagina without me knowing? If I really intimidated him, he wouldn’t even dare speak to me, or in any case, he wouldn’t do that. Yet again, he tries to shift the responsibility onto me: it’s because he’s intimidated by me, by my attitude, and what I do to him that he acts like that.
in reality, it’s a great way of letting off steam. It’s doing me a lot of good, writing this.
He’s still stressing his discomfort and his needs. I read it this way: in his eyes, his guilty conscience (which he’s doing very well with) means more than the consequences of his violence towards me. It’s he who needs something to relieve him, to do him some good. And me, how do I let off steam? While waiting, I internalise everything and get used to not deciding what happens with my body, to my body. While waiting, I get used to being touched even when I don’t want to, something I’ll get so used to that, afterwards, I’ll not even bother saying no and will expect it to happen. So much so that, even now, I find it hard to say “no.”
I hope this letter won’t frighten you too much, that you won’t be too upset with me for what I did to you, and you’ll give me a little hug when I see you again.
And a final little present!
It’s not the letter that frightens me but his transgressive attitude. For the rest, there’s still this pressure of “me, I want, I need” as though what he was writing was from the heart, and would without doubt happen. He doesn’t doubt that I forgive him, it’s a little like it were up to me to comfort him for the situation he got into with me. As though, after his letter of apology, I couldn’t but forgive him.
The worst thing is that I felt that it was what I had done, I felt like I was against a brick wall, and could do nothing but cut off, definitively, all contact with him, which I didn’t want to do (but which I ended up doing).
When I found this letter again, I re-read it several times, not in a reflective way, but rather in need of an outlet. I think some of the passages may show the impact such acts can have (it’s quite violent…)
“What a manipulator. It turns my stomach.
It’s rape, yes, you’re a rapist. A filthy shit that can’t stand refusal. I just want you to know that I have forgotten, much less forgiven. And that if you’ve started that again, then you’ve re-raped (for a third time, or more…). The only things I blame myself for are my shame and my guilt, feelings which will come back upon you, which shouldn’t have caused me to accept your fault as mine and to close my eyes to the risk of letting you do it again.
Because I was alone, desperately alone and wasn’t aware of the seriousness or the impact it would have on me. And because I had nobody to talk to, except your friends who would have taken your side.
You played a large part in denying me my body, in the fact that for a long time I’ve believed I can’t say no, that I didn’t have the right. Dirty bastard. I’ll rise above it one day and I won’t feel this abyss, this black hole thinking about it.”