CW: Sexual abuse & body shaming
Being subject to emotional abuse is an experience both insidious and almost impossible to articulate but for in retrospect. It is also an experience that, for many woman, can take place far earlier than you might imagine.
Despite living through it all ourselves, we tend to forget that teenagers are both sexual and sexualised, and dismiss their relationship dramas as ‘puppy love’ and ‘boy trouble’. Yet I am proof that such troubles can have immense impact on these girls’ current and future well-beings – despite being middle-class, grammar-school educated and from a relatively stable family, I still found myself aged 14 in a relationship which I can now say bore the hallmarks of emotional abuse, and which culminated in sexual assault. It’s difficult to talk about, and I would never attempt to prosecute him, but it’s important I do speak, because I’m not alone. In a 2009 survey funded by the NSPCC, a quarter of the girls (aged 13-17) surveyed reported physical violence in their relationships and three quarters reported emotional violence. Puppy love may seem innocuous and endearing, but behind the sweet surface lurks real and lasting trauma.
S was the first serious boyfriend I’d ever had – coming from an all-girls school meant I had little chance to socialise with men outside of school. We were both 14 when we started dating, and I was elated. I knew absolutely nothing about relationships, but it was thrilling to play pretend with a boy who was a foot taller than me, and had floppy hair just like they did in the movies. It wasn’t until later in our relationship that problems started, but it’s important to set the tone for how the public, and my family, viewed our relationship. I was the class nerd who had improbably bagged herself a boyfriend, and whose quiet intensity ensured this relationship would last years and not months. I would get up earlier in the mornings to stop by the neighbouring boys’ school and greet him with a kiss outside the school front gates. It was saccharine and childish, but to me it was completely and utterly real.
There are a couple of things that it’s useful to know to understand how the relationship proceeded, although I have attempted to leave out all identifying information. The first is that S was raised within a fairly conservative Christian family, to the point where his mother’s first question on finding out about his relationship was not ‘what’s her name’, but rather ‘does she go to church’. I would like to make it clear that I harbour no ill-will towards religion, and it is of course perfectly possible for a devoutly religious man to maintain a relationship that never verges on emotional abuse. Nevertheless, this fact is important since it influenced greatly S’s attitude toward sex and drugs and his later manipulation. The second is that since the age of 11, I had been planning on moving schools for sixth form, to a boarding school far away. Of course, being overly dramatic, I told S this on our second date, but that didn’t stop him later trying to convince me not to leave.
The vast majority of the emotional abuse came from him trying to convince me that I was not in fact good enough or clever enough to succeed with my plans. At the time we had a plan that I would go away for sixth form, and then simultaneously apply for the same university and go there together. S would continuously undermine my abilities by telling me pointed stories about how his mother had wanted to have the career I did before a kind boyfriend had let her know that, in fact, she didn’t have what it takes. He would also express doubt about my ability to get into university for my chosen subject, pointing out people (men) he knew who did the same subject, and who he considered to have real talent. In retrospect these are really horrible things to say, but I was too young to pick up on this, and part of me believed him. It took years to tell someone that he had said these things, and years to realise they were wrong.
This was coupled with less frequent, but present, comments about my weight and food. A couple of times he questioned what I ate, mentioning that it was too sugary and expressing surprise that I would want to eat that. On several occasions S expressed disappointment when I ‘put on weight’; I’m now pretty certain that the broadening of my waist was just me growing into my body, but that didn’t stop me feeling ashamed and wishing that I could lose weight to return to the size I was when I was 14. This controlling behaviour was also expressed with regard to the clothes I wore and what I drank – largely due to his Christian upbringing, S was a firm believer in modest clothing and not drinking alcohol. Although, this was never explicitly asked or demanded of me, he would occasionally mention that he preferred it when I didn’t wear short skirts. He often told me he didn’t like alcohol or drunk people, and he didn’t want to be around me if I drank alcohol. Somehow I didn’t think there was anything strange about this. Of course, my failure to live up to his rules always left me with a sinking guilty feeling in my stomach, but it was all rationalised away. In my head, if he trusted me enough to envisage a future with me, the least I could do was try to be a good person for him.
I honestly believe that S had no idea how much pain he caused me, or I have to believe that to keep going. The over-riding memory from my earliest sexual activity is pain. The regular bleeding that followed him touching me could potentially be attributed to him being a teenage boy who just didn’t know how fragile the skin of the vagina is, but does his ignorance excuse the pain he called? When he left bruises on my body from being too rough, did that really mean he just loved me more, as I told myself, or is it just another sign that boys, and men, are taught to view women’s bodies as theirs to use? As far as S was concerned my body belonged to him. To add to this, I was not allowed to touch him in any way. This sexual imbalance led to what I would objectively call sexual assault. Consider this a trigger warning for the next paragraph.
In the last six months or so of our relationship, I realised that I wasn’t happy with the imbalance of sexual power and that I wanted to equalise this. For one reason or another, I decided the easiest way to show S how much this was upsetting me was to make him uncomfortable, and attempt to touch him without his consent. I regret this immensely, but I’m glad that when he asked me to stop, I did. It was then that I asked him, through tears, to ‘redraw the lines’ – to reverse what I saw as a progression towards penetrative sex, and refrain from all sexual activity, so that I too could be a pure, untouched, and ‘good’ person. (At this point I had started to secretly go to churches, and saved up £15 to buy a bible). S, however, didn’t take no for an answer, and forcibly performed oral sex on me, insisting I liked it. And if I eventually gave up trying to push him away that must mean I did.
Eventually S’s behaviour became so bizarre that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I remember phoning him on AS results day, towards the end of the relationship, to let him know my news. Instead of congratulating me on my grades, I was made to feel guilty for outperforming him in the sciences, seeing as it was that he wanted to study at university. I immediately regretted having mentioned grades, and spent the day not celebrating my own success, but instead comforting him as he cried. When S dumped me a month or so later, I felt like my world had ended. In fact, I think the fact I’d started to prove him wrong began to scare him. He still blamed me for having gone through with my plans to leave for sixth form, and for months later I felt guilty for having done so. It took me so long to get out of those thought patterns and realise that, actually, some of the stuff that had gone down was definitely not ok, it wasn’t normal, and it was in no way whatsoever a healthy relationship.
It was two years later that I began to talk to my closest friends about our relationship, and I mentioned some of the things that S had done and said. Truthfully, I think it shocked them; from the outside we looked sickeningly in puppy love. And even now I have trouble convincing myself that we weren’t. Whilst my logical side knows that what he did to me was at best really fucked up, and at worst emotional abuse, I still want to believe he didn’t mean to hurt me. That the bruises were just the by-product of a 15-year old full of testosterone, and that everything was ok. And I keep finding myself thinking ‘but we were so young, he can’t be blamed, he’s not really culpable because he can’t have known what he was doing – he loved me remember!’
But in the end, if teenagers are old enough to have sex, to say they love each other, and to plan what they’d call their cat, then they’re old enough to abuse each other. And they’re old enough to be hurt. It took me a while to understand why I am uneasy around almost all men, and why I freak out when anyone gets too close to telling me that they love me and they want to stay with me forever. For me, that kind of love is inextricable from pain, both physical and emotional. In some sick way, I have continued to believe that when people hurt me, it’s actually a sign of their love. What might be dismissed by outsiders as puppy love, immaturity and a bad break up retains its hold on my actions and thought processes nearly a decade down the line.
I thought a lot about whether or not to post this story. Reading Sophia’s story was so visceral, so real, that I couldn’t for a second doubt its authenticity. When I read back this article, I’m painfully aware that I have portrayed a narrative, that this is specifically my narrative, and that, if S were ever to come across this, he would denounce me as crazy. There’s no broken nose in my story, no gas-lighting and no clear moment where I feared for my safety. I didn’t realise anything was wrong with this relationship until years later, when I’d come across some articles on emotional abuse and began recognising traits. Because that is in fact what it was – it was textbook. And yet no-one around me saw it, not even my closest friends.
Writing this article, I can’t help but feel like I’m doing a disservice to the *real* victims of emotional abuse. I still often struggle to accept what I suffered, yet putting this all in one place has helped me to realise that it was real, and I’m not overreacting. It’s also excruciatingly apparent that we were far too emotionally immature to attempt such a relationship, and that teenagers are in need of a sexual and emotional education which is more than a list of STIs and a handful of condoms. Making my story public wasn’t an easy decision, but if I can persuade one teenage girl to read this and realise that ‘love’ and naivety don’t excuse causing pain, or one mother to realise that what seems like harmlessly overprotective puppy love might be damaging her daughter, then it will have been worth it.