I never thought consent was anything but obvious. Yes or no.
Sexual abuse in marriage
Sexual abuse in marriage is another form of intimate partner abuse that we don’t often talk about. When we think of domestic violence, the image is often one of physical violence. But we know now that abuse takes many forms. Physical, sexual, emotional and even financial. My guest today left an abusive marriage a year ago and shares her story of emotional and sexual abuse in her marriage.
Warning: this is a long post that details emotional abuse, threatening behaviour and sexual abuse that may be upsetting, confronting or triggering for some readers.
I never thought consent was anything but obvious. Yes or no. Simple. “Coercion” was something teenage boys did to try and pressure naïve virgins into sex. “Just say no!” we were taught again and again. I knew how it worked.
So, it came as a shock when I realised, around a month after I had left my husband, that he’d been having sex with me against my wishes for years.
There were imbalances in our sex drives from the beginning, but in the early days, it was me who had the unquenchable desire. I had a high sex drive and sometimes my husband would even berate me for “pressuring” him by wearing lingerie or initiating sex.
When our child was born, it shifted the other way: I was chronically sleep-deprived and would prioritise a nap over physical intimacy any day.
My husband had started a medication which increased his libido significantly. He told me that I’d become one of “those” wives who couldn’t be bothered, and while he pretended to be patient for a while, he made it clear that he felt entitled to be angry about it. He insinuated that I was letting our marriage down. I felt I owed it to him to do whatever I could to just get over my feelings and bend to his.
So, I made myself have sex with him. But the more I pushed through my resistance and ignored what my mind and body were telling me, the more I found myself resenting his touch. His mouth on mine would make me recoil, his fingertips brushing against my nipples – which used to give me a rush of pleasure – would make me feel physically ill.
Still believing it was simply a matter of sex drive, and always being one to seek and own my part in a problem, I tried maca powder, vitamin supplements, porn, role-play, ridiculously expensive vibrators – everything that Dr Google could recommend. I had my Mirena IUD removed and changed my medication (for post-natal depression). I even tried masturbating twice a day to try and kick-start my sexual appetite. But it was no good.
I blamed myself
Eventually, I realised that that wasn’t low libido that was the issue anymore; it was a deep sense of being unsafe and powerless. Again, I blamed myself. My early childhood experience of that family friend, forcing his crooked, papery old man fingers into me when I was a pre-schooler. It was my past trauma, my problem, my responsibility.
My husband told me that he loved me so much and that my being “emotionally unavailable” caused him pain. He was suffering, and it was my fault. I went to counselling, psychotherapy, and hypnotherapy. I begged for his patience and apologised every day. There were promises that I made but didn’t think I could keep. In a desperate effort to make him happy, to keep myself protected from his frustration and rage, I started drinking to get through my fortnightly obligations.
I just couldn’t bear it
I could go down on him without too much distress. My mouth didn’t feel so intimate, and it would be over quickly. But when he wanted to be inside me, I couldn’t bear it. To be in my body, in my core, my most vulnerable space – I still shudder and physically contract just thinking about it.
He knew it meant more, and so he demanded it. I also had to be increasingly adventurous, risqué, willing to do whatever he wanted. I tried thinking about other men that I knew while he was inside me; men I wasn’t scared of, men who treated their partners with loving tenderness. I would close my eyes and imagine it was them inside me, that I had granted them permission to enter my body with a fierce and mutual passion, instead of control and entitlement.
It got worse
Every encounter was worse than the previous. Alcohol and fantasy couldn’t get me through it anymore. Each time I became more terrified of how I would get through the next without making him angry. As all women know, an aggressively entitled man who feels a sudden loss of control is extremely dangerous.
He knew that I wasn’t giving myself to him wholly no matter how much I performed. Passivity didn’t seem to satisfy him. I had to prove my desire and my devotion. He wanted me not only to have sex with him, but to enjoy it. And the more he wanted me to enjoy it, to behave the way he wanted me to, the harder it became to pretend – so the cycle continued.
The stress took a toll on me and the abuse worsened
I was working full-time and commuting over two hours a day. Add to this that I was still the primary carer for our two-year-old, doing most of the housework and living away from the support of family and friends. The stress I was under began to manifest itself in a way I couldn’t ignore: I began having severe vertigo and couldn’t get out of bed.
One day, my husband had to drive me to the doctor and took the opportunity to kick me while I was down. During an innocuous conversation about pot plants, he thought I’d said something in a condescending way – of course, I never would have dared – and launched into me, screaming and raging as he sped around blind corners. I was curled up in a ball on the passenger seat, sobbing and begging for mercy. I told him, “I can’t deal with this right now, please, please, I can’t.” I remember him saying “You always blame me, but it’s you who’s the fucked up one. Say you’re fucked up. SAY IT.”
He broke me that day. I couldn’t handle my life, couldn’t be a good wife or mother, couldn’t even go to work because I was so fucked up. I even told him so. He won. When I arrived at the medical centre, I was a wreck. I think I was in shock. There were no tears; I was a zombie. I can’t remember what I said, or what the doctor said, but he prescribed me Valium. It came to be my saviour, as my husband grew more and more abusive.
“I was a slave to his feelings”
The next three months were a blur. I was a slave to his feelings. I never knew what he’d be like or what mood he’d be in. My gut would clench when I’d hear his car in the driveway, if I heard his step on the staircase, even if I saw his name on an email or text. It was a period of constant fear and vigilance, punctuated by a few critical incidents that helped me to realise that something wasn’t right.
One New Year’s Eve, we went to a neighbour’s house party. The host offered me a line of coke, and, despite having not done any drugs since long before my child was born, I accepted. I was desperate to relax. It was the best I’d felt in over a year. My anxiety melted away, I danced, I laughed, I kissed my husband and meant it. I loved him so much, I wanted his approval, wanted his smile and his gentle affection. At one point in the night I pulled him into the bathroom, locked the door and kneeled in front of him. I looked up at him and unzipped his pants. He took out his penis and I took him in my mouth, feeling finally free and elated that I could do this without fear. But then he pushed my head away, zipped up his pants and left the bathroom, all before I could even stand up. Looking out of the door after him, another party guest saw me kneeling there. It was humiliating, but I was too high to care.
The next week was hot. One night it was 27C at 9pm, and unsurprisingly I was sleeping without blankets, in just my underwear. When inevitably I felt his hands on me stroking, demanding, I apologetically told him I couldn’t have sex, as it was just too hot. He stormed away. An hour or so went by, then the texts came:
Stop being naked in front of me if you don’t want me to see your body as sexual and stop making sexual jokes. Stop doing drugs while drinking and sucking my dick on New Year’s Eve in a fucking toilet and pretending the next week that it’s not something you’d do.
I had to hide
I knew then I had to do whatever it took to hide my sexuality. All the drinking and take-away had helped me put on weight, which was a good start. Now I had to make sure I didn’t let him see me naked, stop wearing short skirts or low-cut tops, and stop talking or making jokes about sex. I especially had to carefully hide my vibrator, to make sure he never got an inkling of my own urges. That would be the ultimate rejection – me experiencing sexual feelings that he couldn’t own or control.
Valium and wine got me through the sex most times, but sometimes it was too much for me and I’d pretend to be asleep. I spent a lot of time lying in bed, awake, with my eyes closed. If I was awake and didn’t respond to his sexual advances, he would find a way to punish me. He’d usually storm off, slamming doors, to drink in his office. Then at 1 or 2am he’d come back, drunk and seething with rage and contempt.
“I cannot be without physical affection any longer. I am going to find sex elsewhere. The reason I drink, and the reason I stay up late and don’t come to bed, is that there is no love in this bed. We never have interesting sex. I’ve been thinking this for years. We never have.”
He would then tell me I was fucked up, disgusting, emotionally damaged. All I could focus on was the desperate hope that he might leave and find a prostitute. I’d never thought I would hope to be cheated on, but I wished for it desperately so that he might leave me alone.
Fear and intimidation
One night, after I’d resisted another sexual guilt trip, he came right up to the bed, his face close to mine, and said “I’m taking our daughter tomorrow.” I didn’t dare reply. “Did you hear what I said? I’m only taking her for the day, don’t go mental. I’m not taking her away from you. I’m not taking our two-year-old away.” Then he laughed. He knew that him taking her away from me was my greatest fear. He knew it would make me scared beyond anything else.
Another night he arrived at 2am and turned on the lights. I sat up, too afraid to speak. He demanded of me, “Apologise. Now.”
I didn’t know what I had done. But I had to stay safe.
“I’m sorry” I whispered.
“Lie down,” he said.
I obeyed. He lay down next to me.
“Take off your clothes.”
I got scared, and tried to get up to leave, but he grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back down to the bed.
I was rigid with fear. I stared at the ceiling.
“Take your pants off.”
“Because I’d like to feel your naked body even if we’re not going to have sex.”
I couldn’t, I just couldn’t do it. “I’m sorry, I’m really tired…”
He ripped the doona from the bed, leaving me exposed, and carried it downstairs. He sent a text:
Week in, week out. This is why I’d rather watch films and drink alcohol to forget how shit my marriage is than go to bed with you.
There were more texts on other nights, sometimes up to twenty in an hour. Emails too, with thinly disguised threats of blackmail – draft emails addressed to our family and friends discussing my one-time drug use and attempt to give him a blow job in a bathroom. I knew exactly what he wanted and what he was promising would happen if I didn’t give it to him.
The day everything changed was the day he threatened to hit me.
Until then he’d punished me, threatened me, blackmailed me, verbally abused me and twice restrained me. But when he threatened to punch me in the face while I was holding our daughter in my arms, it was a wake-up call.
He sensed it too. He apologised, somewhat begrudgingly, for the first time I could remember. My relief was palpable. My brain had been conditioned into fear and protectiveness, and with this acknowledgement of his wrongdoing I was flooded with a chemical rush which bonded me to him. We had sex and for once, I wasn’t scared. A momentary hiatus from the constant grip of fear and I was ready to give myself to him body and soul. I guess maybe that’s how Stockholm Syndrome works. Soon enough the terror was back though, and his words kept echoing around inside my head. I am forever grateful for that threat because, somehow, it made me finally feel able to leave him. Once he had said the words, I felt that I could tell someone and know that I would be heard. I am very lucky that those I shared with did hear me, did support me and helped me escape.
It’s been a year since I left
A year on and I have only just now been able to talk about the sexual aspect of my abuse. I still couldn’t see if for what it was, and kept it hidden like a shameful secret for which I was ultimately responsible. But recently I have challenged myself to live differently and think differently. I am living this process through the sharing of my stories, by being vulnerable and brave with others, through trusting myself as well as men and women who are worthy of my trust. Courage and compassion. Strong back, open front.
What I have come to realise is this:
You can know you’re being threatened without a word being spoken.
You can know violence without being physically harmed.
You’ll be made aware of the consequences of declining a request without specifically being told that you will be punished.
If you are a shopkeeper, and someone stands in front of you with clenched fists, or a knife in their hand, or even just their hand in their pocket pointing towards you and says “Give me all your money”, you give it to them. I never said the word “no”. He never physically forced me to have sex. He didn’t take the money out of the till; I handed it to him out of fear.