Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and domestic abuse in a way that may be distressing to some readers.
My ex-boyfriend was a dream. He’d met my family, been my plus-one for my brother’s wedding, charmed my dad, asked me to move in with him, bought me flowers, and told me he loved me. I was blissfully happy, until one day we had sex and my feelings towards him changed completely. He slapped me in the face, strangled me until I choked, spat on me, and called me a slut. I felt utterly degraded, humiliated and insulted by the man I loved.
We had been together a couple of months when this pattern of sexual behaviour started. We’d fall into bed, kiss, and undress, and then the "dirty talk" would ensue. He would call me a whore and a slut, and ask if I’d been "a good girl" and kept my legs closed while he had been away. As sex progressed he’d slap me in the face, spit in my mouth, wrap his hand around my neck, and squeeze until I was gasping for air. I was so shocked and intimidated by this new aspect of our sex life that I didn’t know what to do. I’d tell him to stop, pull his hands from my neck and say that I didn’t like being treated like this, but his behaviour continued every time we had sex, no matter how much I said no. He simply said that this was what turned him on and it wasn’t a big deal.
I know what you’re thinking: If you’re not happy, just leave. Get out. I would say the same to any friend that this was happening to. It’s not until you’re in this situation yourself that you realise how hard it is to turn your back on someone you love and who you want to be with. My self-confidence had slowly diminished to the point of believing that this was how I was going to be treated forever, that I loved this man and this was the sacrifice I had to make to be with him. I resigned myself to the fact that this was our sex life but I’d dread every time we had sex. I didn’t tell friends or family as I was embarrassed about how he was treating me, and about my prudishness and dislike of this 'kink'. When you love someone it’s astonishing how your mind rationalises away any trace of doubt.
As our relationship went on, the truth about his turn-ons became evident. He would watch porn every day without fail, even when he thought I was asleep next to him. I looked at his internet history and the porn was graphic, violent and degrading to women; girls being held up by their throats in gang-bangs or emulating violent, horrific rape scenes. During our sex, he could never orgasm without finishing himself off; he would never come through intercourse, it always ended with him next to me, jerking off and making me kiss his feet or stroke his legs. He would try and force me to give him oral sex by pushing my head down and when I refused, he’d say I wasn’t kinky enough.
After months of this, I started to believe his insults: that I wasn’t kinky, I was a prude, boring, not submissive enough, and it was stupid of me to be getting so anxious about our sex life. It took our painful break-up for me to see sense. He ended things with me (over email, I want to add) after a year of dating, saying that we couldn’t work long-term. I was utterly heartbroken and I still don’t think I’m over it, which I find frustrating. But I also felt relief that I didn’t have to have sex with him ever again or be made to feel terrible for not allowing him to spit in my mouth while he called me a whore.
It is only through hindsight and confiding in family and friends that I am able to see that no fault lay with me regarding our sex life. I am a 27-year-old woman and I am allowed to say what I like and what I’m not comfortable with in bed. To have someone belittle you, degrade you, and call you a whore when you’re not okay with it is unacceptable. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for sexual liberation — whatever your kinks are, go for it and explore your sexual preferences — but not at the cost of someone else’s wellbeing, trust, and dignity.
I stayed with my ex mainly out of love. I trusted him, he made me laugh, and he always did what he said he was going to do, but my finances also played a huge part. Throughout my years of interning at magazines, I had never earned enough to keep myself — especially in my home city, where rent was expensive. When my ex asked if I wanted to live with him rent-free after just two months of dating, I jumped at the chance. I could work freelance and not worry about money. I moved in but found I still couldn’t earn enough to get by, let alone save. I knew that if we broke up I’d have to move home, as I didn’t have a deposit for a new place. This type of financial fear is the reason why many women don't leave violent, incompatible, or miserable relationships. Homelessness is a very real and terrifying prospect. I was lucky enough to know that my family would always be there for me, no matter what happened. I appreciate this beyond belief and have unwavering sympathy for those who don’t have the same. You stay for survival.
Violence during consensual sex is the unspoken reality of modern hook-ups. It came to the fore in the media with the tragic death of Grace Millane, the 21-year-old British backpacker who was travelling in New Zealand. It was widely reported that Grace died as part of a sex act 'gone wrong' when in fact this was a case of a man choking a woman to death, then disposing of her body. When the defense argued that Grace had consented to this act, there was uproar: How can someone consent to being murdered? It's an issue that has become embedded in Australia. ABS statistics indicate that 23% of Australian women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. For women, the most common perpetrator is an intimate partner. 60% of these women experience this sexual assault more than once. It's clear, more than ever, that Australia needs to protect women.
Violence during consensual sex is not exclusive to casual hook-ups, of course; it can happen with the person you trust the most and have been with for a long time. "Consent" lets men (and women) get away with treating people like this. Yes, I was in a relationship with this man and I could have tried harder to stop his behaviour. But when you’re enveloped in the nightmare it’s sometimes easier to swallow your pride and go along with it, to keep the peace and a roof over your head.
I look back on my relationship with mixed feelings. I loved this man and I wanted to spend my life with him, yet I can’t help but think I’ll feel differently once I’m emotionally healed and have regained my self-esteem. I implore my friends to stand up for themselves, to tell their boyfriends what they believe is — and is not — acceptable in a relationship. I think it’s time to practice what I preach. With help from family and friends, counselling, and doing more exercise, I’m beginning to see past this and learn from it — becoming stronger mentally and physically, and being able to stand up for myself, is my goal.
"The law is very clear on this issue — consent must be obtained (and freely given) for every sexual act," says Adina Claire, acting co-CEO of Women’s Aid. "It is absolutely not the case that when a woman consents to one sexual act, she has given her partner permission to do whatever he likes, and no man is entitled to subject his partner to physical violence."
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service.