When is ‘consent’ not consent?
Eighteen months ago, I left a relationship characterised by emotional abuse, manipulation and lies. I have been struggling to come to terms with my experiences of rape and abuse because some of them fall into the category of 'consent by deception;' something of a grey area legally, if not morally. As well as the discovery that my relationship was a fraud, I'm left with feelings of guilt and shame and the belief that if I hadn't been so stupid and gullible, it would never have happened. I feel trapped in a horrible double bind - knowing I've been raped and abused and struggling to make sense of my experiences within a culture of victim blaming and representations of "real" rape versus...what? Unreal rape? This is my story.
A few years ago, back in the early days of social media, I was contacted out of the blue by an ex-partner. Our relationship had ended badly ten years previously - I'd moved towns to get away from him. What had started out as a loving relationship had been slowly destroyed by my partner's drug abuse and lies. I realised that the only way I could get the life I wanted was without him. I was mentally and physically ill, financially ruined and emotionally shattered but with the help of friends, I got away and started a new life. In time, things got better. I got married, had children and rebuilt my career.
Ten years later, my ex got in touch. He was sorry for everything he'd done to me. He'd been through hell with addiction, he'd had treatment and part of that was wanting to apologise to people he'd hurt along the way. I was one of those people. Several months of positive conversation passed between us. I then split from my husband as we had both found the pressures of family life with little money too great. My new / old friend was incredibly supportive and caring during this time and really went out of his way to be there for me.
Eventually, he asked if I wanted to meet up. I hesitated. The past is the past, right? But it didn't feel as though the past had come calling. This wasn't the drug-addled stranger-to-truth I'd left behind, it was the beautiful, funny, sensitive person with a kind heart. I found his honesty refreshing. He knew he was flawed, but he was trying.
We met up and before long, I was in another relationship. It was fun and exciting and as the permanently exhausted mother of young children, I enjoyed being seen as a woman again, rather than as a parent. It wasn't easy as we lived in different towns, but we made it happen.
Obviously, like all fairy tales it was far too good to be true. He wasn't drug free, after all. Relapse after relapse followed. He said he wanted to stay away from all that, but he couldn't. He asked if I could help him. I was emotionally committed and began running myself ragged, trying to live my regular life and be with him as well. Given the circumstances, our relationship was necessarily part time, but it was an exclusive and committed relationship and he loved me. Or so he said. The one thing I got right was not introducing my children to this man. The prospect of my children potentially being around drugs was a complete no-no. I now deeply regret not extending this kind of care and consideration to myself.
I gradually began to discover that very few things about him were as presented. He would lie about anything and everything, so long as it painted him in a positive light. Again, I blamed a lot on his drug use and stuck by him, problem after problem, one drama after the next. Strange as it sounds now, the one thing I never considered was getting out of the relationship. My focus was on how to make it work, rather than how to get out and keep myself safe.
The relationship continued until his lies slowly began to unravel. He stole a considerable amount of money from a friend (who he was also sleeping with) and this led to the discovery that he had an entire 'other life' going on in the background. He'd had at least six other secret 'girlfriends' at various times whilst we were together, along with a great many casual sexual encounters. He hadn't practiced safe sex with any of these people, putting me at tremendous risk. I reluctantly ended the relationship and began to move forwards in my life.
Last year, I started having counselling and in this environment, gradually began to uncover the extent of the abuse. I came to realise he was more than your common or garden dirtbag. I cast my mind back to one particular occasion when he'd had sex with me whilst I was unconscious after a night out. At the time, he told me I'd been "a bit drunk" but that I'd initiated sex; something that didn't entirely ring true but as I had no memory of the night before and at the time, no reason to disbelieve him, I let it go. I now believe I was drugged and raped.
I soon began to feel confused about other events. For example, during sex (sex I'd consented to, or so I thought), my partner had done things I didn't want him to do and when asked to stop, he'd carried on. When I challenged him, he told me I'd enjoyed those things previously and he wanted to give me a good time. I wasn't sure whether that was sexual bad manners or something else. I now know that I was raped.
The more I thought about it, the more reasons I found to feel uneasy. I remembered the number of times he'd taken what he obviously believed to be his by right. Quite often he would 'surprise' me with sexual advances, including in public, before taking me somewhere private. It was as though he'd taken consent in one moment to imply consent in perpetuity, as if my consent was transferable and he could bank it for later.
I think what upsets and disgusts me the most is that I now feel as though very few of my sexual experiences with this man were truly consensual. Legally speaking, perhaps they were, at least in some cases. However, that consent was obtained thanks to manipulation and lies. If I'd known about his sexual incontinence and the extent of his drug use for example, I wouldn't have been with him. He deliberately withheld that information in order to continue enjoying the benefits of our relationship. I'm not accusing this man of rape on the basis that he was cheating, I'm saying that in the context of a number of encounters that were clearly and unambiguously rape, even the 'consensual' sex develops a decidedly sleazy overtone.
I'm slowly getting my life back together. I've been left feeling tainted and violated, yet I also feel incredibly foolish and probably inappropriately, I blame myself. I'm know I'm guilty of being a poor judge of character, but sometimes it feels as though I'm responsible for more. My counsellor believes I'm feeling guilt and shame that isn't mine as it rightly belongs to my abuser. I look forward to the day I'm able to fully believe that and hand those feelings back to him. Thank you for reading.
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