Like any other 18-year-old, I was terrified when I left my home for university.
But, I was also determined to show everyone that I could make a success of it. In my eyes, part of being successful was appearing to be able to cope with my new-found “independence.” I was determined to be the embodiment of a strong, independent woman, but when I left, I was desperately homesick and emotionally vulnerable.
The first person I began to feel at all close to was a boy who lived near me. He seemed very kind, and made sure to include me in everything. I felt particularly drawn to him and knew that he felt the same. He was, however, in a relationship.
When he started to make sexual advances towards me, I felt torn. I knew I was falling in love with him, but I didn’t want to be a cheater. I was afraid to discuss this with him, in case he completely abandoned me. But why did I fear abandonment from somebody who I also believed was good and kind?
I certainly was emotionally vulnerable. I didn’t feel like I fit in at university, and saw this boy as one of the few people I could really talk to. In hindsight, I realize that he wasn’t just “nice” – he was also extremely manipulative. Even in the early days of our relationship, he would blank me for periods of time, acting as though I meant nothing to him.
A few days later, he would be exceedingly kind, as though none of the blanking had ever happened.
Early in my second year of university, I gave in to his advances, convinced it was the only way to have a relationship with him. His behavior became worse. He would continually put me down, say that I was unattractive, and make me run errands for him. If I ever tried to say that he was making me unhappy, he would turn it back around on to me, and say that me saying that was making him unhappy. He convinced me that he was the only person who could ever understand me or love me.
Worst of all, although we were having a physical relationship, he pretended it wasn’t happening, making me feel as though I was going mad.
Fortunately, I ended the relationship. I broke it off because I was eaten up by guilt at the fact that he had a girlfriend, but also because something told me that if I didn’t end it, it would end me. I think I was right, and I see now that it was not all my fault. The relationship had become abusive.
University students are quite vulnerable to emotional abuse: they are young, away from home, and lonely.
They make the perfect prey for abusers. Unfortunately, many university environments have no provisions for tackling this type of abuse. 1 in 4 UK women will experience intimate partner abuse in their lifetimes, yet university policies on sexual harassment make little or no mention of how students should deal with this particular type of abuse, despite the fact that it is most likely to affect women in the 16-24 age group.
The assumptions we make about “strong independent women” perpetuates this problem. Only last year, judge Richard Mansell initially gave a suspended sentence a man who admitted hitting his wife over the head with a cricket bat and forcing her to drink bleach.
His reason? That Fakhara Karim, the victim, was not, in his opinion “a vulnerable person.” During sentencing, he cited her master’s degree and the network of friends as reasons why her victim status should be called into question.
We shouldn’t assume that women who seem smart, tough, and independent aren’t vulnerable to abuse. This puts the onus on the victim to deal with their abuser.
I desperately wanted to be a “strong and independent woman.”
It is what made me reluctant and even unable to see that I was being abused. It is what made me feel ashamed then, and what makes me want to write anonymously. It is what has made me feel embarrassed about not walking away even when he hit me. Women often feel like they are somehow to blame for being abused; many abusers use such tactics, but the societies we live in are often very ready to find ways to exonerate perpetrators and point the finger of blame at the (often female) victims.]
I wish there had been some sort of service I could have turned to. Something that would provide support to those experiencing relationships that were unhealthy. I didn’t see that the relationship was abusive, then, but I certainly knew how desperately unhappy I was.
I just needed a listening ear, and I needed to know that being “strong and independent” does not make you immune to abuse.