Toxic masculinity and rape culture (content note for rape)
(republished with permission from Shhh... verboten)
I am a writer and a mother of two girl children. I am also a dancer and currently working on an idea for a performance art piece around rape culture, objectification of women and the ways in which patriarchy slaps unhealthy values and norms upon ‘femininity’ and female sexuality. Hot potato at the moment in the light of Trump’s latest abhorrences. There has been much written about this all over the media and for a variety of reasons, I have, all sponge like, absorbed it…become slightly obsessed.
In the midst of poring over different takes on Trump’s vile ‘locker-room’ chit chat and the general disgust and dangerous nature of his comments, I saw an interesting little meme that made me realise something, about both of my experiences with rape (yes, I, like so many women in the UK and across the globe have been raped). It is hard to write that word down, because it has taken me so long to fully accept that ‘rape’ is what it was. The term ‘non-consensual sex’ carrying with it, too many connotations of victim culpability as well as just being an oxymoron.
I think part of the guilt I have carried all of these years (the more recent experience happening just last year), has been to do with my inbility to say ‘no’ (with my voice) and fight (physically). I am an athletic and strong woman and as many people who know me personally will attest, I am not shy of telling it as it is in a whole host of scenarios. But seemingly, feeling threatened by a sexually aggressive man has, at these points, rendered me incapable.
So… was it rape, if I didn’t fight, if I didn’t say, ‘I don’t want to do this?’ Or was it just me being a bit ‘wet’ and not asserting myself? How should consent have been sought? How should it be given? How much rope should someone be given in regards failing to interpret a lack of consent?
The meme I saw said “it’s not consent if you make me too scared to say no”. I burst into tears because I knew that this had been at the root of my issue in regards to my victim guilt, in both scenarios.
The first scenario occurred when I was 19, with a man I met in a club. I had explained, early on in the evening, after we started kissing that I was having a loose relationship with someone else at the time and much as I knew that the guy I was seeing was sleeping with other people, I didn’t want to. I remember him intoning that we were just having a bit of fun and it was ‘all cool baby’. I had gone there with a friend. We were living together in a flat in a small town in Herefordshire. I had moved there specifically for a job, doing care work and she had come all the way from Zimbabwe. There was nothing to do in this isolated and slightly culturally devoid village for two young ladies, so we had decided to go to The Q club in Birmingham for the night. We met these two guys quite early on, they were cute. And more interesting than anyone else we had met in Bromsgrove. They sold us some pills (ecstacy). We took them. I was wearing hot pants, massively high heels and a tiny top and as many people who know me know, when I dance, it can be quite sexually provocative. I mention this, because these were all the thoughts running through my head post. They offered to give us a lift back and although we had initially intended to stay till closing and then get the train back in the morning, we decided that this was a better idea, in our drug addled state. When we got back to the flat, my friend went straight to her bedroom with his friend. Me and the guy I was ‘with’ started kissing and I told him, again, that I was sort of seeing someone and didn’t want it to be a sex thing. He said it was ‘cool baby, let’s just chill’ but then almost within seconds he had pushed me onto the sofa and aggressively pulled my hotpants and knickers aside and my body just went completely catatonic and stiff. I knew immediately that he was going to rape me and tried to make my legs taut, so he couldn’t penetrate me but the violence with which he opened them made me entirely submit. I literally let him do it. I was terrified and just bought my mind somewhere else. I remember crying throughout and him telling me to relax, that I might enjoy it. Once he had finished I got up and ran into the bathroom and locked the door. He tried to get in for an hour or so and then him and his friend left.
The scenario last year was to be honest, not entirely different. 20 years apart, almost to the month but almost a blueprint in my mind. That was a date, set up. We had been talking online for a month or so and we had arranged for me to go and stay for a few days in his hometown. I had not slept with anyone since me and my ex had very messily and traumatically split up and only 4 month prior I was on the brink of a suicide attempt. Didn’t go through with it, but had the pills in my mouth. So really, I was far too vulnerable to be engaging in anything along these lines. I was aware of this as I had ducked out of another scenario a few months earlier with a man who actually has turned out to be a good friend and is about as gentle and kind as you can get. But I was drawn in by this man’s ability to (seemingly) understand my situation and the very ‘caring’ and insightful things he said to me about how I was feeling, and practical ways to cope, as he was into mindfullness and meditation. He made me feel understood and there was a semblance of trust there because I had known him years before when he lived in the city I still live in.
I stayed in a hotel, so I wouldn’t have to stay with him (my choice). He agreed. I had attempted to cancel at the last minute because it looked like perhaps me and my ex were going to get back together (which at the time I really wanted but as it turned out wasn’t the case), but he, Mr Sexual Predator, suggested I come anyway and we just meet as friends. No pressure like. I agreed but stated I wanted to have the first night there on my own, to have some headspace. Again, he agreed. But then whilst I was on the train he suggested meeting me at the station and driving me to my hotel. When we met he said we should ‘just go for dinner’ and then it was ‘just a few drinks’ and then he ‘just wanted to talk’ in my hotel room. Each suggestion he made, left little room for my opinion and even little details about food choice etc, were controlled by him throughout the evening. I felt a little intimidated by him but wasn’t sure if that was just the scenario and my head state and in so many ways he seemed nice, interested and interesting and I just couldn’t make my mind up if I was attracted to him or not. We hadn’t seen each other for over 10 years. But I thought, we would have one more drink in my room and then he’d go and I could decide.
I still find it hard to use the word rape. Because I didn’t say no or cry (in front of him) or fight. But he left little room for my consent, as if by him having gained access to that point in the evening that was consent enough. The bruises he left on my arms and thighs from throwing me on to the bed and holding me there told me that I indeed would have struggled to have escaped physically if he was unwilling to listen to my voice. His calling me a ‘dirty fucking sexy bitch’ (in that kinda dirty talk way) and the aggressive look on his face as he tried over and over again to force his limp cock inside of me, for the main part failing, says to me now that he wasn’t interested in me, who I was or what I wanted. He was just seeking a high octane thrill. This was pure fantasy for him. My fear possibly added to it. But much as I didn’t say no, attempt to physically extract myself, he MUST have known my consent was not being given. Even if he wasn’t being purposefully intimidating(which at that point I just couldn’t tell one way or another) then he must’ve known that I was intimidated. I was catatonic but he was holding me down anyway.
He slept in the same bed as me in the hotel room that night but I couldn’t sleep. I felt absolutely fucked and hideously emotionally wrung out, to the point of almost tripping. Had talked myself round to it being entirely my fault. Have no idea if I will publish this but I wonder, if I did…what percentage of people reading this would think it was my fault too? Maybe this is the standard guilt that ALL victims of sexual assault and rape feel. If only I’d done this, hadn’t worn that. Hadn’t been so sexually flirtatious in our online discussions. Hadn’t agreed to go to his fucking hometown, miles away from my own, away from anyone I knew. Perhaps I was asking for it? Perhaps it was unfair of me to expect him to be able to control himself when maybe all he saw was a red light? Was I giving a red light? Except I hadn’t asked to be raped. I hadn’t asked for him to use his physical strength and the knowledge (I had given him) of my emotionally vulnerable state, against me, so he could try and feel like a man in the light of his fading virility. I may well have wanted to sleep with him on the second night if he hadn’t been so abusive, aggressive and controlling on the first, because there was some attraction there, after all. If I was attracted to him and flirting, where exactly was the line? Had I got it wrong? Was he just into ‘rough sex’ and it was up to me to assert myself more fully?
I spent that day on my own and said we should chat later. I phoned up my ex and cried down the phone. He wasn’t much use to be fair. I needed someone to say to me. This is not safe. You are too vulnerable. That was an abuse of your trust at best. Come home or I’ll come n get ya. Instead I felt he tried to just calm me down – that was always at the root of our problems when together, I never felt heard fully, just managed. We agreed that I should meet said guy and tell him I wasn’t comfortable with what had happened and tell him I didn’t want to spend that last night with him. Would have been a great idea if I was in a strong enough headspace and he wasn’t the manipulative fuck that he was/is.
I met him for dinner and told him that I wasn’t comfortable with what had happened the night before and that I wanted to go back to the hotel room alone. I even apologised (fuck!!). He agreed and said he was sorry I felt that way. It all seemed amicable and he offered to drive me back to my hotel. We made chit chat in the car. But when I said goodbye and got out of the car, he got out too and started towards the hotel bar. ‘Just one drink’ he said, or stated rather. I’m a twat and I should have stood my ground and said no but I didn’t. I thought I’d be making a fuss by refusing…maybe part of me was scared of making him angry, still with the vision of his aggressively contorted face from the night before in my head. I also should’ve said no when he then pleaded being too drunk to drive home and asked if he could sleep on the hotel room floor.
Intimidation and manipulation working its magic by someone who I think, in fact I kinda now know, had used these tactics before…
He did go to sleep on the floor. Said goodnight and seemed to just go straight to sleep. I felt sort of safe, albeit a little on edge.
I awoke, in the morning. The light was blue, so it was early. I was asleep on my front. He was behind me, on top of me with a knee on the back of mine and his hands touching my back and bum. I asked him what he thought he was doing. I felt the familiar prickle of catatonia set in. He said he was just giving me a massage and that I should go back to sleep. At which point he put his hand on the back of my neck pushing my head into the pillow. I don’t know quite what happened then, but I somehow released myself from the grip of fear and got free. I just remember sitting at the other end of the bed to him, shaking and staring at him. His response was “that look speaks a thousand words. You don’t have to speak one”. We got dressed and I went home.
I cried all the way home on the train. I was (and still am) so fucking angry with myself. Why did I let this happen? How could I have misjudged him so badly? I knew that he had been manipulative and aggressive and controlling. But at this point, I took the blame for what had occurred neatly and squarely upon my shoulders. It was only after talking to a few good friends that I started seeing that I shouldn’t. He literally orchestrated the whole thing. I think he knew exactly what he was doing. I also had a few people, very subtly doing the thing of talking about ‘mistakes’ and ‘chalking it up to experience’ and ‘some men are just…’ Yada yada yada… But the people that knew me and understood how consent and a lack of works helped me through this. I sent him a detailed message, using the words ‘non consensual sex’, which I now regret that I hadn’t used the word rape. He was ‘sorry I felt that way’ but apparently I had got it all wrong. Of course.
Upshot is. Consent is both complicated and very, very simple. A person cannot give consent if there is any kind of power imbalance. If they are too intoxicated and it hasn’t been specified prior that sex will definitely be happening. If they are vastly younger – think statutory rape. If they are vulnerable and you are using ‘tactics’ to get them into a position in which they are too scared to say no. If they are asleep. Or, if they say no. Rape occurs when person a) doesn’t get consent from person b) for any of the above reasons. And probably more… A failure to recognise a lack of given consent is not an excuse. The actively seeking it should be fairly integral. Check. Check. Always check…with them and your own moral compass.
Effects…well, if I am completely honest, the effect has been, in the short term seemingly, not purposefully, for me to go through a phase of promiscuity. After the first rape, that lasted about 5 years and was fairly extreme. I had a series of few month relationships, followed by months of frequent 1 night stands. Huge intimacy issues and an inability to connect, with others and myself, but at the same time a real desire and need to. I felt empty. In the few months following the last experience, I expressed myself quite significantly in a sexual manner with a variety of different men – although not on the same scale as before. Part of the difference, I think is due to different places in life/age and also partly to do with having already gone through that once before. I think, that what this is also to do with is a desire from deep within, to take control of my body and sex. To not be disabled by the abusive nature of the men who raped me. I think this comes from how I dealt with the domestic violence (from my dad) that I grew up amidst, as in the need I have felt, as an adult, to assert control over my life and not be told what to do. I also think my ‘catatonic’ reaction during the rapes could be attributed to the violence I experienced at the hands of my father – i.e. there is a deeply set fear of aggressiveness in men that I have a close connection with/am intimate with. That innate fear is perhaps quite paralysing if bought up in extreme situations. It’s almost like when trust should be there, the fear is heightened when it is pulled away to reveal abuse. I think I would react entirely differently if a stranger attacked me in the street, for example. In fact I have done, when a guy tried to steal my bag in Benidorm once, I attacked him and fought him to the ground. Got my bag back too.
In the long term, I’m not 100% sure. I can be incredibly divorced from feelings during sex at points and don’t see it as existing in the same realm as love necessarily. This has fed my promiscuity at points and also in relationships has made me use sex as a way to not feel, like a cut off button. But then seemingly at other points, I become so immersed I end up crying because the connection I have allowed myself to feel during sex is too strong. I also think part of me is always anxious about my trust somehow being broken. Not necessarily in regards to men stepping over a line in regards sexual consent but just a general trust thing. There are many shades of abuse running through from emotional to physical. I think my trust issues with men are equally to do with my father though.
Trump was right really. In regards the reality of the world we do live in, there are a lot of men who have been infected with that same toxic masculinity he has been and speaks from. A universal ill, it would seem. And by that, I mean that it transcends all barriers and borders. There are men out there from all walks of life who will use any power they have to get what they want. The guy from last year is a dentist and a Christian and seemingly a pillar of the community where he now lives. I write this for anyone who has experienced rape and/or sexual assault. I write this for any woman or man, girl or boy who has suffered or who might in the future. Men like Trump will always exist, will indeed be given credibility if Trump wins. Please be gentle with yourselves. Surround yourselves with good, strong, loving people who understand you and talk. Talk as much as you can and use people as a sounding board. And listen as hard as you can to your inner voice, hard as that can be with all the background noise at points.
Thank you for anyone who has read this and listened.
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Thank you for this uncommonly frank post.
I’m so sorry you suffered like that. I can relate very much to the things you say about different reactions in different situations, and even to the roots of your fear in childhood domestic violence. Our societies are based on power imbalances, including those based on gender, and some people take advantage of that.
Sending best wishes to you for your future. I hope your life is filled with good, gentle, respectful people, who would not override your wishes or manipulate you as happened in the instances of which you write here.
Take good care of yourself.
Thank you so much for your kind words and taking time to read… Much appreciated. Xx
Both these incidents were rape and not your fault in the least. I have, many times, done the things you describe (gone drinking, spent time with men, flirted, had fun) *without* being raped because the men present were not rapists. It’s the presence of a rapist, not anything you do or don’t do, which causes rape.
Online dating hotel man is a textbook woman-hating rapist, who planned his abuse of you every step of the way. Men like that prey on vulnerable women and it is extremely calculated behaviour. They spend a lot of time doing ‘just’ stuff, so you begin to feel more and more unsettled, yet they set things up in such a way that you would have to raise your voice, be aggressive, be ‘unfeminine’ or ‘overreact’ to make them back the fuck off, and therefore they pick women who they believe will be reluctant to ‘make a fuss’.
I am so sorry this happened to you. None of it was your fault.
Thank you for saying this…has taken me a few days to read comments as i think I thought people would chastise me… Thankyou for understanding. X
A very powerful and honest piece. Thank you for sharing. No it wasn’t your fault. At all. Take care of yourself. Xxx
This needs to be said – these are the stories that live in womens’ lives, whether we are ourselves survivors or not, we are all at-risk and all navigating rape culture (which is to say, male sexual terrorism).
And there’s a major elephant in the room in much socially-acceptable discussion of this culture: the porn industry, streaming rape & assault of women 24/7 on every internet device, and miseducating the young in ways that are exponentially reproducing rape culture. 15 year old girls presently navigating digital rape culture are frequently turning to suicide or self-mutilation. Thank you for this site, and the power of your story.
Thank you so much for your supportive and understanding words – means a lot. The digital rape culture you speak of terrifies me, as i have 2 young daughters… Need to read more on that, any links? X