Trigger warning for child abuse, sexual assault, and victim blaming.
Alena wrote her story in a comment on my post “future husbands: your future wife does not belong to you.” Reading it moved me to tears, because her story is very much like my own– and it is very much like the countless stories I’ve heard in the past four years. For women raised in the conservative evangelical “purity culture,” our stories have similar patterns. I hope that Aletha’s story can bring comfort, understanding, and healing to women who carry the same stories inside their hearts.
A few weeks into my relationship with my now-husband, he shared a funny story about our first kiss, commenting on how sweet and special he thought it was that we had each been privileged to share our first kisses with each other. I was confused, at first, wondering how he got that idea — and then remembered back to the kiss: we kissed, and he smiled at me and asked if I had enjoyed my first kiss. I had said yes, and he said, “Me, too!” It was a very sweet moment – and one I had misunderstood. I thought he was asking if I enjoyed our first kiss, when he was actually asking if I had enjoyed my first kiss—ever.
It shouldn’t have been a big deal to fix the misunderstanding, but I was eaten up by guilt. One of my girlfriends, who was with us at the time and knew that not only was my kiss with Nick not my first, but that there were a lot of other “firsts” he didn’t know about—“firsts” I’d had with my previous boyfriend, R*. She took several opportunities in the months that followed to tell me that I owed it to Nick to be honest and come clean about my sins, and that he deserved to get to choose whether or not to forgive me before he actually married me. If he didn’t want to marry a woman with a “sexual history,” he needed to know so he wouldn’t be “stuck with me forever.”
I already carried a great deal of regret about not coming to my marriage a virgin—since I was sexually abused as a child—but Nick knew all about that and repeatedly assured me that I had nothing to be ashamed of, and he had nothing to forgive. I had trouble accepting that, because many people, including my girlfriend, said that I was guilty because I did not “fight back” enough. It didn’t matter that I was 3, or 12, and that I had tried to tell my mother what had happened . . . I was responsible because I hadn’t fought ‘til my dying breath. Nick telling me something different was difficult to believe. The fact that he didn’t know about what I’d done with R* made it all so much worse.
Months passed, and guilt was practically eating me alive. Despite our mutual goal of virginity on our wedding night, we messed around more than we wished we had (although, to be clear, we don’t beat ourselves up about it). Every time we did something, however, I had intrusive and vivid flashbacks to my time with R*, my ex . . . but rarely did I have flashbacks about my childhood abuse. Finally, a month before our marriage, I couldn’t stand the guilt. Nick seemed so happy with all of our “shared firsts” . . . so I confessed to him about R*, in the middle of his mom’s front yard, at one in the morning, in the rain. I was sobbing, he was shocked and confused. When I told him he didn’t have to marry me, he became angry and took me in his arms, and told me that he loved me, that he still wanted to marry me, and that he forgave me. I went home and then we entered the madhouse of the last three weeks before our wedding in another state and all that entailed.
We got married, and everything seemed like it was going to be ok.
Six years later this whole thing came back to us again.
Over the first six years of our marriage, I was repeatedly assaulted by intrusive and vivid flashbacks of my time with R*, to the point that more than once I broke down crying in the middle of sex. I frequently felt dirty and unworthy of the love of my husband. Never once did Nick ever give me reason to feel this way, and since I refused to talk about any of it most of the time, he rarely even knew who the flashbacks were about, and assumed they were about my father, who had abused me as a child. But . . . I was having flashbacks about both. Sometimes they were mixed, and that was frightening.
One day, I started seeing a new counselor, and for some reason I brought up my relationship with R*. She asked me a lot of questions that were very baffling and scary at the time, and then shocked me to my core by telling me that she believed that I had been a victim of sexual assault in that relationship.
What? What the– ? Could it? No – wait, but . . .
I started remembering.
I thought back to our first kiss, which began as a romantic moment. It was the first and only time I’d ever seen the Northern Lights, and I can’t even describe how beautiful they were. But his kiss quickly turned confusing and scary when he deepened it to a full French kiss that lasted for several minutes, despite my attempts to step back. It was . . .exciting . . . but I had only known him for a couple of days, and earlier that evening had told him I was saving my kisses for when I got married. I was afraid—excited, but afraid– but he took control, ultimately, because he was a bigger than me, and I was more afraid of making a guy mad than I was of being kissed against my will.
I told him, the next morning, that I was not okay with being physically intimate before marriage, and that I was sorry that we had kissed. He was quick to assure me that kisses weren’t that big of a deal. From there, it escalated quickly. I won’t go in to detail, but I will say that he initiated every single physically intimate thing we did, and overrode my protestations each time with charm, insistence—or just by sheer size. He did what he wanted, because he could.
I never saw anything that happened as anything more than me being incredibly weak willed, until I spoke with my counselor about it.
After all, I didn’t scream. I didn’t call him names. I didn’t claw his face, or kick him where he’d hurt so I could get away.
He never verbally assaulted me, ordered me around, or physically abused me.
When he held me down, I was confused, even cried and begged him to stop, but. he would keep going, He would try to coerce me, saying things like “don’t you like this?” I was weak in my protestations, speaking softly, trying to explain why I wasn’t okay with his actions even as he ignored me and did whatever he wanted. He drew reactions from me I couldn’t control, and that robbed me of the ability to think clearly. I judged myself weak and wanton, because he made me feel things against my will. . .
It was very healing to talk and cry about it, especially after my session with my counselor. I spoke with my husband about it, too, and that was an eye opening conversation! You see, it turns out that all those years ago, when he held me in his arms, assured me he still wanted to get married, and forgave me…? He was only forgiving me for lying by omission. When I told him what the counselor had said, and for the first time elaborated a little bit on what had happened with R*, and my actions in those moments, he agreed with her completely that it had been sexual assault, and six months of abuse.
Those conversations took place less than six months ago. I am still processing things, though a family crisis this summer superseded everything to the point that I haven’t really thought about it for months, until reading this post. I haven’t had any flashbacks since then, though I can feel them lurking in this moment, after writing all this.
Until reading this, I didn’t realize that it all went back to the patriarchal attitudes with which I was raised, but it makes so much sense. Had my friend not applied so much pressure and condemnation to confess my sins to Nick, had not brought up what had happened to me when I was a child and insisted that I was not “sexually pure” because of it, had not tried to convince me that I had sinned against Nick because of what my father had done and what happened later– I would have likely told him right away that there had been a misunderstanding, though I know that I would have still felt a lot of misplaced shame over my relationship with R*, because of the unresolved issues there. I certainly wouldn’t have considered calling off my engagement at the last second because I felt that he deserved a virgin, had I not been heavily influenced by the concept of “future-husband ownership,” or by the teaching that “losing” my virginity—however it was “taken,” consensual or not—makes me less valuable as a woman, as a person.