We were laughing, I remember that much. His Essex accent bouncing off the walls of my Bronte Beach apartment. It was winter, but so early in the morning it was still dark out. He’d been wandering Kings Cross all night and managed to find his way into my bedroom, despite only being in the country for a handful of hours. He didn’t knock, he just opened the door and sat on the side of the bed, like he knew I’d enjoy his company. Like we were old friends and it was a normal thing to do. As if we weren’t total strangers meeting for the first time. He was so drunk he smelled of sour beer. But in that moment, that second, I liked the attention.
He was my housemate’s childhood best friend. He’d come over from the UK to surf and was supposed to be crashing on our couch for two weeks. Despite the fact that they hadn’t seen each other since they were 10, I was promised he was a decent guy. My housemate was an electrician and was working the late shift at Edgecliff train station, so most nights it was just me at home – alone – with this British backpacker.
At first, he would compliment me. He told me he thought I was funny. He’d inch closer, leaning towards me, trying to get under the covers. We kissed a bit, but nothing else. I was nursing a newly broken heart and had only ever been with one person. Our connection wasn’t sexual. I craved the company, the conversation. I liked feeling like I wasn’t damaged goods.
I started to expect his visits, to look forward to them even. I knew exactly what he wanted. He wasn’t shy about his attraction or his intention. He literally begged to hook up with me, reasoning he wanted to add an “Aussie” to his list of conquests. And every night, I’d feign interest, pretend I was considering it. But slowly, the walls – my boundaries – were dropping. A little more, a little more. Further still. A shirt ripped off. Pants are unzipped. His sweat seeping through my pyjama top.
He said I was “peculiar,” that everyone in their early 20s was having casual, no-strings-attached sex. I believed him. I thought I was weird for not being ready, too. But there was something in me saying no. Some in-built resistance to being vulnerable again. In case of hurt or, more likely, fear of judgement: what if I was bad at it? I was hardly an expert in seduction after just one relationship. How could I measure up to all the worldly girls this guy had told me he’d been with?
“Slowly, the walls – my boundaries – were dropping. A little more, a little more. Further still. A shirt ripped off. Pants are unzipped. His sweat seeping through my pyjama top.”
I woke up late one morning to the sound of his voice in the kitchen. He was discussing my vagina with my housemate. What it looked like, what it smelled like, what it felt like when he put his hand down my trackies. I heard him say I was “beautiful” but only “from the waist down.”
After that, I told him he wasn’t allowed in my bedroom anymore. He spat on me, a glob of saliva dripping down my skin. And yet again, he came. We discussed money – he offered up the $800 sitting in his suitcase if I’d do it without a condom. It sounded like a joke so I laughed, but it wasn’t.
“Do you know how weird it is that you won’t put out? You’re a frigid bitch.”
“You’re a dick tease.”
I didn’t know what else to do besides wait for his visits every night. I was too embarrassed to tell my girlfriends, aware I was being used and not wanting to admit I saw sex as something meaningful, something I reserved for loving relationships only. I avoided my neighbours when I usually ate dinner with them a few times a week. I was worn down, I was sad. I didn’t want to be called peculiar.
His last night in Aus, I did everything humanly possible to delay the inevitable. I cut laps of Bronte park in the pitch black, trying to run myself into exhaustion. Hoping I’d fall into a deep, impenetrable sleep. When I finally got home, he was waiting for me half-naked on the couch, a condom lying next to him. And I didn’t have any excuses left.
I felt his breath on my neck first, then his hands. Slowly gripping tighter as he moved in and out of my body. I focused on the ceiling, I focused on the creamy fabric of the couch. Willing myself to be anywhere, everywhere but in that moment. Wondering if this was where it ended for me. I’d heard some people got off from erotic asphyxiation, but this felt like a threat. Like a final power play. A physical reminder that I had a choice, I had a voice – but I was too weak to stand up for myself.
Recently, upon recommendation from the entirety of the Internet, I binge-watched the Netflix series Sex / Life. The acting is, admittedly, terrible, but everyone seems to be talking about its soft-porn sex scenes and spicy plotline; a happily married mum-of-two named Billie is contacted out of the blue by her ‘bad boy’ ex-boyfriend who, after weeks of emotional manipulation and many, many refusals, convinces her to sleep with him.
The romanticising of this is what upsets me most – the fact that young girls and women watching the show might consider this behaviour – the relentless chasing, the not taking “no” for an answer – normal. Albeit, sexy.
In the 8 years since my experience with the backpacker, the concept of ‘coercive control’ is something I can’t help returning to. I wasn’t raped, I want to be very clear on that. But, just like Billie, I found myself in a position where someone repeatedly asked me for sex, and I eventually gave in. This, by very definition, speaks to coercive control: the deliberate act of oppressing, intimidating or humiliating someone to do something they don’t want to do until they feel they have no other choice but to accept it – whether out of exhaustion, fear or simply to make the person stop.
We’ve come a long way in holding conversations around the parameters of consent as of late, but in my opinion, there’s still a blind spot when it comes to identifying and preventing coercive control. Especially considering statistically, 1 in 6 women will experience at least 1 sexual assault from the age of 16 – with half neglecting to seek help because they are too frightened to do so.
Enthusiastic consent plays a huge part here – we need to spell out what it really looks and sounds like, in real-life situations. There is this widespread idea that if a person means no, they’ll say no clearly. But sometimes, in certain instances, that just doesn’t feel possible.
If this article raises issues for you or someone else, please call:
- Lifeline 131114
- Domestic Violence Helpline 1800 811 811
- Mensline 1300 78 99 78
- Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
- Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800