Trigger warnings: sexual abuse, sexual coercion.
I believe sexual coercion is a form of sexual abuse and when in an intimate relationship is a form of domestic violence. It is damaging to the very core of a person’s psyche and I hope my story will help others not familiar with what sexual coercion is get an understanding of what it is, how it can happen, and how it damages. My ex-husband is a master of extremely covert abuse: he can play the long game like a CIA trained assassin stalking his target across the world. This will be a long blog post because I want you to understand how ‘covert abuse’ works too, how carefully and trickily it can be done. How it is used to groom and mould a victim. How it can allow sexual abuse to occur without the victim realising that they are being violated. The sexual aspect of my ex-husband’s abuse is one of the most difficult aspects for me to think and talk about. It often makes me dizzy or light-headed. It was one of the most effective ways he humiliated and degraded me. It was both punishment and pre-emptive strike.
While my ex and I were dating I was a virgin. I was a shy and awkward teenager and though I’d had boyfriends, I’d always been slower to get turned on than most of my peers. Making out with a random guy didn’t work for me. I had to have an emotional connection to feel sexual attraction, and even then I had to feel high levels of trust and I warmed up slowly. I don’t know exactly why I am that way and it makes things bloody difficult. The best reason I’ve found is that I’m probably a Highly Sensitive Person. The term has nothing to do with psychic powers or anything mystical, it is scientific and has to do with sensory processing and describes at least 15% of the population. When I was a teenager and in my twenties I didn’t know that what I was experiencing was normal, instead I just felt overwhelmed by the dating scene and was searching for a gentler type of interaction. So instead of doing the typical rebelling and going off the rails when I finally left high school and got hold of some freedom, I went the opposite direction and through a conservative phase thinking the rules of organised religion would provide me with the boundaries I needed to feel safe with men romantically and with humans in general. (I am pleased to say I am now finding my way back to my authentic self, which is passionately political, loves to question and learn, is a feminist, and is pro-equality/LGBTQI rights. I am also currently without a religious or clearly defined spiritual belief system. I think I believe in something, but I don’t know what and I’m ok with not knowing, to being on a journey rather than thinking I know the answers.)
Abusers are sharks who can smell blood in the water and my ex used and abused my natural anxiety about sex. His church preaches chastity before marriage and sex is something sacred between two people committed to living a spiritual life and serving humanity and God. That sounded perfect to me: instead of having to navigate the greys of real life I could step into an artificial space where things were simple and safe. But I was not safe. Before we were even dating, my ex played games with me, getting emotional and physical comfort from me then pushing me away when I became inconvenient or in danger of getting any modicum of power or confidence in our relationship (more on his games pre-dating in a future post.) He sniffed out my anxiety, he tasted my hurt and confusion about his treatment of me and used that as even more nourishment of his narcissism.
Maybe to deflect my criticisms of his behaviour, he started to voice concerns about my “hang-ups” about sex: I was over-sensitive, prudish, I probably had issues so bad I required psychological help. Yes, now I’m aware now of the immense hypocrisy of a man raised in a church preaching chastity telling me off for being hesitant about being used as his make-out buddy. Back then I was just aghast that I seemed to be so deficient and damaged to him. He implied there was something abnormal about my anxieties, and when he decided to actually, though secretly, start dating me he decided he had to try me out beforehand to make sure I wasn’t too emotionally damaged to be a proper wife and be able to provide him with a proper marital sex life. He had dangled himself as a romantic partner in front of me for so long that when I finally “caught” him, I felt I needed to prove I was good enough to be held onto. I was terrified he’d change his mind about me again. So I let him try me out. I tried to set some boundaries but they were pushed past. I would set new ones he would agree to them then push past those too. We never had sex but we did a lot. He told me all other couples in the church did the same, they just didn’t admit it. That was true to a certain extent: after marriage and being able to talk to married friends I learned that complete chastity by horny 20-somethings is near impossible, but he relied on me being new to the church and too ashamed to ask around properly before we were married. Plus we were dating in secret so I couldn’t ask even if I wanted to.
I proved myself compliant enough and able to be manipulated and moulded to his tastes, so we got engaged. As the wedding grew closer I felt an impending sense of panic and fear I couldn’t understand: something inside me was telling me it wasn’t safe, that I wasn’t safe. On my wedding day I had to take a break to fight back tears and panic in the toilet because I was so scared of the wedding night, of displeasing him, of not being un-broken enough.
Although he was initially superficially loving, sex was on his terms, when he wanted it, how he wanted it. I started getting sick early on in our marriage with stress-exacerbated chronic illnesses and he became distant and angry rather than sympathetic and caring. I found out years later during couples’ therapy that he had thought I’d been faking my illness so I could stay at home and spend his money, that I had actually been planning that while we were dating and now that we were married I could kick back and cash in. I didn’t know that at the time. I just felt his quiet rage growing, his distaste in me deepening, and even though I begged he wouldn’t even acknowledge something was wrong let alone tell me of his concerns. I found having sex with him unbearable. I began to cry afterwards, not understanding why I felt so violated and so empty. Instead of comforting me he was usually offended. He told me how difficult it was to be with someone who cried after sex. If he thought I was faking my illnesses I wonder why he still wanted to be intimate with someone he believed was duping him and I can only think that sex was a way to control, punish, and degrade me.
As things got worse he suggested counselling and we saw a sex therapist. She gave us a program to follow that had a very high success rate of helping couples to connect by helping women learn or re-learn to allow themselves to feel pleasure. I don’t think he thought the program would centre around me and my needs so he completely torpedoed it, stopping it from happening despite how much distress he knew I was in. Eventually I just gave up and did what he wanted, how he wanted it, and I pretended I enjoyed sex while growing emptier and more shut off inside.
He went through periods of not wanting to kiss me except while having sex. During these periods he also withdrew other types of physical attention and affection, so sex was the only place I could get any affection or semblance of kindness. Even if I ended up crying and begging to be hugged he would usually sigh with annoyance and say he was too tired. If I managed to get him to hold me he would lie stiffly next to me patting my back in an impersonal way, demonstrating his annoyance through body language. If I pointed this out he would make it seem like I was being demanding or oversensitive.
Here’s where the deepest shame comes from: when they make you complicit in your own abuse. I started to initiate sex even though I didn’t want it, just to make him happy and feel any kind of connection to him. It was like being outside myself, performing a chore or a penance to make things ok. I imagine that when he wasn’t looking and I didn’t have to talk how he wanted, move or make sounds like he wanted, my face looked like a stereotypical prostitute you’d see depicted on TV in a sleazy motel room; dead, vacant, leaving her body to emotionally survive. That phase didn’t last. As my illnesses got worse and my stress escalated further my vaginal walls literally started shutting down and closing in and sex became more physically painful and I finally had to resist him. He would be outraged when I rebuked him but also would not listen to my pleas for just kissing or hugs instead. I felt rejected and broken.
He had created a self-fulfilling prophesy. He had elevated my anxieties so much when we were dating, made intimacy during marriage something to fear, and I indeed became broken, unable to provide him with the sex life he wanted.
The damage from this has been immeasurable. I feel unsafe around any men my own age, I find it difficult to even be in my own body, feeling responsible for the violation that happened because I didn’t stop him and in fact actively participated. I have gynaecological problems related to trauma that only a women’s physiotherapist with speciality training can help me with. Touch in any form can be unbearable. I can’t imagine a scenario where I can trust my body to someone again without serious psychological therapy.
He never held me down and forced himself into me while I screamed or told him to stop. He was never violent, never leaving me with bruises or physical scars. But I know without a doubt I was sexually violated. He started early on. He was careful. He played games, he used my fear of losing him to make me stop listening to my intuition. He withheld non-sexual physical contact to ensure I was punished when I misbehaved, and as both a carrot and a stick to train me to know what he wanted. I was sexually abused. I experienced domestic violence. You may not be convinced, you may say I should have just told him to stop. Maybe I should have stood up for myself. But that’s not how grooming or abuse works. I will say this again and again: if they treated us like shit on the first date we would never come back for a second. They start slow and they manipulate and lie and twist and redirect so that by the end you don’t even know what to say no to.