Trigger warning for rape and attempted rape.
When I was not quite nineteen, in the summer of 2007, I went to visit a friend of mine who was working as an au pair in a small town just outside Barcelona. The town was picturesque and charming and the weather was sweltering. Barcelona was a short train ride away and I remember the city being hot and beautiful and full. I remember wandering in Parc Guell marvelling at the mosaics and the musicians. I remember asking for a lighter from someone in Spanish and being pleased at putting my limited skills with that language to use. But mostly I remember the hot weekend night when we went to meet some people my friend knew in a bar.
Her friends were nice, and they welcomed me. One of them – his name was Rafa – was particularly friendly. I can’t really call his face to mind now. He is a vague impression of sandy hair and pale skin for a Spanish man. I remember that he was in his late twenties, and astonished and impressed to hear that, at eighteen, I lived away from home. I thought that was odd at the time, because it was a common age to leave home in Scotland – and after all, I lived in uni halls paid for by my parents, which is hardly making it on your own! He seemed like a nice guy, but I didn’t fancy him.
We went on to a club. I don’t remember what it was called or where it was, but I remember it was hot inside. There was no smoking ban in Spain at the time, but I wanted to go out for a cigarette to cool down. Rafa came with me. We sat chatting in a doorway outside the club, and I chain-smoked because I get awkward talking to strangers. At some point, he kissed me. And even though I didn’t fancy him, I kissed him back. Because I was eighteen, and I was lonely, and he was interested.
My friend came out of the club some time later with a friend of Rafa’s. She wanted to go home with him, and seeing me with Rafa assumed that we would be going off together. She didn’t ask, and I didn’t say otherwise. We all got the train together, and she got off at a different stop with her boy. I went with Rafa.
I thought we would go back to his flat. I needed to pee, and I wanted a drink of water. I thought we’d go back to his flat, there’d probably be more kissing, and I could stop it when I wanted to. Most of all – I thought we’d go back to his flat.
He said he wanted to move his car. I thought that was weird, since we were going back to his, but assumed it was to do with local parking restrictions. He had been drinking, but I wouldn’t have said he was drunk. I don’t drink alcohol and hadn’t taken any drugs that night, so I was sober.
It was only when he parked the car in an outdoor car park that I realised we weren’t going to a flat at all. At twenty-seven, he lived with his parents. I later learned that was more common in Spain than in Scotland, and that was why he was surprised I moved out at eighteen. We weren’t going home, we were going to have sex here, in the car, in this car park. I wasn’t in a flat, where I could get a glass of water and relax. I was in a car in a foreign city with a man who expected me to have sex with him, and it didn’t feel like there was anything I could do to get out of it. I didn’t know where I was, didn’t have a working phone, and I didn’t know how to say no.
And so I did it. I did what was expected of me in the back seat of that car, and I didn’t try to stop it. I don’t remember participating very much, and I remember just hoping it would be over soon. Afterwards, he tried to talk to me about my life, about who I was as a person. I didn’t want to tell him anything. I didn’t want him to know me.
A while later, he started having sex with me again. This time, he wasn’t wearing a condom. I remember he said, already inside me, “Is it ok if we do it without a condom?” Nervous and young and wanting it all to stop, I said, “Probably not.” He didn’t stop, and he came inside me.
We went to meet my friend and his. They had also had sex in a car, because he also lived with his parents, but she had wanted it and enjoyed it. I just wanted to go home. By this stage it was daylight and the sun was hot again, and I still needed to pee and to have a drink of water. I don’t remember how we got back into town, but eventually it was just me and my friend again. We went to MacDonalds so I could go to the toilet, and we got the train home. I sat on the train in my stocking feet and my purple dress, carrying the corset I’d been wearing under it, and all I wanted was to go home and shower. I remember thinking, “This is what people mean when they say they feel dirty.” I wanted to wash him right off me. My friend was talking about her night with the other guy, so happy and excited, and I just wanted it all not to have happened. I don’t remember what I said to her.
When we got home, I sat under the shower for a long time and I didn’t feel clean.
This is a very common story. Many women have the same story to tell. For a long time I didn’t place any blame on him. I didn’t think that he had raped me, even though it felt so much like he had. I had been stupid, I had gone with him, I had let him. Some people reading this might see it in those terms. A part of me still does. But he was eight years older than me, I was by myself in a city I had never been to before, and he fucked me without a condom without my consent. I never said no – except my “probably not” to his laughably belated question about the condom; a question whose answer didn’t matter to him – but I certainly never said yes. I felt backed into a corner, and while I still don’t believe that he orchestrated that deliberately, I feel like he should have been aware of my discomfort and lack of participation.
I was lucky – this experience never affected the way I felt about sex or relationships. It never made me trust men less, or made sex difficult for me. It is an experience whose negativity is, for me, attached solely to him. I would never like to see that man again, but in a strange way, it made me feel that my body was more my own than it had been before. That I wouldn’t let another man inside it unless I wanted him there.
A while later, I was in Amsterdam with a different friend, staying in a hostel. In our dorm, late one night when people were sleeping, I was smoking a joint with a Norwegian guy who was in the same room. He started massaging my shoulders, and we kissed for a while. These things were nice, and made all the nicer by the high-quality weed. Then he started trying to have sex with me without a condom. I was up for having sex with him, but not unprotected sex. First I asked him to get a condom, then I insisted. I clamped my legs together and wriggled around, and he kept trying to put his dick inside me. I kept saying no, not without a condom.
Eventually, the guy sleeping in the bunk above his spoke up and said, “Hey dude, if she doesn’t want to fuck you then let her go, and you – if you don’t want to fuck him then get up and walk away.” That last bit might sound like victim-blaming, but in that moment it gave me clarity. I had been trying to ask him, thinking he’d be reasonable like all the other men I’d asked to wear condoms during consensual sex, and somehow it had never occurred to me, frozen in that moment of trying to stop him, to just get up and walk away. So I did. I went back to my own bed, and I didn’t feel violated. If anything I felt proud of myself that I hadn’t let this man do what Rafa had done; I felt empowered. And embarrassed that half the dorm had probably heard.
The next day I saw the man from the bunk above downstairs. I approached him, embarrassed, to apologise about the disturbance the night before and he just said there was no need and asked if I was ok. I was still mortified and just mumbled that I was fine and thanked him and ran away. I’m grateful to that man. Not only because him speaking up helped me in that moment, but because he reminds me that the world is also full of good men.
Most of the women I know have stories that resemble these. Many have stories which are much worse. These are mine, and I want to share them because they are part of the story of my body. They are part of the story of so many women’s bodies. These stories are part of a web of violations, big and small. I want to share them because they are a part of what shaped my relationship with my body, but also because I think my own very ordinary experiences – and don’t underestimate how ordinary they are – illustrate how important real consent is. How important it is that all the people involved in a sexual encounter are comfortable. Sex isn’t something that should happen to you, it’s something you should participate in joyfully. We need to remember to be aware of the person – or people – we’re fucking, and their enjoyment. We need to listen and watch and pay attention. In my stories – and in many stories – this is violence imposed on women by men, but everyone of all genders should be aware of the importance of consent.
Someone doesn’t have to say no or push you away to show they’re not enjoying themselves. Someone shouldn’t have to scream and shout or physically defend themselves to make their discomfort clear to you. We are all responsible for checking in with our sexual partners and being sure they’re having a good time. None of us should be Rafa.
– by an anonymous woman, 25