About twenty minutes ago I was having coffee (read: hot chocolate) with one of my oldest friends. We went to primary school together, we were tap dancing partners when older (oh yes!), and as such he knows me pretty well. No stranger, then, to the Malta story – in fact one of my earliest confidantes – but having just returning from a year abroad, my blog was news to him. As we discussed it, a disparity emerged between us. “Don’t do that”, he said abruptly, taking me by surprise. “Don’t use that word.”
The offending word, it turned out, was slut. “Your behaviour…it wasn’t really chosen. You weren’t in control. Don’t be derogatory about yourself.” Now, apart from the fact that I was reminded just why I adore this man so much, I had to disagree. For the moment, let’s leave to one side the reality of the word ‘slut’ being fairly sexist, and that as endless wannabe feminist popstars have pronounced, it’s unfair that women get slapped with that label whilst men are just LADS. What I want to focus on is this idea of choice, of control.
This blog began with an article in a student newspaper, in the last edition of my time at uni. I wanted to write it because I cared about taboos of rape being torn down, and because after what in retrospect seems like a degree spent getting my head straight, the article felt like a suitable full stop at the end of a very long sentence. For these reasons, getting that article out there was terrifically important to me. However, I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t another reason. Durham is a small place. Stories spread, reputations get made, and they stick. In first year I pretty fairly earned the label College Slut, and it stayed with me throughout uni – which was unbelievably frustrating to me by third year after all my work at becoming a reasonably controlled person. There is no denying that part of my reason for writing that article – which I knew would be distributed around every college and library – was because I wanted to shift some of the blame. See? It wasn’t my fault! Something terrible happened to me. You can’t judge me! Can’t you see that at heart I am a picture of innocence, an angelic victim? In my mind, a fantasy unfolded where people who previously held certain opinions about me suddenly felt struck down with guilt, and embraced me as they realised the errors of their judgemental ways.
Let’s get real. Whilst, yes, my head was a bit all over the place during those dark two years, I was the one doing all those things (read: men). I made those unwise choices, and yes, they were choices. I could have been stronger in turning away from the booze and the men, and I wasn’t. I don’t mean this in a way that suggests I’m beating myself up – I think I dealt with it as well as I was personally able to. But I did make those choices, and I bear responsibility for them.
As a result of friendships, and of this blog, I know the stories of a number of women who have been affected by sexual abuse. They have all reacted in different ways. I was strong to the extent that I managed to function in a day-in, day-out capacity, but failed utterly in the areas of self-respect and self-control. Others fell to pieces and lost their confidence with the outside world, but kept their inner sanity. Still more amazed me by their strength in dealing with rapes in methodical ways, only slightly adjusting their routines yet failing to properly address the effect it had had on them emotionally. All of these women are different people, with different emotional backgrounds and levels of psychological preparedness. No one is better or worse at addressing rape; someone who displays calm on the surface is often repressing huge amounts underneath, whilst one crazy for a while might adjust sooner.
When I think about my behaviour a few years ago, it is comforting to be able to blame it on Malta. But I also have to acknowledge that it was me, and my body, that participated in those acts. That period demonstrates to vivid effect the weakest, the worst, aspects of me. I have very little self-control, and in times of insecurity, as much as I like to think of myself as an independent woman, I prefer to relinquish it. Every single one of my sexual misadventures happened when I was utterly incapacitated by alcohol. The fact that I knew what drinking was likely to lead to, and that I still drank, shows that I was willing to allow someone else to take the reins for a while.
It still shows itself today. For a whole host of reasons, whilst I have always been confident about the, erm, ‘warm up’ acts of sex, sex itself still leaves me nervous. Obviously, I had a horrific introduction to it. Then, for years, I only knew sex as something that was always accompanied by pain. In addition, the confidence and comfort that comes from sexual exploration with a regular partner is something that I have never really had time to build. As a result, and in contrast to my university persona as some wild sexual animal, I’m actually pretty timid in the sack. In the build up, I’m a happy bunny, let the good times roll. But put me flat on my back and I’m suddenly very passive, very insecure. More than one partner has been taken utterly by surprise by this fact.
So yes, I am strong to the extent that I am now in a place where I am talking publicly about my experiences. But I’m weak in that I don’t have much self-control. Again, whilst I now like to think that I’ve made huge progress in addressing my rape (‘dealing with it’ somehow suggests that at some point it will have been ‘dealt with’) and my sexual misadventures happen far, far less often, they do still happen. The last time I felt utterly out of my depth, about a year ago, I relinquished control yet again and my old behaviour resurfaced, courtesy of some willing freshers. Whilst it is tempting to heark back to Malta to explain it, I think that takes the easy way out. To misquote J.K. Rowling from that fabulous commencement speech (if you haven’t yet watched it, please do), there is an expiration date on blaming past experiences for your current situations. I have to accept that the biggest weakness of my personality is a lack of self-control. Yet again, I’m left with the conclusion that the rape – or rather, the aftermath of it – taught me something really valuable about myself.
This does, however, put me in a sticky situation. I did, as we know, cheat spectacularly on my beloved Australian boy. I ruined a relationship that I cherished, and much worse, hurt a man that I adored an indescribable amount. I never want to do that to somebody else. And part of me worries that perhaps that person – that horrible person who hurt someone so greatly – was not a monster borne from a horrific experience, but a part of me all along. That’s why I was so delighted that the next relationship I had – a whopping three years after I had first done my cheating – was slow and steady. It was a gentle relationship that we eased into, as if we were children gradually inching our way into the cold waters of the sea. I was dipping my feet into the world of commitment, testing myself. Thankfully, I behaved myself, and indeed never came close to doing anything untoward. And whilst that lovely relationship did not last (and indeed led to the most charming, friendly break-up I’ve ever had), it gave me the confidence to think that I might be able to start trusting myself again.
Just so long as the next relationship also gives me time to break the shoreline.