Carolina is a PhD student, writer and pole dancer. Now in her mid-20s, she was in an abusive relationship with ‘bad boy’ Jim* for three months. Here, she shares her experiences with Cosmopolitan UK, and explains why the bad boy narrative is actually really dangerous. Carolina also appeared on Cosmopolitan podcast All The Way With - you can listen to her episode here.
Please note: this article includes references to and descriptions of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
When I was 21, my life looked perfect on paper. It was 2014, and I was just about to graduate with a high mark in my journalism degree. I had loads of friends, a very supportive family, and had grown up in a very protective environment in Sardinia, before moving to London to study.
But, when graduation rolled around, I felt lost and lonely. All my friends were leaving London, and it was really hard. Professionally, I felt very insecure. I was doing internships where I was basically just asked to do the recycling, and no one even knew my name.
After a significant period of unsuccessful relationships, I’d got to a point where I didn’t want to date students anymore - they just wanted to get laid. Instead, I started seeing men in their 30s, thinking they’d be more likely to want something serious.
One night, I met 29-year-old Jim at a bar, and we slept together. It was just a one night stand as far as I was concerned, but he was into me from the word ‘go’. A month later, he was saying he loved me and couldn’t be without me. I thought, ‘Finally. An older guy that really cares about, and is really in love with, me.’ All my friends had gone, but I had this person now.
Playing the victim
At the beginning, our relationship was really passionate. He had a bit of a ‘bad boy’ image, and I think he played on that. He'd say in a cinematic way, ‘Oh, stay away from me. I’m not a good person.’ But then he’d take me out for breakfast, and help me move out of my flat.
Jim also thought of himself as a victim. He told me he’d had a tough time in life, and although I’d never been a woman that wants to fix people, it’s hard when you’re in love with someone and can see they’re struggling. He had a film degree, and I knew he enjoyed a lot of drama. Initially, I thought he was acting out and trying to be 'cool'.
I remember cooking for him one night, and I set the table. Nearly crying, he said no one had ever done that for him. Jim also told me how his family made him feel worthless. His father used to call him names, and bully him. It seemed impossible not to help him.
About three months into seeing each other though, Jim started being very manipulative and subtly putting me down. If we had an argument for example, he’d hit on my best friend in front of me. It was his way of punishing me. And it was the first sign of his bad boy behaviour turning into something much more sinister.
Soon, Jim began to hit and choke me. It was terrifying, but after months of preying on my loneliness and lack of self-worth, I genuinely thought I'd done something to deserve it. He repeatedly told me I was a horrible person, and that no one else would ever love me like he did. He'd started off playing the victim, but then turned it around on me. I was the problem, it was my fault he was like this.
Then, one night, he turned up at my flat. He just showed up and knocked on the door. I remember looking at him through the glass. Now I know he was high on drugs and alcohol, but I didn't at the time. When I let him in, he raped me. I was saying, ‘Do you realise what you’re doing to me?’ But he was out of it. Jim told me loved me, but pushed me down and carried on. When it was over, I kicked him out and told him never to show his face again.
Although he'd put me through that, I still found it hard to let go. I still felt that I loved him. He hadn't seemed angry when I ended it, which I think upset me even more. Especially because when it happened, I felt like he destroyed my life and my confidence... and he didn’t even notice.
Instead of crying, I think I just went into survival mode. I cleaned up my flat, showered and went to bed. The next morning, I went to work. Obviously, I was hurt. I kept thinking, ‘Why would he do something like that to me?’ At that time though, I didn’t even think what he did to me was rape. But I did know it was wrong. I also soon realised there were so many times when the sex wasn’t consensual - it was me going along with it because I didn’t want to make him angry. Sometimes, I’d fear for myself if I said ‘no’. Or, he’d be so manipulative that I’d feel like a horrible person if I didn’t sleep with him.
A couple of nights later, he messaged saying, 'Sorry about that night.' I couldn't believe that was all he had to say about it. I replied threatening to press charges if he ever contacted me again. And for a while, he didn't.
But then, I had a breakdown at work. I just burst out crying, and told a colleague what had happened. With her help, I called the police. Because it had been a few days and I’d showered and washed my bedsheets and clothes, the DNA traces had gone.
I ended up not pressing charges. I wasn’t rational. If I was rational, I would have pressed charges, but I was scared. I was hopeless. I was ashamed.
A few months after he raped me, I posted on social media about being on a trip to the US and he messaged me again. It was mainly him being jealous of the people I was hanging out with, but he also said he wanted to see me. At the time, I remember reading an interview with actor Emma Watson where she was talking about feminism, and it kind of worked as a friend giving me a good shake. I finally blocked him, and changed my number.
I slowly learned the myth of the ‘bad boy’ is really harmful. We’ve grown up with films and stories where the bad boy comes good in the end. So when you meet someone who’s a ‘bad boy’, you think he might be mean to everyone else, but he’ll be nice to you. You can change him.
Growing up, many of us were taught domestic abuse was what happened to wives with children, and that rape was committed by a stranger in an alley, not by your boyfriend. Another thing I struggled with was seeing myself as a 'victim'. I'd constantly ask myself how, as a strong, feminist woman, I'd let this happen. I thought that it was my fault it had happened, I’d let myself down, made a wrong choice. At the same time, I felt privileged because I had a support network.
In 2016, when I got close to a boss who’d also survived similar experiences, I knew it was time to finally talk about it. It’s an ugly story, so I wrote my book deliberately rough in form. It's important to stop romanticising the bad boy/abuser narrative. Writing it all down was therapeutic, and it really helped me get my thoughts in order. It helped me realise that there was no excuse for his behaviour.
I am mostly healed now, but when I recently watched Hannah Gadsby’s feminist stand up Nanette on Netflix, the shock lasted for days. She talks about surviving her own experiences, and that was triggering for me. Still, I find it very hard to trust people. If someone so much as hints at being a fuckboy or fuckgirl, my brain goes, ‘NOPE!”
It all boils down to toxic masculinity. Jim tried really hard to prove he was the man in our relationship: he was the strong one, he was attractive and charming. But I realised it was all about not feeling ‘man enough’. The bad boy thing just perpetuates the myth that masculinity is about being strong, rather than emotional. If more people learn to reject this myth, it could help save them going through what I did.
But, I think it's also necessary to remember that as much as toxic masculinity is an issue, knowing how to ask for help, and recognising that what happened to you is unacceptable, is a vital step towards healing.
*Name has been changed
Carolina's book Bad/Tender is available now. Follow her blog
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For information and support, visit Women's Aid's website or call the Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women’s Aid in partnership with Refuge, on 0808 2000 247.
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