When I matched with Tom* – a tall, handsome and funny man – via a dating app, he immediately began to lay on the charm.
Unlike so many other matches, he wasn’t crude or distasteful. He seemed genuinely interested in who I was and what I thought about life.
He was available and messaged throughout the night and day; remembering things I said, putting effort into leaning things about me and going out of his way to make me laugh.
I had just come out of a relationship that ended suddenly and brutally so my self-esteem and confidence was lower than normal. I confided in a friend that things seemed too good to be true, but arranged to meet him anyway.
Tom ticked all the boxes in person too. He said and did all the right things, and quickly talked me around from my stance of not letting strangers know where I live. I started thinking that maybe there was actually something in this.
A week or so later, after a couple of dates out in public, I had Tom and some friends around at my place and we drank a lot. The night got late and everyone left but Tom. We fooled around a bit on the couch and without any discussion, made the move to the bedroom, shedding clothes as we went.
I grabbed a condom out of my drawer and gave it to him, saying ‘this is for later’.
As things heated up and I dissolved into a blissful, alcohol-tinged haze, it never occurred to me to double check that he had used the condom until he finished and I felt something sticky seeping down my leg.
‘What’s that?’ I asked. He assured me that I had just been extremely excited and that was the byproduct. Because I was fairly inebriated, I didn’t want to ruin the first time together by arguing about something I couldn’t prove, so I let it go and fell asleep wrapped up in a big hug.
Stealthing – or non-consensual condom removal – is considered an act punishable by law in the UK, however, there’s only been one successful prosecution.
I knew what stealthing was, but it didn’t really occur to me in that moment that it had happened to me. Tom had spent so much time building a particular image of himself up that it seemed inconceivable that he would do something so disrespectful.
The second time Tom and I slept together, something similar happened. I’d pulled a condom out of my drawer at the beginning and given it to him but couldn’t see where it went afterwards.
I asked where he’d put the used condom and he tried to tell me he’d dropped it on the floor and it had ‘vanished’.
I looked around for it because leaving a used condom on the floor is pretty gross, but didn’t find it. I remember asking questions and getting told I was taking things too seriously and that I should ‘lighten up’.
I knew what stealthing was, but it didn’t really occur to me in that moment that it had happened to me
The third time, I put the condom on him myself, only to find it on the bed later having clearly been taken off before he climaxed.
This time, I confronted him and he told me I was crazy and had issues. When I suggested that not using a condom without my consent was rape, Tom laughed at me. Not just a slight scoff, but a long, mirthful laugh.
Again he told me I was taking things too seriously and that I should ‘loosen up’. He went to try and put his arms around me and got offended when I wriggled away.
Still hurting from my recent breakup, I put up less of a fight than I usually would. All I wanted was to be cared for and looked after and fighting about this was jeopardising that fragile stability.
I’d experienced sexual assault when I was a teenager and in my head I equated it with violence and pain; it hadn’t occurred to me that someone who acted kind and loving could actually violate me even more thoroughly.
The final time we had sex, I handed Tom the condom and he looked me in the eye and said ‘you know I’m not going to use this’ and threw it across the room. He then proceeded to push me down and have sex with me while I protested. Eventually I just went completely still and laid there.
When he finished I got up and got dressed and asked him to leave. Again, he told me I was overreacting and taking things too seriously. When he left I remember sitting with my back against the front door, crying my eyes out.
Years later, I still feel like I’m to blame for how that relationship played out. That’s a common experience of survivors of sexual violence. In previous relationships I’d been accused of being too serious and not having a sense of humour when I objected to poor behaviour.
Now I know that it’s a control tactic that manipulative people use to deflect attention away from their poor behaviour rather than taking responsibility, but at the time I felt the sting of the accusations and went silent.
No one wants to be accused of being the person who ruins a relationship because they complain too much. Trusting your judgement can be difficult when someone is standing in front of you telling you that you’re overreacting.
No matter what we did or how blameless we really are, many of us carry around the belief that if we had just done something differently or been a different person, it wouldn’t have happened to us.
Shortly after the last time I saw Tom, I was contacted by a young woman who claimed she was his girlfriend and that she was heavily pregnant with his child. She had gone through his phone and found the messages between us and wanted me to stay the hell away from him.
I assured her that I wanted nothing to do with him ever again. When I told her what he’d done to me she told me I was too ugly and fat for him to bother with and that I was dreaming that he would ever have been interested in me.
I sometimes wonder if he did the same thing to her that he did to me and if she ever felt as trapped and helpless about her life choices as I had.
The aftermath of that ill-advised relationship still follows me today. Even after years of therapy and working on myself, I can say that I’m still not totally over it. Even writing this piece has brought back bad dreams and uncomfortable feelings.
I love sex, in theory. I’d love to be in a relationship, in theory. But I seem to somehow never quite get there and I’ve realised it’s because I’ve lost faith that I’m a good enough judge of character to protect myself from something like that happening to me again.
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We know that rape survivors rarely come forward. Less than 2% of rapes reported to police result in a charge or summons, and a vanishingly small number of perpetrators are held accountable.
The legacy of these kinds of crimes stays with people for years. Every aspect of someone’s life is put under a microscope when they come forward.
They’re often accused of making it up for attention or secretly wanting it. The pressure to stay silent is overwhelming. For me the disconnect is obvious – almost every woman I know has experienced sexual assault in some form, yet no one seems to know a rapist.
If we can’t hold people accountable for these crimes then society will never change.
*Tom is a pseudonym
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