Like many women, I’ve long had a difficult relationship with sex. I lost my virginity when I was young and went on to have some unhealthy relationships. But the final nail in the coffin was when my partner had sex with me while I was asleep. He’s now my ex, but I'm still processing what happened and sex hasn’t been the same for me since.
So I was heartbroken to read new statistics that over half of women have had the same experience. According to a survey of 22,000 women by the group Victim Focus, 51 per cent of respondents said they had "woken up to their male partner having sex with them or performing sex acts on them while they are asleep." Alarmingly, 27 per cent said it had happened to them multiple times. Legally, this amounts to rape. Yet so many women – myself included – simply don’t realise this at the time.
I met my former partner when I was 20, and he was 24.I was a single mum still recovering from breaking up with my daughter’s father. I had always worked hard to provide for my family, but I wasn’t financially stable at that time – so he felt like a knight in shining armour. He was lovely to my daughter, and was able to provide for me, so eventually I became dependent on him. The relationship was a bit of a whirlwind and we moved in together after four months of dating.
Then his behaviour changed. He became controlling. If I did something he wasn’t happy with, or challenged him, he would be angry with me for weeks. He had a horrible temper and treated me as if he hated me, but when I mentioned separating he would change and beg me to stay. In the end it wore me down and I stopped doing things I enjoyed, as it wasn’t worth the consequences.
We got married and had a daughter together, but soon after he started being unfaithful. I didn’t find out until much later in our relationship when I came across emails and texts. I also discovered that he had signed up to a dating website just a month after our baby had been born. We split up briefly, but he promised he would change. It was a lie, but I took him back.
Soon after we got back together, I realised that I had lost all desire to have sex with him because his behaviour had destroyed my trust. That's when he took matters into his own hands; on several occasions, he had sex with me while I was asleep. It always followed the same pattern: when I slept on my side, I would wake up to him holding me from behind in a bear hug. He would be penetrating me, and when I tried to wriggle away he held me really tight until he finished. Then, he would roll over and fall asleep.
At first I felt confused, but that quickly turned into shame and embarrassment. I was disturbed by what was happening, but at the time I didn’t realise that it was sexual assault. I thought rape was something that strangers did to you in an alleyway, not something that happened in your own bed, with your husband. Now I’m in a new loving relationship I know the difference between sleepy, intimate cuddles and non-consensual sex – but I still struggle to call what happened to me rape.
Like other women who have experienced sexual assault in their sleep, it formed part of a wider pattern of abuse. When I found out that he had been cheating on me, I also discovered I was pregnant. I made the difficult decision to have a termination, because I couldn’t bear to bring another child into our relationship. When I went off sex he used it against me, saying it was because I felt guilty for having the abortion and that I hated my body. As a mother who was grieving her baby, that was heartbreaking to hear.
At times, the relationship was physically abusive, and he strangled both me and my children. On one occasion, I confronted him about cheating on me when we were in a bar. He pushed me against a wall with his hands gripped around my throat, and shouted in my face not to humiliate him. When he came home drunk, with my daughter on his shoulders, I knew our safety was at risk and decided to leave him.
I still live with the trauma of what he did to me on a daily basis. Initially, I was able to be intimate with my new partner, but recently I’ve started to struggle. I have no desire for sex, and would be quite happy leading an entirely celibate life. Although my ex is out of my life for good, I will carry the emotional scars with me forever.
As told to Alice Hall
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