Throughout our relationship, my ex-boyfriend raped me.
Without going into unnecessary detail, over time, he decided that he liked fucking me more than he respected my consent. As embarrassing as I find it to say in hindsight, I eventually reasoned that if I didn't say no, then he'd technically have consent and I'd no longer have to deal with the uncomfortable truth that my boyfriend was, essentially, raping me.
The word "essentially" is vital here because, for a long time, I couldn't use the word rape in isolation to describe what was happening without an adverb to lessen the crime: essentially, basically, kind of, almost. I exhausted all of them until I believed my own bullshit. I knew the definition of rape, of course I did, I just tried to convince myself that I didn't. And it was easier than you'd think.
Every time my boyfriend raped me, apart from a sense of shock, nothing really felt different, physically, to regular sex. Consent or no consent, getting fucked by your boyfriend just feels like, well, getting fucked by your boyfriend. And therein lies the murky waters surrounding the R word. That's the sadness. Yes, I said no. Yes, he ignored me. Repeatedly. But while it was psychologically uncomfortable, it was never violent. It was nothing like you "expect" rape to be. I wasn't left with bruises, I was left holding my rapist in my arms afterwards as he cried.
When you're in love with rapist, the thought of reporting them will begin to enter your mind. But for me, the thoughts didn't linger very long. This man had betrayed my trust in a way that was previously unimaginable to me, but his remorse seemed so genuine. He promised me that he'd never do it again, and I believed him. And, in my warped state of mind, I focused on all the other great things about our relationship. Until the next time. He promised me then, too, of course, that he would change. And I believed him all over again.
I never went to the police and, for a long time, didn't tell anyone – although that's changed now. I just forgave him through blind faith and desperate hope. Yes, he'd hurt me, but I still cared for him deeply and simply – nauseatingly – didn't want him to get in trouble. He could lose his job. I told myself I could ruin his whole life. He'd chosen to commit the crime but, deep down, I still felt that if he was punished it would be my fault. His displays of remorse always managed to dam my desire to get him into trouble.
I loved him.
My own confusion about what constituted "real" rape turned out to be a reflection of a much wider issue, too. Society has its own, deep-rooted conundrum with consent. One study of university students in America revealed that 31.7 percent of the men surveyed said that they would act on "intentions to force a woman into sexual intercourse", yet only 13.6 percent said they had "intentions to rape a woman".
The disparity between the results was unsettling. It raised the question of whether we can really hold a prospective rapist accountable if they're genuinely unaware that what they do – or would do – is classed as rape. Many men who took part in this study acknowledged that they'd allow themselves to put force on a woman, but for the 18.1 percent who would force themselves upon but "definitely not rape" someone, what are we really talking about? Delusion? A genuine lack of knowledge? The result of no adequate education about consent?
Are there vast swathes of men around the globe who view rape as nothing but questionable sexual etiquette at worst?
Our dated notions of who and what a rapist are, I think, leaving the guy-next-door rapists, the loving boyfriends, the doting husbands, oblivious to their own wrongdoing. They're cushioned by an "us-and-them" mentality that, despite all the statistics about rape so rarely happening in dark alleyways with strangers, prevails. This cognitive dissonance isn't limited to the culprits, either. It's with the victims, too.
When I began writing this article, I contacted various people to ask for opinions, feedback and ideas, but what I found instead were mirrors of my own experiences. I came across other girls who described what happened to me better than I could myself. Kate was 16 when her 21-year-old boyfriend abused her. "You sit and watch these news stories and TV shows about abusive partners and you tell yourself you'd never stay in a relationship like that, you'd leave them, but then when it happens to you, everything is different," she told me. "You make excuses. You tell yourself it doesn't count or kid yourself that it's not happening at all, out of disbelief and fear, but also, sickeningly, out of love."
For many victims, it's easier to think of your experience as some sort of "rape lite" than to deal with the mess that is being in love with your rapist. It's easier to invalidate your own experience than to accept it.
As sentient human beings, both Kate and I have incredibly strong views on rape. But when it became a part of our lives, we ran from it in terror. We buried it in doubt and covered it up with love and we weren't alone in doing so. A s urvey conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed that while 17 percent of the female undergraduates had been sexually assaulted by definition (phrased as "unwanted sexual behaviours"), only 11 percent said "yes" when asked directly if they had been assaulted or raped. Whether this separation of the action and definition of rape is caused by our cultural uncertainty or the victim simply wishing it away, the most important part is that it's happening. And it's not being recognised for what it is by anyone involved. At least, not immediately.
Again, we so often think of rape as something aggressive, painful and cast in street darkness. We think of strangers. Hands over mouths. Weapons. But 90 percent of rapes that happen in Britain are committed by known men. At the time, for many women – myself included – the act is shrouded in discomfort, but not battery or overt violence. No adverb can reduce what rape is, though. Our perceptions what forced, consent-less sexual intercourse are still locked in this scary "other" area, but the reality for many is that rape happens within otherwise loving and fulfilling relationships. It becomes the silent but ever-expanding elephant in the room. You both know what's going on but, despite some remorse that might occur at the time, you know that, once you open that conversation door, you're fucked.
For many victims, it's easier to think of your experience as some sort of "rape lite" than to deal with the mess that is being in love with your rapist. It's easier to invalidate your own experience than to accept it. Of course, this brings another cloak of shame. Admitting that I stayed with my rapist is still painful for me. It's even harder to accept that I can't hate him for what he's done, and that I still had a great time with him besides the whole fucking-me-when-I-said-no thing.
It's hard to open up about something you didn't – in my case – know how to classify two months ago. It feels almost incomprehensible to even attach the word rape to someone you love. Like you're betraying them. Who talks about that? The heavy guilt that comes with calling your ex-lover an offender? Where are the conversations happening that help women make sense of those feelings?
It was only in reaching out to other victims that I realised I wasn't alone in experiencing this moral duality. Surely we need some kind of specific support network that accepts that women will both need to grieve for the loss of their partner as well as deal with how the sexual assault has affected them?
I knew the definition of rape, of course I did, I just tried to convince myself that I didn't. And it was easier than you'd think.
Despite his unwillingness to talk about what happened, I knew my rapist acknowledged what he had done, and to me, that makes it worse. He knew he was hurting me, and he carried on doing it anyway, until I stopped saying no. Whether he'll go on to do it to other women, I honestly don't know. I never went to the police or reported him to anyone. Why? Because I couldn't bring myself to. I didn't want to re-live it all again, to re-visit the confusing emotions I had for my ex-boyfriend that I'd begun processing myself and that still, frankly, made me feel ashamed. As for the responsibility that comes with "protecting" any woman he's with in the future and may hurt in the same way, again, I don't know. I realise on some level that I should do something, but shouldn't the autonomy remain with me? At what stage do I stop protecting my own recovery?
If rape in relationships is an international epidemic, the disease is the person you go to bed with. For a long time, I thought it was something I'd just have to put up with. I was wrong. The antidote was honest, unapologetic conversation.
Confronting my ex-boyfriend in broad daylight and talking about what happened forced me to see my ordeal for what it was. And his unwillingness to talk about what happened enabled me to leave. And to any other woman who has slept beside their rapist night after night, trying to make sense of what's happened and the love you still for them in your heart, "talk" is the word I'd throw at them again and again. Realise you owe yourself far more than silence, and talk. Don't let them escape your voice. If you have the strength to, report them. Give it everything you've got.
Rape has no caveats. Rape cannot be eclipsed by love or a sense of duty. I realise that now. My rapist knew what he had done and, deep down, on some level, I think they all do. That's what makes it so pernicious and is precisely why conversations about consent should be part of young people's everyday lives – in compulsory PSE curriculums at school, on television, across the internet. If they're not, I'm not sure how we can ever expect anything to change.
For information on how to report a rape, Rape Crisis offer extensive advice and can be contacted on 0808 802 9999.
More from VICE: