ASHLEY

 

I was raised by very devout, orthodox religious parents. My father spent so much time in church service that my nine siblings and I almost never saw him. I was taught in this church all growing up that premarital sex was akin to murder, that women were responsible for making men have sexual thoughts, and that women were supposed to be fulfilled in meeting their husband’s sexual needs. I also learned that women who had premarital sex were akin to a “chewed up piece of gum.” At the same time, nobody ever taught me about healthy sexuality. The words “orgasm,” “consent,” “assault,” “grope,” and “pleasure” were words I never heard.

I was so naive that when I found myself dutifully engaged to someone at 19, I begged my father for some kind of information on sex. Anything. I had no idea what happened, what to expect, or what to do. All I knew was that getting married meant that I was going to have sex with someone. And I was terrified. He refused to tell me anything, hastily leaving the room in discomfort and telling me I’d just have to figure it out.

This conversation with my father happened after what was months of harassment and abuse from my boyfriend. I didn’t know at the time that it was harassment and abuse. I felt uncomfortable with the things that were happening to me, but I thought it was my fault. All I knew was that girls are supposed to be responsible for what happens. The belief that men were helpless to their urges sat deeply within me. The feelings of guilt and shame for being a female and not controlling myself enough to keep him from sinning haunted me. 

This all led up to being raped by my fiancé just a few weeks before our wedding. I didn’t know that what happened to me was rape. But I knew something happened that wasn’t okay. I told my father in a heap of tears, who was my church clergy at the time. He told me to be ashamed of myself and to repent for what happened. Then let me get married anyway. I believed it all. I felt like a "chewed up piece of gum" that nobody else would take after this. I didn't want people to know what I had done, so I did whatever it took to move forward with the wedding like nothing was wrong. I felt so ashamed of what had happened that I carried the guilt with me for committing a sin akin to murder for years. Years following this, I would wake in the middle of the night, sobbing from sexual nightmares. There are many memories of me pleading with god in the dark at night to save me from my sexuality, to stop the dreams. To forgive me for being impure. 

I married my rapist. What ensued was years of repeated rape and sexual abuse. Emotional, mental, and verbal abuse and control were rampant. I would cry after almost every sexual encounter. I remember being curled up, naked, hiding behind our bed, frightened and crying after he tried to have sex with me and I couldn't do it. I would cry on my way home from work or school knowing what was waiting for me when I got home. I hated it. I hated sex. I hated my body. I hated feeling used. But I didn’t know that it could be any different. If I was a good enough wife, I should be able to find fulfillment in this. That was what he told me. That was what the community and church told me. This was what I believed. 

It wasn’t until I started unearthing his significant pornography addiction and history of sexual misconduct that I started connecting the dots. I knew something wasn’t right. I was miserable, and something in me started to believe that maybe it wasn’t my fault. Maybe I could stand up for myself. Maybe I could say no. There was a small spark of courage that tried to fight. If he tried to make me do things that felt uncomfortable, I’d start saying no. But this inevitably led to me finding a letter a few hours or days later full of hurtful, vicious attacks on my worthiness as a wife and mother. He would treat me and the children with anger and contempt. It would scare me back into compliance.

Four years and two kids later, I finally started gathering the courage to leave. We separated. Then divorced. I had a hard time articulating what really happened in the marriage to outsiders looking in. All I knew was that my soul had had enough. It couldn't take anymore of what was happening. One day I read an article about sexual abuse, and my hairs stood on end. It all seemed so familiar. But I was too scared to speak that truth. The few people I opened up to didn’t believe me, or did nothing about it, so I learned very quickly to be quiet about uncomfortable things like sexual abuse. I told myself I was probably wrong, anyway. Delusional. I probably deserved what happened. It wasn’t until a year after the divorce, when I finally had the courage to open up about the specifics of what had happened in the marriage with my therapist, that I sat in tears across from her when she said words like “rape,” “repeatedly,” “your parents and church betrayed you,” and “not your fault.” 

Now I’m facing the reality of a legal system that doesn’t care or believe me, and the reality that I have to send my sweet young children off to visitation with my rapist. I’m also facing the reality that my parents, family, and church community will never really understand how they hurt me. That they will see my speaking up as open delusion and rebellion against all they know to be good and true. 

I’m finally gathering the courage to reject these beliefs. To speak my truth and say that what happened wasn’t okay. To pick up the pieces of my broken life and move forward with my two little girls, determined that they won’t live this way. Rejecting these beliefs has led to isolation from many of my family, friends, and members of my very religious community. It’s been incredibly difficult. But I’m no longer afraid. I’m free. I’m speaking my truth, and I’m taking a stand. I’m finally learning to love myself and take a stand for other victims. I will no longer stay silent.