CW: suicide, self-harm, emotional abuse, and sexual violence/abuse are mentioned below and may be triggering. Please read with care.
When many look back at their senior year of high school, they might remember the college acceptances, the prom, the sports games, and the last hurrah. I think of sexual violence, dramatic hair loss, and the “friends” that I lost. In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, here’s my story:
During my senior year, I was dating a woman who used to be one of my closest friends. I was dating her virtually in secret. She had strict parents and had not come out publicly. While it was hard to adjust to this clandestine relationship, I was genuinely happy for the first few months. I didn’t tell any of my friends. Only my immediate family knew, and they were very approving. So, I had not minded. After all, this was a close friend that I loved and trusted.
But after a few months, things had changed. For one, we started having sex. My girlfriend’s mental health had also worsened, and I began to face relentless violations of my body.
The root of this sexual violence was emotional abuse. If I said “no” or “stop” or even communicated what I preferred (i.e. “slower, softer”), I was deemed the problem. My partner would get extremely angry and claim that my adjustments made her feel insecure, akin to the fragile masculinity we often read about (and experience) with men. “If I can’t get you off, how can I do anything right?” she would remark, shifting the blame on to me. This was the first time I would find myself feeling breathless, trapped between her and the world. I couldn’t talk to my friends, and I was too embarrassed to admit any of this to my family. I remained deeply isolated, tethered to my shame and sadness.
The amount of shame and guilt my partner forced me to endure only got worse. My abuser consistently threatened that she would commit suicide if I didn’t cancel on my friends or make time with her when I simply didn’t have it. I eventually did reach out to a couple of mutual friends that I had found out were aware of our relationship. Although these friends warned me that my abuser was only bringing up her mental health for attention, I still couldn't navigate the situation. My abuser would bring up her depression and suicidal thoughts when she was trying to justify being right or to shame me into silence when I expressed my feelings. And it worked.
She had to play the victim so that I couldn’t be one — and so she could make me believe that I was her abuser. I was so fearful of her self-harm that I was blind to the manipulation that many would say was obvious. I was so scared for her mental health that I put her selfishness above my own safety and stability. I wouldn't be able to forgive myself if she ever harmed herself — or worse — because of me. So I stayed silent. I let her touch me painfully and faked an orgasm for months, just so that it would finally be over. I buried myself deep below reality, sinking further and further away from the truth.
One of the worst parts of this relationship was that my family had no idea that I was being abused. I fed them lies, and I became incredibly withdrawn, hesitant to share anything for fear of their rightful concerns. They likely suspected that I loved the constant sex. They likely suspected that I was having a wonderful time in my first relationship. I was far too ashamed to tell them the truth. But the abuse was tearing my relationships apart.
In high school, I used to see my grandma for a special dinner once a week. My grandma had lived with us for my entire life up until high school when she moved to an elderly apartment complex just 10 minutes from the house. It was a ritual to spend Fridays together, laughing over plates of fries and glasses of Diet Coke with extra lemons.
That all changed when my abuser came into my life. After a few months of dating, she would often convince me to cancel my plans with friends and family. Or, she would stay over for hours, even after I had told her she needed to leave by a certain time. Having any kind of boundaries was a sign of rejection to her. No matter how many times I tried, there was no reasoning.
I missed countless Fridays, stayed out too late, pretended to forget about family events, and had completely detached from my support system. I had completely detached from myself. I put my abuser before my family — time and time again. I would go on to regret it for years.
A year after my relationship was over, my grandma’s life changed dramatically.
She experienced a bad fall. Upon being diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, we learned that her early-onset dementia had accelerated due to the cerebral damage. I would never be able to have the same relationship with her. No more long conversations. No more dinners. I had wasted 8 months of my life with a woman who had also taken away precious time with my grandma. I felt so guilty for letting my family, my grandma, and myself down.
One of the worst parts of being with my abuser was not solely the pain that she inflicted upon me — it was the way she had completely altered my identity and the perceptions of other people.
To my family, I had come off as selfish, aloof, and uncaring. I took the car when my sister needed it. I stayed out too late, spent too much money, and I was a liar. To my friends, I was flakey and unsupportive. I missed my close friend’s hockey games and whipped out a laundry list of excuses without hesitation.
Yet, there wasn’t a single day where I did not think about my family or friends. There was no fleeting moment where I did not fixate on how incredibly disappointing I was. I felt I was a failure to everyone I loved.
I was in so, so much pain. And I believed I deserved it. This fueled my abuser. She wanted me to feel isolated from any source of help or support, so out of reach from anyone who would pull me out of the neck-high waters she threw me into over and over again. She wanted me to feel degraded so that she could use me and feel better about herself. She wanted me to hate myself so that I couldn’t hate her.
My self-loathing only intensified as a result of her body-shaming and emotional abuse. It worsened over time, no longer a dull pain I could swallow.
I cried after she said that my body disgusted her when she tried to give me oral sex. I wasn’t ready. I had felt so much pressure. I’d go on to fear oral sex for these reasons. I hated my body. I felt my vagina was broken and wrong.
I blamed myself for everything. Later, I blamed myself for thinking none of this was abuse because it was a woman I was with. I stayed silent when she made fun of my speech disorder and impersonated my stutter. She made me feel so small. But at the same time, I became trained to believe I was taking up too much space. I was taking up her space, she would tell me. I was taking up her emotional energy whenever I voiced my concerns.
“You have no real problems”, she would say. I’m White. I can afford college. She was not White. She grew up in a more difficult household. She had siblings to care for and needed a scholarship.
In July before the start of college, she broke up with me. During this time, I felt so, so unbearably hollow. I had lost so much hair and picked my fingers until they were bloody and aching. I had given up everything, and I had lost so much — all for a woman who had cut into my heart and crushed it on her way out. She ended up cheating on me while I was away on a family trip.
While it hurt so much in the moment, I will forever be grateful that she ended it. I’m grateful that her selfishness allowed me to finally be free — in some tangible way. Following the break-up, I lost many mutual “friends” and cut out those who remained close to my abuser even after they knew. I recently unfollowed even more people still friendly with her.
I used to want to send letters to my abuser to tell her how angry I was, to make her care about the pain I felt then and the amount that still remained. To me, that was closure. But I realize now (after a lot of therapy) that the real closure I craved was legitimacy from myself and others. What I really needed then was to believe myself and feel like I would be believed by others. What I needed was to care about myself and allow myself to acknowledge the pain I felt then and the amount that still remained.
Nearly four years later, I still carry the trauma of this relationship. I think about it sometimes when I picture myself having sex or getting into a relationship with someone new. It’s a slow and painful process to heal.
I spent the months following the break-up desperate for female attention. I even wrote this essay about my quest for queer experiences during my first semester of college. I used sex with strangers to cover up my pain. I made so many mistakes then. And I’m deeply sorry to those I harmed in the process. I’m still learning to forgive myself. I’m learning to trust other women. Most of all, I’m learning to trust myself again.
The sexual violence and the abuse experienced at the hands of a woman in a queer relationship are not unique to me.
Not every woman is a “queen.” Some are our abusers, and they run self-care Instagram accounts, too.
The ideas, posts, stories, and content we share matter. Though I have shared this story, I still feel isolated when I continually see straight and queer friends or content creators romanticize about how wonderful it would be to have sex with or date a woman. They claim that women, by default, would instinctively respect their bodies and listen to their feelings. These seemingly harmless beliefs perpetuate violence and undermine truths.
There’s hardly any data regarding “woman-on-woman” sexual violence or research on this issue. Some legal definitions, such as in the UK, still only characterize perpetrators as male or sexual violence the result of penile penetration alone.
Idealized conceptions of queer female relationships and sex stigmatize the real trauma that women can inflict and endure. To my fellow queer women and AFAB individuals who have endured pain at the hands of a woman, my heart goes out to you. You are not alone. To my family, friends, therapists, and all those who helped pull me out of the enduring darkness — and who still remind me of the light— I am so, so grateful. And for those reading these words now, I thank you. My inbox is always open.
More words on Twitter: @Linzy_Rosen