Victims of abuse: ‘You always keep the thought that you could have said no’

Sexually transgressive behavior takes many different forms. It does not always have to be accompanied by violence and can gradually creep into a relationship. Vox spoke to three students who were victims of abuse. They talk about taboos and the (psychological) consequences they still have to deal with.

Julie* (24): ‘She could get very angry’

Julie was 13 when she first met Diana, a 21-year-old woman she had met online. She had some contact with peers and it clicked with Diana.

“She knew exactly what to say to a 13-year-old. I was “so mature for my age, so smart and so special”. Then eventually you will believe it’. The contact remained online at the time, but intensified, with Diana also beginning to ask for explicit photos and recordings. “I kind of knew I shouldn’t agree to that. You hear it everywhere, and my parents also regularly warned against sharing anything online. At the same time, I had the feeling that this was different. That this was true love.’

After a while, Diana cut off contact. She would have realized the trouble she could get into if the contact between her and the minor Julie was leaked. Years passed until Julie was again contacted by Diana at the age of 21.

“It was a very strange moment. Because I had become really attached to her at that point and wanted nothing more than to be with her. But at the same time I was very angry about what had happened. I also wanted to know if she had some pictures of me. That’s why I accepted her contact request. And then you get sucked back into the relationship.”

The two began a long-distance relationship, occasionally seeing each other in real life, and the relationship grew increasingly sour. “She could get very angry and suddenly be done with me. Eventually I did everything I could to avoid it and I became completely isolated. Until she was the only one I had left.’

As a result, Julie almost automatically did what Diana asked of her. “For example, she expected me to keep a phone line open with her all day and even at night so she could hear me. When the line went down, she got angry. When I made my own plans, she got angry. If she wanted something sexual and didn’t get it, she got mad’.

‘Abuse doesn’t have to mean you’re dragged into the bushes somewhere’

It happened that Julie had unwanted sex with Diana several times. Otherwise she would become aggressive. Giving in was an easy way for me to keep her from getting mad. Those were the most difficult moments that I thought about afterwards: I wish I had said no.’ Julie has long felt that she was to blame for it. “It is the complexity of a situation where you are not forced physically, but mentally. That you constantly keep the idea that you could have said no. I could have said no, but at that moment it felt like I couldn’t’.

This is also the reason why Julie is now sharing her story. “Abuse does not have to mean that you are dragged into the bushes somewhere and have a knife held to your throat. It could also be that someone makes you feel understood and takes advantage of you in that way’. Julie is now in therapy and can talk about what happened to her. “I felt guilty and dirty for a long time. Now I’ve gotten to the point where I’m just mad. It’s actually very liberating.’

Still, the events will always be a part of her life. “I am going through EMDR therapy [Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, een behandeling voor traumaverwerking, red.] luckily already much less panic. I will always find it difficult when people are angry with me, but I hope I will learn to handle it better in the future.’

Illustration: Ivana Smudja

Wies* (22): ‘If I was in pain, he said it was part of it’

Last summer, Wies met Stefan* via the dating app Bumble. Dating went by the book, but step by step Stefan gained more influence. When Wies indicated that he did not want sex, he convinced her to do it anyway. “Then when I was in pain, he said that was part of it and that I should accept the pain instead of him stopping.” Because he kept talking her into it, Wies started to think it was normal for this to happen. The trauma only followed later.

“I was diagnosed with PTSD [posttraumatische stressstoornis, red.] and has been treated for it using EMDR. The diagnosis came as a blow. It was a lot at once. I also had many questions. What had happened to me again? Why me? Why didn’t I realize that Stefan was abusing me?’

The questions were accompanied by a sense of guilt. “I felt like it was all my fault. I really had to work hard on that with the psychologist. Also some people around me didn’t understand why I hadn’t ended the relationship with Stefan sooner. How could I stay with him when he treated me so bad?’

‘He constantly tried to make me dependent on him’

She indicates that sometimes breaking up a relationship is much harder than you think. ‘Someone can exert so much influence on you that you feel like you really can’t just walk away. He kept trying to make me dependent on him.’ For example, against Wies’ wishes, he bought many expensive gifts, and he quickly started talking about living together. ‘I really didn’t want any of that. At that time I could not return gifts and was aware of the skewed power relations that would arise’.

At the time, Wies didn’t realize that Stefan was overstepping her boundaries. ‘Part of my environment could not understand it, it was very difficult for me.’ She found out more about that from the psychologist. “The brain can apparently suppress a trauma for a very long time. As a result, you can literally forget what happened.’

She hopes that in the future people will be less quick to make their own judgments, especially when victims speak for the first time about their experiences of sexually transgressive behavior. My advice is: listen. And if you have questions, first check if it’s okay to continue talking about the topic.’ EMDR has now ended, but Wies still talks regularly with her psychologist. “Even after the treatment of a trauma such as sexual abuse, you do not suddenly return to normal. I have officially recovered from PTSD, but the memory and concentration problems still have a big impact on my life.’

David* (25): ‘He grabbed my head’

David was abused as a child. He later had a relationship in which sexual abuse took place, and during his time as a student he was confronted with sexually abusive behavior on several occasions. ‘To put it bluntly, it’s kind of a recurring theme in my life.’

The last time David was abused was when he walked home with a boy after a board meeting. ‘He would try all kinds of sexual acts. He obviously felt invited to penetrate me as well. I could stop that, but it required more insistence than I had expected.’

Not respecting each other’s personal boundaries is more common in associations, says David. ‘It’s loose. There is a lot of drinking and one-night stands are quite common. I found out that people quickly think that it is permissible to cross boundaries that you haven’t even been able to make clear yet’.

‘By bringing up these experiences, you can have a big impact’

This was also the case during a date with another boy he had met in his board life. “There was nothing really wrong until he grabbed my head and pushed around his penis. He kept pushing. It came out of nowhere for me. I thought ‘we’re not going to do this’ and left. ‘

Although there are several counselors at the university, David did not go there. ‘I have enough problems with my studies at the moment. Additionally, I have had almost full-time therapy for the child abuse for the past few years, and still do. I think that’s fine, but it doesn’t leave much room to set out on a completely different emotional path.’

David also found it difficult to raise these incidents with his board. ‘You are in a group where you all know each other. By bringing up these experiences, you are making a big impact. If you’re stuck in your shoes at that moment, it doesn’t necessarily have to be negative, but I had other things on my mind.’ David leaves it at that. ‘These experiences are a ‘light’ variant of what I have already experienced in my past. Sexually transgressive behavior is common in student circles. I don’t really feel like I have a choice but to accept it.’

Although David has not sought help on campus himself, he believes that the university can make students more aware of unwanted behaviour. “Consent is a very fine concept, but after a few beers it is no longer in everyone’s vocabulary. Fortunately, what I experienced will not happen to everyone. But an unwanted touch is in a small corner. Be aware of it and talk about it.’

*All names in this article have been changed at the request of the interviewees. The editors know the real names.

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