In this piece Sophie* talks to SafeLives Knowledge Hub Advisor Collette Eaton-Harris about the sexual violence she experienced from a partner as a teenager, and some of the wider issues that bisexual women face.
Warning: contains descriptions of sexual violence
The relationship started when we were 15 and ended when we were both about 21. We were at school, I think we had some classes together. It was kind of my first proper relationship. It was a pretty average kind of teenager relationship. But before we even slept together there were kind of a few things that didn’t seem right. He was trying to go at a pace much quicker than I wanted to, because neither of us had slept with anyone before, obviously we were both very young. And he wanted to move to that stage a lot quicker than I wanted to move to that stage, which I think is a very common thing amongst teenagers.
But even the first time we had any kind of sexual contact above kissing, was a little bit forceful. You know, like he kind of tried to hold me in place, because I would say, “Get off, I don’t want to do this, you’re hurting, like you’ve got to get off me now.” And he kind of used his body weight to like keep me pressed up against a wall, as it were. And he was like, “No, you’ve just got to relax. And then it will be fun, like you’re going to want it in a minute.” So eventually I had to use some force to get him to get off me. And so that for me was like the first red flag, and we had quite a big fight about that.
“Each time I managed to rationalise it to myself”
Then it was kind of okay after that for a while, but I guess that was the first time we had any contact like that, and it was in complete violation of my boundaries. And so it just kind of set a precedent that I wouldn’t leave him if he did stuff like this to me. So there wasn’t really any motivation for him to not try and push my boundaries constantly. That was only about 15 that happened, it was only a couple of months after we started dating.
And kind of as things went on, a lot of the time, everything we did was on his terms rather than mine. And, you know, he quite often went beyond boundaries I had set. And then each time I managed to rationalise it to myself, my God, he’s just trying to, you know, I’m still learning, he’s still learning, blah, blah, blah. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but eventually it just kind of kept escalating like that. You know, that thing about the frog being put in cold water? The water was already quite warm when I got put in it. But it just kept getting hotter anyway.
The things he would say to me would be like, “Oh, well you know, my friends’ girlfriends let them do this. And other girls want to do this, so why don’t you want to do it? And I’ve seen it like on the internet” and blah, blah, blah. So, you know, it felt normal at the time. But then obviously looking back, it wasn’t the same as other peoples’ relationships.
I came out very young. I came out to my friends at 14. So he was already aware of my identity when we started dating at 15, which I think is a little uncommon. But I was just very aware of it. I think he knew that it was quite isolating for me because we grew up in a very rural place. And it was like 2008, so there wasn’t the awareness of the identities that there is now, I think. And there wasn’t LGBT school groups or any places for me to access at that time. And although some of my friends had already come out, it was very much like the LGBT spaces were aimed at gay people, rather than bi people. So he knew that it was a struggle for me, that I kind of was like, well, I should just be a lesbian, why can’t I just do that? That was something I was quite angry about in myself. And so sometimes he would use that because he knew that I wanted to kind of prove to myself that I really was bisexual instead of gay or straight. And so he would say like, “Well, maybe you don’t want to do it because you are just a lesbian. And like you’re just not accepting this, admitting it to yourself.” He never called me straight or said I was straight. But he would say like, “Maybe you’re not bisexual. Maybe you’re a lesbian and you just can’t like come out to yourself.” Which, you know, is a stereotype that a lot of us hear.
“There are real world consequences of barring people from what might be their only resource to validation of community”
So it’s obviously quite isolating to grow up in that situation of not knowing many other people around you. And it was definitely something that had an effect on my self-esteem and mental health. Some people were very much like, “Okay, whatever.” But it doesn’t quite feel the same, does it, they say “I support you.” But then at the same time they make jokes, “Ha ha, that’s so gay.” Especially back then, this was like seven or eight years ago, that was very common.
I used websites like Tumblr to access other bisexual people and kind of find some validation that it was kind of okay to have this identity. When I went to uni I tried to join the LGBT group there and it was a bad experience. Again somebody tried to make it very clear to me that like this is a space for gay people who were either in same sex relationships, or want to be. Like coming there when you have a boyfriend you’re not necessarily welcomed.
We were at a social and you know how these things go, where people are like, “How do you identify?” And so I’d be like, “I’m bisexual” and then the same person would come up and kind of enter into this conversation, “she’s got a boyfriend though” Just making it very clear to everyone like, “She says she’s bisexual, but she’s got a boyfriend.” So that made me very uncomfortable. So I didn’t engage with the LGBT group very much for the first two years that I was in uni. In the third year we had a new president, it was very good after that. But for the first two years it was kind of a drinking society for gay people. So, you know, that wasn’t something that I felt I could access or feel very supported in. I got the comment from lesbians quite often, like, you know, one girl who was a lesbian told me like, “Straight people don’t want you because they think you’re gay and we don’t want you because we think you’re straight.” I had comments like that, you know, occasionally. There are real world consequences of barring people from what might be their only resource to validation of community. And I think for women who have experienced sexual violence, it’s really important to have that community. And then feeling…and I’m sure you’ve experienced it, where you want to go to an event but then you’re like, “Oh, no, is someone going to make a comment that I shouldn’t really be here because I’m like, you know, actually straight?”
Two studies I’ve looked at from America – there isn’t any that I can find here in the UK – have found that bi women are more likely than both straight or gay women to experience sexual violence. And one of them is that 75% have experienced any kind of sexual violence, it’s incredibly high numbers. And then I’ve been speaking to some girls about their experiences. You know, there are similar themes running through all of them, like I was seen as being promiscuous. And I was seen as being up for anything. And this person thought they could take advantage of that.
“That was the first time I really admitted to myself like it’s not okay for this to have happened”
There was always kind of a nagging feeling in the back of my mind, because it’s very easy to go through the experiences where somebody is having sex with you, but you’re not having sex with them. And often I’d end up in tears and like, well, disassociating and trying to get away from the environment. But it’s very easy kind of afterwards to go like, well, maybe I did want him, maybe I didn’t say no enough. So although I had a kind of nagging feeling in me that like this isn’t right, it was far too easy to rationalise that away.
There was kind of a turning point when…usually he would try and use coercion at first, kind of like, “Come on do this, or if you won’t do that, do this” and “why won’t you do it?” And that kind of stuff until eventually I’d be like, “Okay.” But the one occasion that was quite eye opening for me was when he’d been drinking and he went in straightaway, got on top of me and pinned me down. Even though I’d said like no several times, and nothing actually ended up happening that night, whereas on other occasions it had escalated. But then I spoke to some friends about it and I was like, “Hey, this happened last night, it was a bit gross.” And my friends are all very jokey people, but they went very serious and were like, “That’s not okay that that happened. And he should not be doing that to you at all, and that’s completely wrong.” And so that was kind of a bit of a wake-up call that I’d had. It was the first time I’d ever mentioned that things were maybe not what they seemed. And to have that validation actually it wasn’t right, it was probably what caused me to end it. We ended up staying together for a couple of months after that. And then eventually I got out of the relationship with some help from my current girlfriend. But that was the first time I really admitted to myself like it’s not okay for this to have happened.
I think you need to be aware of your own shame around your sexuality and address that. And find things that make you feel good and positive about being a bi woman. Because I think, you know, there is a lot of shame and stigma around it. And I think it’s easy to let that make you think, well, I feel bad about this, so it’s okay for other people to make me feel bad about it and use it against me. So I think kind of addressing that and finding as much positivity as you can, is a good thing.
“trusting that voice in you, because it was there for me the whole time, saying, this isn’t okay”
And just understanding that it’s meant to be fun, it’s not meant to be like a chore. And you’re not meant to be doing things that you don’t want to do. My ex-partner would say to me, “Well, you don’t have sex with me enough. You don’t do this enough. And like you’re not fulfilling my needs.” And it made it feel like a chore, like, you know, okay, I’ve got to do the dishwasher and then I’ve got to have sex with this person who I don’t want to have sex with.” I know it sounds crazy, but that’s kind of how it came in my mindset. But I think understanding that like just because somebody sees you as someone quite sexual, you don’t have to be.
And then obviously talking to people that you trust as soon as you feel like something’s wrong. Especially if you have other bi women to talk to it about, I think that’s really important. That they can give you that validation of, hey, you’re right, that’s not okay. And let’s see what we can do to help you. I was lucky as a teenager because there were a few other bi women around me.
And trusting that voice in you, because it was there for me the whole time, saying, like, this isn’t okay. But I just, it was so easy, because I was so upset with myself and like (a) I was a teenage girl, like all teenage girls hate themselves as a little bit, I think. And (b) having that extra dollop of figuring out your sexuality and your shame around it. It was so easy to just use those voices to silence that little nagging feeling.
I think what needs to be addressed and looked into is what does a healthy relationship look like to somebody who’s bisexual and dating someone of like another sexual identity? And how can they be better allies? And how can we understand what we deserve from them? I think that’s something that’s not really spoken about, but I think needs to be.
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