It's a pet hyperbole of the Maltese to claim every distinctive phase of adolescence and early adulthood to be "the best time of your life!". Leaving school, your first summer job, University and Erasmus - they're all candidates. But sixth form is perhaps the most deserving of the title.
It's a time where you have never been more emotionally up-for-it. Many Maltese adolescents form their most lasting relationships at sixth form. Friendships that help to define personal value systems.
"At that age you're cocky enough to feel like you completely know yourself, so whatever love you stumble upon could be the real thing."
Love in sixth form feels like the real deal. Frankly at that age you're old enough to meet your future husband or wife. In fact many a Maltese marriage began in sixth form. It's a time where relationships become more than just meeting in Paceville once a week. They become a meeting of the minds. At that age you're cocky enough to feel like you completely know yourself, so whatever love you stumble upon could be the real thing.
For me it was all those things plus a tidal-wave of hormonal impulses cursing through my body at every waking moment. I was horny. All the time. In English class, in systems of knowledge, at the gym, on the bus. Horny.
What's more I was uninhibited by the extensive selection matrix that I would develop over the years during my search for a boyfriend. I was lucky enough to know what gender I was attracted to and that's all I needed. So I set out to find my soulmate.
It didn't take long.
He was like no one I'd ever been drawn to before. A musician, a poet, a really good footballer. He was handsome, he smoked (this was cool back then), he seemed to be friends with everyone, he had gone to school with all my new friends. Best of all - he liked me back and he was also horny.
Back then I thought we had an untouchable chemistry. In time I would realise it was just being a teenager. But very quickly I became convinced that we were in love.
We spent all our time together. When our timetable didn't match we would skip class and find secluded places to live out our teenage passion. We fooled around everywhere - in every public toilet stall, quiet streets, private garages. It was like one long, hazy cloud of intimate discovery.
"My guy reassured me that it was okay, that we were in love and that that was all that mattered. I pleaded for a while longer but he insisted, 'we' were ready for this."
At this time I was still a virgin. I was certainly not precious about remaining one, but nor did I feel entirely ready to give something away that I could never get back. For the most part I just didn't think too much about it. My juvenile desires were being met, and more importantly, my boyfriend had told me he loved me.
Things carried on. We continued to seek out secluded spots and spend our energy on each other. Until one night when he decided "we should get a room".
For the first time in our relationship I felt uneasy about his sexual expectations. But I couldn't say no could I? I was so suffocated in our clammy bubble of love that I took a stand against instinct and agreed to get the cheap Paceville hotel room.
As we lay tangled in the stale-smelling sheets of a very brown-looking room, my feelings of anxiety escalated. I somehow found a morsel of courage within me that allowed me a feeble "I don't think I'm ready".
A tobacco-scented hand lightly brushed my hair away from my eyes, as my guy reassured me that it was okay, that we were in love and that that was all that mattered. I pleaded for a while longer but he insisted, 'we' were ready for this.
"He told me it was 'sweet' that I was crying. That it was beautiful."
It felt like an eternity before it was over. I didn't bleed like I had heard some girls did, but I definitely felt pain. I hated what was happening. I was afraid of so many things - how much it hurt, if it was safe enough, that I would always believe I was a whore and a slut for it. I tried to protest again. I told him I was in pain. He said not to worry and that he would go slower. That was the last thing I wanted. I wanted it to be over. I wanted it to have never began. My eyes were wet with tears and I begged him to stop - couldn't he see how upset I was? He told me it was "sweet" that I was crying. It was beautiful. This was a sacred moment.
When it was finally over, he stood up and said he needed some time alone on the balcony to take in the moment.
As I lay there feeling cripplingly alone I cursed myself for having been so intimately forthcoming in the lead up to this night. I was angry and conflicted. I wasn't weak enough to think I'd brought it on myself, but I did feel like I couldn't tell anyone. I had spent hours telling my friends what a good time we'd been having together, how good he made me feel. What would they say? "Mhux ovja this was going to happen!"
Also, I was infatuated. I didn't want him to leave me. So I just put it down as a less than ideal first time and moved forward.
"I couldn't tell anyone. What would they say? 'Mhux ovja this was going to happen!"'
As the weeks went on I began to see things through a different lens. Our moments of passion became increasingly sordid and unromantic. I soon realised he wasn't the guy I had been so mesmerized by in the beginning. He was talented, but grossly self-involved, a good sportsman but an awful team player. And all those friends I thought he had - actually thought he was a little shit.
Very soon it became clear he was seeing other girls while we were together. Everyone at sixth form knew. It was somewhat of a running joke and I was the butt of it. But I was engrossed by his manipulative character. I'd long missed the moment where I could have stood up to him.
"One thing I know for certain is that there is nothing I could or would have done differently. His dad was a university professor, his mum a friend of my aunt, his friends mine."
After six months (yes, that's all it was but in teenage terms it's a long, long time) we broke up. Slowly my klikka, which of course he was part of, came out to me about how they hated him and how they hated who I was when I was with him.
It would be a lie if I said that my experience shaped every sexual encounter I had from then on, that I was eternally screwed up about sex, or that it stunted my physical exploration. It didn't. But it did make me look at sex as a weapon. A device to keep men interested in me, to show them how much our relationship meant. I spent most of my twenties believing that good sex equated passion, equated love.
One thing I know for certain is that there is nothing I could or would have done differently. His dad was a university professor, his mum a friend of my aunt, his friends mine. There was no way to escape the judgement or rampant gossip so typical to our small communities. It was sure to destroy my self-esteem at that age if I told someone that my boyfriend had aggressively coached me into intercourse.
"No one should feel at odds with telling the truth when they are bullied, attacked or abused. It is the responsibility of all communities to make sure that self expression is never met with judgement."
My story is far from unique, and this problem is certainly not uniquely Maltese. What is difficult is the various societal and cultural factors that play into a young Maltese girl's life, and how much more handicapped she is to coming forward about sexual aggression by those parameters. Till this day, I still feel encumbered by these parameters. I write this anonymously because I don't want to upset my very religious family by revealing that I was having pre-marital sex when I was fifteen.
I was lucky to come out of a case of sexual aggression with superficial wounds. I had developed a coping system that stemmed from years before the incident because I grew up witnessing an unhealthy marriage. My skin was thick enough to prevent irreparable damage. But for others, this might not be the case.
We still live in a place where judgement is rampant. No one should be made to feel ashamed about how they live and express themselves - even sexually. No one should feel at odds with telling the truth when they are bullied, attacked or abused. It is the responsibility of all communities to make sure that self expression is never met with judgement. Only then can we actually lay claim to anything or any time being the best in life.
If you've been a victim of sexual assault or rape, there is help out there for you. Victim Support Malta is a local NGO that helps victims of crime get back on their feet, and supports them through the provision of emotional support, legal information and practical assistance. All of services are free, private and confidential.
VSM works with many women and men (aged 18 and over) who have suffered rape and sexual assault. In partnership with the Ministry for Family and Social Solidarity the service offers victims of sexual assault and rape round-the-clock emergency social work intervention at hospital or police stations, free psychological support, free legal representation, liaison with the police and hospital, and any other practical assistance, as required.
For more information and assistance, Victim Support Malta can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org or +356 21228333 (during office hours). You can also check out their website and their Facebook page.