Picture this: I’m 15 years old, at a friend’s house party, dancing and having a good time, having a few drinks and chilling with friends, when my (very new) boyfriend of the time, who had asked me to be his girlfriend just a few days earlier, suggests we go outside and then propositions me for sex.
We had attempted sex around 9 months earlier, shortly after I lost my virginity to a man who, the next day, got back with his former girlfriend (a girl in my class at school who was loved by my friendship group and therefore left me in confusion and shame, unable to share about this critical moment in my sexual maturation with my friends).
The attempted sex was a total failure. After some brief moments of feeling very sexually powerful, like the most sexually mature girl I knew who wanted to share her new-found skills with anyone who would appreciate them, I confidently led him out to the woods and lay myself down on the floor beckoning or him to come and lie with me. The whole event ended up in a chaffed vaginal entrance, multiple cuts and scratches on my bum, a lot of frustration, almost no arousal and certainly no penetration. That was a good lesson for me in the need for body-based turn-on, vaginal lubrication and more than just my uninformed and burdened teenage minds approval for intercourse.
Wind forward 9 months and, on this day, here I am with one of the coolest guys in school, flattered he has asked me out and realising I don’t want to have sex with him; I want to dance.
I say “No thanks”, go back into the party and get back to socialising and dancing.
“No” is a complete sentence. That should have been all that was needed.
At some point later his best friend comes to find me and the rest gets hazy. I remember being taken back outside, round the corner of the house and at some point realising my “boyfriend” is still there brandishing a condom. I remember feeling very scared and trying to get away and then I remember his friend blocking me and preventing me from doing so. I don’t remember this guy’s name, and I remember vividly (now I’ve recovered more of the repressed memory) that he was very tall, with dark hair.
After I’m securely up against the wall and in the clutches of my “boyfriend” the friend turns away to give us our privacy and make sure no-one catches us.
With all the strength I can muster in that moment, I say “No” again and try to escape. I can’t. He ignores me.
The fact I managed to say “no”, and can remember it, was a thin thread keeping me connected to the truth that I was raped, when the psychological coping mechanism that followed had me hide the full truth from myself for the next 20 years.
After a brief flood of terror, some part of me makes peace with the fact that the only way I’m going to come out of this in one piece is to have sex with him. At that point, or probably just before, I promptly dissociate and leave my body. The rest is a blur.
I don’t remember how I left or how I get home.
I don’t remember what state I was in, if I was crying or not, if I spoken to anyone or not.
I just remember overwhelming feelings of shame.
Part of me that convinced myself it was somehow consensual, or at least that I deserved it. That as his girlfriend I had given him the rights to my body or led him on.
I told myself that I had been a slut and had sex with him too soon in our relationship. I felt very confused about what just happened and I didn’t want anyone to know about it.
I’ve later discovered this internalising of a “fake consent” story which validates assumed consent, without actually getting consent, is a coping mechanism for feelings of being completely overpowered and deeply out of control.
He broke up with me at school that week and promptly started dating a really cool girl who I had always felt threatened and borderline bullied by. I felt simultaneously used and relieved.
I kept my mouth shut.
Today I am 36, currently single, and recovering from a relationship break-up that was surprisingly heartbreaking for me given that I did the leaving and had only known him, long distance, for 6 months. It catapulted me, rather against my wishes, into the next level of my personal work, unravelling my childhood attachment wounds and looking into many of those deep, dark places that I’ve been avoiding for 30 years.
What I’ve found in this journey into the most vulnerable and hurt parts of myself has been quite remarkable.
At 36 I can recognise and get curious about a pattern of repetitive physical violation.
I’m not sure when it first started, it’s just been a normal part of my experience of being me, which I put down for many years to simply being female. These experiences were, no doubt, a great motivation for my journey into Martial Arts and Self defence, and yet, on reflection, awful.
I’ve had a number of unwanted hands on me or in me episodes that I’ve experienced since age 14. You can add to this list countless experiences of being exposed to, leered at, cat called and a really creepy moment in the swimming pool changing rooms where I looked down to find a man having slid under the cubical wall, lying on his back on the floor with his head looking up my towel as I got dressed after my swim.
- Passing out at a party, age 14, and having a group of men apparently touching me and laughing at me. I found out subsequently from a “friend” (who did nothing to stop the episode).
- Having a guy I’m dancing with shove a finger inside me unexpectedly on the dance floor.
- A co-worker at a temp job luring me into the store room and then grabbing my breasts.
- Being pushed up against the wall by a sexually hungry University Professor at an end of term dinner. I was rescued by a friend before it escalated further.
- Being unexpectedly kissed by a tour guide with such ferocity that I strained my neck.
- Sharing my huge king sized bed with a partnered male friend who “desperately needed a place to stay” on a night where my house was overfull with visitors and waking up in the night to find him on top of me and taking off my pants.
- A potential supplier at work taking me out to dinner and then to his place nearby for a cup of tea, trying to kiss me and then pinning the door shut and grabbing me when I say no and try to leave.
- A massage therapist friend offering me a massage and then unexpectedly taking off his clothes and shoving his cock in my mouth half way through.
- A personal trainer sneaking a finger into me during a “post-workout hip release massage” in the staff office.
I want at this point to speak to something here before I continue, because you could at this point get confused, judgement or distressed and distracted from the point of this article in a response to your own emotional reactions and potential triggers here.
I am not accusing anyone of being a perpetrator or making myself into a victim. That’s not helpful.
I have made some bad decisions, been naive, ambiguous, confused and sometimes just a bit silly or overly intoxicated. People have also violently and less violently overstepped physical, emotional, legal or professional boundaries, as I know I’ve done myself from time to time, always in good intention. I’m no angel.
None of that is the point.
In each of these scenarios I could find reasons to explain and justify why the person did what they did and my role in that. What I’m interested in is why I became the sort of woman who gets into these situations and whose physical bodily boundaries get repeatedly crossed.
I’m interested in unravelling my experience in order that I can change it and continue to support others who have their boundaries crossed, to change their experiences.
When I distil down what happens in the majority of these scenarios (where I’m awake) it looks broadly like this:
- Phase 1: Connection.
- Phase 2: Move to action.
- Phase 3: Unwanted Physical Touch.
- Phase 4: Seduction.
- Phase 5: Splitting.
In each of these phases there are distinct physiological and neurological changes that are occurring whilst my nervous system copes with the violation. Moving through the 5 stages I move from safety and connection, through confusion, into overwhelm (eventually loosing conscious control of my body), try to regain feelings of control and then eventually find a way to settle my system through strengthening protection personality aspects and splitting off intolerable feelings.
By understanding my responsive personality aspects and unconscious coping mechanisms I can unlock a gateway to my own healing and break the pattern.
In Part 2, I will share with you:
- What’s happening in my nervous system and body in each of the 5 phases to allow the violation to happen.
- How I believe that childhood spanking established the pattern in my nervous system and adult behaviours that set me up to be vulnerable to sexual violation.
In Part 3, I will share with you:
- How these protective mechanisms I developed in my nervous system and personality show up in my day to day sexual behaviour and how I can use that as a trailhead to healing.
- What can be done to break the pattern and free oneself from a life of sexual violation and even bad sex, once and for all.
Thanks for reading this far.
If you are suffering from sexual, relational, or emotional challenges as a result of early childhood or adult trauma, or simply looking for more support in developing your sexual expression and allowing your sexuality in as a healthy, integrated part of your life, please find me at www.emmakharper.com
Or if you live in the South East, or London, Join me this June for the trauma-informed 2019 Women’s Sexual Expression Programme: An intimate circle of up to 10 women journeying with their sexuality to reclaim the type of sex they want to be having, with the people they want to have it with, when they want it.
And if reading this brings up painful personal material for you, please remember to speak with a friend or loved one or reach out for professional help. You are not alone. Bad things happen to good people and we’re all just doing our best in a very complicated and challenging world.
Emma K Harper
Psychosexual Somatics® Therapist, Speaker, Teacher, Writer, Dancer, Musician.
Discover Your Sexuality, Integrity, Freedom @ www.emmakharper.com
"The wound is the place where the light enters you". Rumi