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Why do I still feel so guilty?

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Erin asks:

I was dating a guy and the whole time I was dating him, he kept wanting to have sex with me. And I told him I wanted to wait for marriage. He said he'd wait for me and never ask me about it again. Well......that didn't happen. Every time we were together he kept asking if I wanted to move to the next level and I said no. Well, he kept doing this for two years, and we broke up a couple times over it. He'd always just apologize and say he wouldn't ask again. But then one day we went fishing together and he brought a blanket (which I thought was sweet....) and a condom. And he asked again.

Heather Corinna replies:

Erin's question continued

And I said it wasn't that I didn't want to, but that I should at least wait until I get on birth control or something. And he started begging, so I said we could do anything except for that. And then he told me nothing else would be good enough, and got really angry and acted like he was going home, like he wouldn't spend the day with me just because of that...and I felt like a failure as a girlfriend. So I told him to go ahead. And I just lay there trying not to cry.

I told him he was hurting me and he yelled at me that he couldn't help it. And I told him to stop because we had to go to track practice or we would be late; he said he had to finish. And when he was done and I was bleeding and crying, he kept apologizing and saying we'd never do it again.....and we never did. Of course I broke it off with him 4 months later when I went to college.

I told my parents that we had had sex. They said I was disgusting. I know I am bad for letting it happen to me, I know it was my fault, but its been four years now since I've had a boyfriend. I've kissed a few guys, but I feel guilty and dirty even for just doing those things. I don't know what is wrong with me. I don't know why I still feel so guilty?

Erin, I am so terribly sorry this happened to you, both what occurred with this guy and for how your parents have treated you in its aftermath. It's times like this that I wish there were a button on the keyboard I could push so I could hug someone who I think really needs one.

Because you express still feeling ashamed -- dirty and guilty -- I want to say some things to you which you may already intellectually know, but perhaps might benefit from hearing again since it doesn't appear you are feeling any of them.

You say you know this was your fault: I beg to differ. I do not agree that it was your fault at all. What happened does not sound like sex to me: it sounds, quite exactly, like date rape and like abuse. You telling your parents this was sex is, in my book, like me telling someone that an apple is actually a radio transmitter.

You were manipulated and coerced into doing something you did not want to do by someone you knew and trusted. This person basically threatened to withold care for you -- by threatening to leave if you did not do what he wanted -- if you did not submit to him. This was in no way about your pleasure nor your emotional wants and needs. This was all about someone doing something to you, not with you. You were yelled at when you expressed pain, and the person causing you pain made no effort to alleviate your pain. None of that is partnered sex. At best, it's someone masturbating on you, and at worst, again, it's rape. In my book, a situation like this is both, and what it certainly is not is partnered sex. The "partner" part of the phrase "partnered sex," is so key: someone forcing, manipulating or coercing us into doing something they want for themselves has nothing to do with partnership or mutuality.

When you say you "let this happen to you," that statement does something pretty powerful, and not in a good way: it takes this guy, and what he did, out of the equation. It seems to completely remove his responsibility, and put it all on you, almost as if the "it" could happen without him, which it could not have.

"It" didn't happen: this guy completely disrespected your needs and wishes. He made promises again and again about treating you with respect he routinely broke. He systematically wore you down over time through constant harassment and emotional manipulation. You were not and are not a failure: you were done wrong and harm by someone who actively, willingly and knowingly chose to do you wrong and harm.

Perhaps we should address what you were -- and are -- responsible for in this situation. Absolutely, you chose to date this person, and are responsible for choosing to spend time with him in the context you presented which, from what I can gather, was a dating relationship which was not sexual, given your clearly stated boundary. You are responsible for doing things like agreeing to go fishing. You are certainly responsible for choosing to stay with this person in a relationship (although if he exhibited the kinds of dynamics he did sexually, I have to also wonder if he wasn't abusive or manipulative in other areas of your relationship as well). From what I can see, those are the things for which you are responsible.

Agreeing to go fishing is not agreeing to have sex and it certainly is not agreement to be raped: it's agreeing to go fishing. Agreeing to stay in a relationship which is stated to be non-sexual before marriage is not agreeing to have sex. And choosing to be around someone -- particularly someone who assures you they will respect whatever boundaries you have -- is not choosing to be available for whatever they want for themselves from you which you are not interested in providing.

Flatly, you didn't agree to have sex: this guy wasn't offering you an experience about mutually shared pleasure, warmth and closeness; he was clearly interested in nothing but his own pleasure, both sexually as well as the kind of pleasure abusive people get from manipulating others into meeting their needs. If and when you willingly, wantedly choose to be sexual with someone else in the future who cares for you it is simply not going to even remotely resemble this experience.

He was not seeking agreement from you or partnership with you, but submission. You stopped fighting because you got worn down from doing it for so long and because, from what I can gather, you were convinced by someone or yourself that something was wrong with you -- which it was not -- for having the boundaries you did, and you were afraid of losing love and affection you wanted from someone. My impression, too, from many years of working with rape survivors is that while sometimes, that submission is due to shock, it can also be something people do because submitting seems or feels less awful than trying to physically fight someone off, especially if we think we are going to lose that battle, or if we want to try and salvage some notion of having first-time sex be sex, not rape.

Quite frankly, since this guy knew your boundaries from the start, and since he chose to stay in a relationship with you knowing full well what the sexual limitations were, it's entirely likely that part of what got him off was wearing you down and getting his way. I'm not going to get into the pathology or psychology of all of this, but when any of us agrees to a set of limitations and chooses to stay in something where we know that they are hard limits, if we want something very radically different but still stick around, it's sage to figure something is amiss. In the case of this relationship, what seems pretty clear is that this guy did not take your limit seriously, probably because he simply could not see that your needs were as important as his. Sexual manipulation, rape and abuse have a whole lot to do with narcissism, just as much as they have to do with power and control.

But you likely could not have known that: what you knew was that someone had stated they would honor your limits, and you took them at their word. You trusted someone who was not trustworthy, and while that is an error (and one many of us will make at some point), it's hardly something terrible you did, nor does it make your rape your fault or your doing. There is nothing bad or shameful about wanting to be loved nor about extending trust.

I also want to add that something else you are not responsible for are ideas like that you are a "failure as a girlfriend," for not giving someone sex when they want it, and only on their terms. Sadly, those ideas can be pretty pervasive in certain areas or communities, and it can be all too easy to absorb them and have them feel like the truest thing in the world, even though they're not. Given your parents reaction -- to telling them you did something you really didn't do, no less -- my guess is that you got some of those attitudes from them directly. I'm so sorry they said what they did to you, and I hope you can know that that does not make you bad or disgusting: it makes them insensitive and, unfortunately, unable at that time to treat you with love and care. Their language was emotionally abusive. But just as it is with this guy's behavior, you're not responsible for or the cause of the way your parents reacted. That's their own garbage, not yours, and that's about them, not you.

I'm hoping that at least some of what I have said here can help relieve some of your burden.

What I'd suggest for you from here on out is that you try and recognize the difference between both sex and rape and consent and manipulation.

If, in kissing the guys you have, that has been something that both you and they wanted, and if you both did so in the interest of both of your pleasure and both of your emotional needs, those kisses are on an entirely different planet than what happened to you in the past. There is nothing dirty about expressing like, affection, attraction or love, and there is nothing wrong with doing so when whatever that expression is, it involves mutual respect and care and you doing what feels okay for you as well as someone else. Now, it might be that before you date some more, you may want to seek out some counseling to help you better heal from what happened to you: it may be that even with four years past, you need some more time to process and recover from that previous relationship and the rape that happened within it. Sometimes healing just takes a lot longer than it seems like it should (and certainly often longer than any of us wants it to). If you suspect you also are inclined to wind up in sexual, romantic or other interpersonal relationships you do not really want, or which are dysfunctional or abusive, that's another reason I'd suggest both some counseling and some more time to heal before seeking out new relationships or sexual scenarios.

Given how long this relationship went on for, and some other issues, I also would suggest that you do a little reading about abuse dynamics. I have a concern, given how long you stayed in the relationship for, that you kept coming back to it after breakups, and that you expressed feeling like a failure as a girlfriend that there may have been more than sexual abuse in this relationship -- and that you may also have been reared with some level of abuse, given what your parents said to you. All too often, the normalization of abuse or routine lack of real care and respect -- all the more so if we grew up with it -- can make it much easier for any of us to wind up in the kinds of situations or relationships which present dangers for us which we just can't see clearly as dangers through that haze.

I want to be sure that you cultivate an awareness about abusive dynamics both so that you can see them coming if presented with them again, so that you can avoid inadvertently winding up in abusive relationships, and also so that you can develop a confidence when it comes to knowing when you are choosing healthy relationships and choosing any kind of sexual expression because it is what you want, not what someone else does. I think it might also make some sense of why you'd consider yourself bad and at fault for someone else's actions, why you probably stayed in something that wasn't healthy or loving, and help you to heal.

So, on top of a couple links I'll give you at the end of this piece, I'd also suggest a few books: Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, The Emotionally Abusive Relationship: How to Stop Being Abused and How to Stop Abusing, and specifically in terms of your rape, I Never Called It Rape: The Ms. Report on Recognizing, Fighting, and Surviving Date and Acquaintance Rape. I'd also recommend a new anthology I'm part of, Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape and my own book, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College which includes a chapter on abuse as well as a lot of address about what real consent -- and partnered sex -- looks like.

Finally, I think if you can just be able to say something very different about this then you have here, you're going to feel very differently. As corny as it might sound, I'd suggest, when you're done reading this, walking over to a mirror, closing your eyes, taking a deep breath, opening your eyes and saying, looking directly into your own eyes, "It was not my fault. I am not bad. I am not dirty." Hopefully, in time, you can move from that affirmation into something even better, like, "It was his fault. I am good. I am clean, whole and wonderful."

Because it was not your fault, and you are not any of those negative things. I think some of why you still feel so guilty is that you have yet to place the responsibility where it really belongs and to absolve yourself of responsibility that simply is not yours.

Along with a lot of love, I'll leave you with these links:

written 28 Nov 2008 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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