It’s only abuse “if”… (TW for – well, you can guess)

Generally, I like to use this blog for fun fluffy sex-positivity, anecdotes about my sex life and all the random lessons I’ve picked up on the way. When I started, I decided that I didn’t really want to do ‘serious feminism’ much, because there are so many amazing feminist bloggers out there who cover every field, from politics to entertainment, and I really don’t think my voice would add anything to do that. I’ve learnt so much from these bloggers, and I continue to learn more every day, but that doesn’t mean I have to add to the discourse. So I stick to stories about negotiating consent and trying out new kinks instead.

But I started this for a reason, and that reason is in one of the first posts I ever wrote: Three Reasons Why I’m a Feminist Today. After struggling with ‘well it was all just a misunderstanding’ and ‘I don’t think he knew he was doing anything wrong’ for the two years since Tereus and I parted ways, I finally got sick of ambiguities fucking with me head, and I wrote it down. I wrote that essay with no intention of publishing it anywhere, just to try to get it straight in my mind. And through writing it, I learnt one in very important thing: I had been in an abusive relationship.

Looking back, that seems pretty damn obvious. I mean, this is a guy who raped me, then twisted my wrist backwards during an argument. And when I spelt it out in those terms, suddenly I couldn’t fail to see that. But the truth is, up until that moment I was still thinking of it as a relationship that had gone wrong and was partly my fault. The shocked reactions I got when I tentatively mentioned some of the less pleasant aspects caused me to stop and rethink, and once I did that, I started to realise how it wasn’t just the sexual assault and the violence – after all, that just happened once. I say ‘just’ not as an excuse – one time is significantly one too many – but to make it clear that the abusive aspects of the relationship were ongoing, and not centred around those two specific incidents.

Now, if I want to get across what sort of guy this was, that’s the story that I tell, as it makes the point pretty succinctly. But when I think back, that’s not what haunts me most about the whole thing. There were a  myriad of tiny, imperceptible ways that Tereus made my life hell for a year, and if it had never come to violence, those were still collectively enough to cause damage. It’s difficult to explain quite what it felt like, especially since at the time I wasn’t capable of seeing it for myself, but here are a few of the things that I now know to watch out for:

* He refused to acknowledge that we were ever anything more than ‘friends’. I have since been in actual stable healthy friends-with-benefits and fuck-buddies scenarios, and the thing that has worked for all of them is being able to actually talk about the relationship status, and what we both are and aren’t comfortable with. And lets be clear, friends who sleep together are always more than friends, in that there is sex involved, which is pretty different than the majority of friendships. Again, this is not to say that friends-with-benefits doesn’t work – it can work very nicely. Just that if there’s a situation where one partner makes the other terrified of even suggesting that there might be something other than ordinary friendship going on, despite the fact that sex is happening at least once a week, that is a definite warning sign. And that is exactly what Tereus would do to me, acting very sweet and romantic one moment, then telling me how we were just friends and I really shouldn’t get the wrong idea a second later. (He used to sometimes ask me to ‘pretend’ we were making love during sex, which confused the hell out of me. Surely either we were or we weren’t, right?) It kept me on edge, and made me doubt my own intuitions, until I was so confused I just let him dictate the terms of everything, because that way at least I couldn’t get it wrong.

* He constantly told me about all the other girls he was sleeping with, including his on-and-off girlfriend who he was sometimes cheating on with me. In detail. And when I say detail, I mean both explicit sexual detail about what they did and didn’t do and what they looked like, and also emotional detail about how they felt about him. I knew personal details about the life of his girlfriend that I knew she would want to keep private, as well as more than I would ever have wanted to know about other people’s sex lives. And what’s more, I was fully aware that he was telling them similar things about me. But if I asked not to hear about it, he accused me of being jealous, and if I asked him not to talk about me, he accused me of being paranoid. So I shut up about it.

* Sex always had to be entirely on his terms. I’m not talking about that one occasion where he handcuffed me and pressured/forced me into anal sex, but in general, we had sex when he wanted to. I generally really wanted it before bed, but he wanted to sleep. So we slept. He would then wake me up with sex before I was really awake or turned on, and if I objected or wanted more foreplay, he’d lose interest immediately and tell me I was no fun. I remember romantic weekends that I’d planned, only for him to tell me he’d been having too much sex with other girls that week so wasn’t interested. I also remember feeling awkward about doing it while my parents were still awake in the next room, and being told to stop being so stupid. So I did.

* He never seemed particularly concerned that I wasn’t able to orgasm with him. Now, not being able to orgasm with a partner is not in itself a warning sign. I have resigned myself to the fact that I am hugely unlikely to orgasm with someone until the third of fourth time we sleep together, and maybe not even then. And that’s okay – as I’ve said many times before, I can have a really great time without coming. But the fact that Tereus never seemed to care or try anything new in the year that we were sleeping together, well, that’s not a great sign. It sometimes felt like he liked the fact that I couldn’t come, because it saved him having to make any effort. But he was the first guy I’d slept with, and I thought the sex was great, so I convinced myself that I probably just wasn’t able to, and left it at that.

* He was always telling me how stupid I was, about everything. The fact that I didn’t know how motors worked, that I had difficulty opening cereal packets, that I couldn’t play video games – everything. He couldn’t drive, so I would drive us places, and one time I hit a chicane. Though as I said, Tereus didn’t drive, he shouted at me for being so stupid and ‘crashing the car’, then laughed at me when I started crying. The next day, he changed the tyre for me, again laughing at my incompetence, since I had no idea how to do it myself. (He did a terrible job, and I had to call the RAC out to fix it, but I still felt incompetent.) Everything that I could do, especially my academic achievements, was dismissed as useless. And after a while, I really did start to believe that getting good grades at school and getting into a top university really wasn’t that much of an achievement, compared to understanding how a radio worked.

* I was in my final year at school, he was on his gap year, unemployed. And yet it was always me going to see him, driving right across London and back every weekend. Now in fairness, I had a car, but it took just as long to drive as it took on public transport – I know, I   used to go on the tube when my parents needed the car. And little things, like never offering to share the petrol costs when we went places, and expecting me to pay for him if we went out because ‘your parents give you money’, well, they’re not all that important, but they add up. But I had a much better relationship with my parents than he did with his, so I went with it so as not to cause trouble.

* He wouldn’t use condoms with me. This is probably the worst one, and it’s the reason I am so obsessive about condom use now. Tereus made it very clear to me early on that ‘liberated’ and ‘mature’ girls went on the pill, and that requiring condoms was somehow childish. The first type of pill I went on made me physical ill, and the second made my anxiety attacks ten times worse. (In my experience since then, all hormonal birth control increases the severity of my anxiety, but over the years I’ve learned how to minimise it, and which ones are best. Back then, I had no idea what to do, and figured that spending three days straight in tears every few weeks was just the price you paid for not getting pregnant.) Whenever I mentioned this to him, he told me to stop being such a baby about it, all the other girls he was screwing handled it fine. And as for the fact that he didn’t use condoms with them either, so was putting us all at risk of STIs? The few times I brought this up, the result was a furious rant about how I didn’t trust him or his other girls, and how this made me a terrible person. And, as with everything else, my response was to shut up and pretend it was all okay.

If you add all those together, then what you get is a relationship that is not just incredibly unhealthy, but emotionally abusive. What I’ve noticed in hindsight is how often I was told that my opinion was wrong or didn’t matter, and silenced as a result. And what scares me is that I was incapable of seeing any of this at the time. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the violence, I might never have realised that Tereus was not just an immature nineteen-year-old boy who was insensitive and inconsiderate. He was (and probably still is) manipulative, cruel, selfish, and abusive. Even if it wasn’t deliberate, that doesn’t excuse it.

Hindsight is 20/20, they say, and it’s true. Knowing the warning signs isn’t enough to see them when they crop up again in a different relationship, and nor are these by any means the only ones. But the more I think about it, the more I am able to come up with a list of things I will never again put up with, and that’s an improvement. I hope that the other girls he’s dated since and will date in the future are a lot more assertive than I was. I don’t want them to have to learn the hard way.