Talking About Abuse is Both Sex-Positive and Feminist

[TW: this post discusses trauma and intimate partner abuse]

I’m Amy, and I am a survivor of abuse.

I won’t be getting into the gory details but, in order for this piece to make sense, sharing a bit of background is necessary in order to set the scene.

I was sexually abused by my first boyfriend. I was fifteen when it began,  and he was several years older. We were together for six years, and sexual violence was an ongoing undercurrent in our relationship.

Later, I dated a much older man who emotionally abused and gaslighted me, and systematically broke me down for five years until I eventually worked up the nerve to leave.

I am in healthy relationships now, I have an excellent therapist, and I am doing much better. However, the damage of these experiences leaves scars that run deep – and cannot always be seen from the surface.

Healing has been a long and many-layered process. One thing I have consistently refused to do, though – one thing I will never do – is be quiet.

Several months after my first abusive relationship ended, I spoke up in the shared community that we were both a part of. I named what he did to me as sexual violence. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few people, I was very much let down. I lost friends. I lost a safe space. I was not believed, and questioned at every turn. I was even told that, by speaking out, I was now to blame if he abused his new girlfriend. (Can you wrap your mind around that logic? No, me neither.)

The second time, the pattern was much the same. There was a sense of “we know, he’s always been like this,” but very little was actually done. Neither of my abusers have ever suffered any meaningful consequences, which – though disappointing – is entirely unsurprising.

But I don’t regret speaking up. Let me tell you why.

I’m a feminist. I have called myself a feminist since I learned what the word meant. I’m also sex-positive, which was a more complex identity to come into; my working definition of sex positivity is this: “the belief in the right of all consenting adults to have sex, or not, in whatever ways they choose without punishment, shame or judgement.” And I believe that speaking up about abuse is a vital component of the feminist and sex-positive ideologies by which I live my life.

Feminism isn’t always fun. It isn’t always about doing everything a man can do, except in six inch heels. Sometimes, it means cracking open these deeply painful places in our psyches and cultures. It means standing up for what is right, even if that then means being in the minority. To be a feminist is, by definition, to aim to disrupt the systems of power that permeate our culture. Sometimes, these damaging power systems exist between just two (or more) people in an intimate relationship, a microcosm of wider inequality – because abuse, at its heart, is always about power. As the phenomenal 2011 book asserts, “the revolution begins at home”. We must, as feminists, stand against abuse. For me, speaking up about what has happened in my relationships was important for personal empowerment; I needed to seize control back from my abusers in this act of feminist solidarity. I hope that every time I tell my story, another woman will hear it and know that she isn’t alone; that she can leave, and she does not deserve what she has suffered.

Sex positivity isn’t all orgies or naked selfies (though I am here for both of these things!). Sometimes, it’s about acknowledging the ways in which sex can be wielded as a weapon. In order to celebrate consensual and joyful sexuality, we also have to confront the places where sexuality is deeply painful and traumatising. We cannot say “sex is great!” without acknowledging that sometimes, it’s anything but. Speaking up about abuse in a sex-positive community felt to me like a betrayal. I was proudly non-monogamous and open sexually… and then I was saying that my boyfriend had raped me? What?!

What I wish I’d known then, and what I want to impart to others now, is that being sex-positive doesn’t mean you always have to want sex. It doesn’t mean you can’t say no, and it certainly does not mean anyone has carte blanche access to your body, even someone you’re in a relationship with. In fact, to be sex-positive means to understand that consent – informed, freely given consent – comes before anything else.

None of this is to say that a survivor who chooses not to speak up is less sex-positive or less of a feminist. Sharing our stories of abuse is an intensely personal choice and is not right for everyone. The survivor’s first and only obligation is to themselves. If you choose to never tell anyone, I support and affirm you. If you choose to shout your pain from the rooftops, I’ll be shouting along with you.

This is also not to say that the burden of speaking up rests solely with survivors. If you’ve never been abused, but you recognise it’s a huge problem – speak up. If people joke about abuse, or talk about behaviours you find abusive (“yeah I hassled her until she gave me a blow job, LOL aren’t I the worst!?”) – shut that sh*t down. Don’t laugh along. Don’t justify. Don’t “he didn’t mean it like that!”

If there’s a guy in your friendship group who is known to get handsy with non-consenting women, stop inviting him. Yes, even if he’s always been a sweetheart to you. As a survivor, I implore you: Speak up. Shut it down. Don’t be a bystander.

You cannot call yourself a feminist or a sex-positive person if you don’t take a stand against abuse. It is essential.

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