(Trigger warning for descriptions of sexual assault and rape.)
As a teenager, I was raped by one of my closest male friends. It was a different kind of rape to the one you’re expecting to hear about. It may be a form of sexual assault/rape that you never knew existed. Because until recently, I didn’t either.
We are taught that rape and sexual assault are violent. We are taught that it is a desperate struggle; that it is a woman fighting off her attacker. We are taught that rape is forceful. And yes, that is most definitely a description of rape. But it is only one form that rape can take. With my rape, I had consented to having sex. The thing is, I didn’t consent to the sex that we ended up having. I had consented to having sex using a condom.
My rape was not, for me, terrifying or traumatising. My rape was one of deceit and betrayal, but not of violence. But, it was rape nonetheless, even if I did not know this until a lot, lot later; until this form of rape began to be talked about in the mainstream.
I may even have overlooked what was done to me if I had not discovered that my guy mate had sexually assaulted a further four of our friends.
Let’s call this guy Steve.
The night that he sexually assaulted/raped me, our interaction went something like this: I asked him to use a condom, and he complained that he didn’t like using them. I told him he had to use a condom, and he complained some more that he didn’t know how to put it on because he never used them. I handed him a condom and told him once more to put it on, and made it clear that we would not be having sex without it. There was some shuffling in the dark. Then we had sex.
After, he said “Haha, didn’t even use a condom!”
For those who might ask why I didn’t know he had not put on a condom, we had sex in the dark (as stated above), and we had been drinking.
In the morning I told my friend. She was outraged. I felt violated and betrayed, but it felt awkward and I didn’t know if I was entitled to feel the way I did. I knew it was wrong, but then Steve and I had to share a train home together and after all, he did apologise. So it became a joke between us – one I felt uncomfortable with – and everyone knew. My friend stayed friends with him. All my friends did. As did I.
A few years later, he sexually assaulted one of my closest friends, by putting his hands down her underwear and touching her genitals whilst she was asleep. This time I made the mistake. I was outraged, and I didn’t speak to him for a while, but eventually Steve and I became friends again. My friend never spoke to him again. She doesn’t speak to me now. That’s my fault, I think, although she never named my reaction as the reason she ended the friendship.
Over the years I brought both events up with Steve. I also brought up an event from our teenage years where Steve had assaulted another teenage boy by giving him non-consensual oral sex whilst he was asleep. I told Steve to get therapy, but Steve kept telling me that it wouldn’t work. I said to try it regardless, so he would show that he was doing all he could to never do that to anyone else again. He still refused. He said he had cut down on drinking, and didn’t sleep in the same bed as anyone any more. He said that when he was drunk he “couldn’t help himself”, as if he had no control over it and was not responsible for his drunken behaviour. Even so, he never stopped drinking. My friends who lived in the same areas as him said he was basically an alcoholic (and according to some, this meant he deserved help over being accountable for the pain he had caused his victims). He had not cut down. He never intended to try and keep anyone safe. He just said what I wanted to hear so it looked like he was doing something.
But still, I remained friends with him. I continued to challenge him, and he continued to accept his behaviour as assault, and yet do nothing to change it or act in any way that showed genuine remorse. One day, years later, Steve and another male friend came back to mine after a night out. We all got into the pullout bed to watch a movie. My other male friend passed out. Steve and I were snuggled up together, but that wasn’t unusual, and he was like that with all of our female friends (now on reflection, that feels a bit weird). Steve started touching me and moving his hands down towards my groin. I said “no” and he stopped for a second, before doing it again. I said “no” more than four times before I got out of the bed and went into my bedroom. He followed me and asked to sleep in my bed. I said no, but he persisted, saying he would “be good”, until eventually I told him to fuck off (he continued to come into my room and wake me up me throughout the night, citing being cold and needing paracetamol).
A year or so later I read about “stealthing” (the act of removing a condom during sex without consent). Although Steve never even put the condom on in the first place, I realised that this was what he had done to me. The article talked about it as sexual assault, or rape, and my world tilted a little. I felt sick.
The law states that if a person doesn’t stick to the rules defined before having sex (such as using a condom) then you don’t have consent. A report on “stealthing” said that “apart from the fear of specific bad outcomes like pregnancy and STIs, all of the survivors experienced the condom removal as a disempowering, demeaning violation of a sexual agreement”. Stealthing is illegal in the UK because is violates the consent law of the complainant agreeing to the activity by choice. In January of 2017 in Switzerland, a 47-year-old man was convicted of rape because he took off a condom during sexual intercourse with a woman who he had met on Tinder, and a 36-year-old German police officer was convicted of sexual assault in December 2017 for the same crime. In an article by CNN, it reads: “The victim told the court that she “explicitly requested” the man to wear a condom and gave no consent to sexual intercourse without protection. She added that she realized that the man had not been wearing a condom only when he ejaculated.”
I confronted Steve, and he accepted it as rape. Again, he refused to do anything physical to make reparations for his sexual assaults. I started to distance myself from him. I found out that he had sexually assaulted two of my other female friends: one had woken up with his hand down their knickers, touching their genitals, and another had also been touched up by him without their consent.
I started to feel more and more nauseous and angry. Over the years I had told people about the things I had known at that time: the assaults he had committed. People talked about him disapprovingly, others with outrage, and yet everyone remained friends with him, including all but one of those assaulted. But after I watched my boyfriend hug him at a Christmas get together to avoid any confrontation or awkwardness, I had had enough. This time I decided to talk to people about it, as an adult, and asked them if they were going to hold him accountable.
And you know what happened? Not much. Those who were assaulted are mostly no longer friends with him. My boyfriend has cut him off, but not without prompting. But everyone else who is aware? To them, their friendship with him is more important than the fact that he has assaulted a significant amount of their friends. They decided that, even as someone who sexually assaults other people, he was more valuable to them than the trauma, pain, betrayal, and anger of those who he sexually assaulted. Those who I and other victims talked to always brought it back to themselves and what they would lose out of ending their friendship with Steve, not what the victims wanted themselves. They didn’t care what would make the victims feel safe, or care about what support they needed. They didn’t care that there was a person that had sexually assaulted multiple people in their midst. They cared about creating a safe space for the rapist and sexual assaulter, rather than those he had assaulted. They cared about keeping their friendship intact.
One man in our friendship group cut him off for a few months, but then returned to being friends again because he “missed him”. Before he cut Steve off, he was hugely reluctant to end his friendship. One of the people Steve had assaulted was trying to explain why it was the right thing to do, and, frustrated at his unwillingness to do anything, asked if he even cared about the people Steve had hurt. He replied “Of course I care about you and the people he hurt, and I’m going to make my life go to shit because of it. That should be enough.” Ending a friendship with a sexual assaulter counted as “making his life go to shit”. It all boiled down to how much it hurt him, and in the end, he decided his hurt at not having a sexual assaulter for a friend trumped the hurt of those who were assaulted.
I’m not blameless, for sure. I remained friends with him for a long time. I had countless conversations with him where I challenged him, but I didn’t cut ties with him until years later. I’m not saying it was right, but we were all teenagers then. Now we are adults. We are supposed to be aware, and mature, and to grasp the gravity of such things. We are supposed to have a firm understanding of right and wrong.
My friends are the type that you would think would never excuse rape or sexual assault. They are liberals. They are intelligent; open-minded; generous. They talk about equality. They call themselves feminists. They think rape and sexual assault is horrific…until it is their friend committing it.
When people talk about rapists or sexual assaulters, they picture monsters. They picture strangers. But all rapists all have families, and friends. They all have interests, passions, and hobbies. They all have qualities that other people like. They are not monsters. They are not strangers. They are people that we know. They are people that we love.
Most of my female friends have been raped, or sexually assaulted. They have been raped by strangers. They have been drugged and raped on nights out. They have been raped by friends. They have been raped by men that they are dating. They have been raped by their partners. They have been raped in hospital units by those who were entrusted to their care. They have consented to sex but then been left battered, bruised, and bleeding. They have gone to give their partner oral sex and had his penis forced down their throat until they threw up. They have woken up with men’s fingers inside them: men that they trusted. They have had men put their fingers into them in clubs. They have been raped as children. They have been preyed on as teenagers by adult men.
All of these men have friends. Some of them will know. Most of them will say nothing. Even more will do nothing. Because when a rapist is a friend, it requires sacrificing your friendship with them. It requires having to deal with confrontation. It means things feeling awkward. It means taking a stand. It might mean having to talk to other friends about it – friends that might also excuse it. And so people do nothing. They don’t want to do the right thing because it is harder than just leaving things as they are.
Those of us who have been assaulted or raped, we watch your silence. We watch your inaction. It becomes scarier to tell people than to keep it buried inside, because when we tell you and you excuse it – when we tell you and you say nothing and do nothing – we are betrayed. We are sickened. We start having to cross our friends off a list of people we can trust to protect us. We realise that we are not safe. We see that our friends put their friendship with a rapist ahead of us. Ahead of our rape or sexual assault. Ahead of our pain and anger. Ahead of our trauma. By doing so, they show the rapist that it is okay to rape. That it is okay to assault. The rapist knows they can count on their friends to excuse and tolerate his (or her) behaviour, and the survivor watches their friends betray them and realises that they are the one that is alone; unsupported. Our safe spaces get smaller and smaller, and rapists and sexual assaulters expand their safe spaces with every person that accepts that behaviour. A huge proportion of people who experience rape or sexual assault are traumatised by their experience. Because “stealthing” is a different form of rape, for me it did not feel traumatising. It felt deceitful, betraying, shocking, humiliating, and painful, but not traumatising. What felt traumatising has been the inaction, invalidation, and dismissal of mine and my other friend’s experiences. It has been horrific to speak about it and find that no one felt it was worth any action. It felt repulsive that people still felt the same way about him; that he was a good friend of theirs. In the end, I stopped telling people, because I felt too afraid that yet another person I trusted would disregard his actions and devalue everyone he has assaulted and what impact that has had on them. I stopped telling people because it would mean counting less and less people as my friends, and that was too painful.
It is often the same for victims of domestic violence. My friends all knew about my abuser years ago. His friends knew about it. Some of my friends even befriended him after they knew about it. One of my best friends dated him. Our friends excused it. His parents decided it was my fault. I had no one to protect me. I had no one on my side. This is a story that it repeated over and over again with victims of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault.
The story of people choosing to be friends with rapists over protecting and validating their victims is being told again and again and again. I hear about it from people in my life. I read about it in blog posts and articles all over the internet. It is unacceptable. Not only is rape and sexual assault traumatic and damaging to victims, but these are recognised crimes. If you recognise yourself even slightly in this post as one of these “friends”, stop dismissing devastating, criminal behaviour because it is painful to lose a friend. Rapists might feel like good friends to you, but they are not good people. If you excuse them because you like them and they haven’t hurt you, you are saying that you don’t care if they hurt others.
In response to a question of a someone who has a rapist friend and (for some reason) doesn’t know what to do, this person says: “Your friend is a rapist! How many women would he have to rape before you would stop being friends with him? One? Three? Six? You say he only does inappropriate things like raping people when he’s drunk. The average rapist rapes six women and alcohol is a very common factor. So maybe he’s just getting started. Or maybe he’s raped other women who you don’t know[…] I know that this was a horrible thing to find out about someone you like, and I know you are searching for ways that it isn’t real or isn’t true […] it’s hard to give up on a connection that makes you happy. It feels sad and not fair, when you didn’t do anything wrong. The fact that this guy can rape people and then present so well with friends is not a fluke or an accident. It’s how people get away with this crime over and over and over again. They don’t “seem” dangerous. And they surround themselves with people who will tolerate and apologize for and rationalize away what they did. Do you really want that to be you?” (read the full question and answer here).
We live in a culture where sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence is seen as horrendous from afar, but when it is a friend, we excuse it. All abusers have friends. Don’t be the friend that upholds rape culture by accepting their behaviour. When there are no consequences, they know they don’t have to change. When people decide that rapist’s and sexual assaulter’s behaviour are tolerable enough to stay friends with them, and when they continue showing them love, respect, and care whilst shunning the victims experiences and trauma, they are being shown that what they are doing is socially acceptable and won’t cost them anything. Don’t be the friend who isolates and betrays the survivor. Make the effort to do the right thing, regardless of the conflict it may bring. Show survivors that they are valued more than their abusers. We need and deserve your support.