Perpetrators of sexual violence are often thought of as strangers: targeting victims online, on a bus, in a night club or walking home after dark. But abusers can be the people we put our trust in the most, in relationships were the lines of consent could be murkier.
“I had my first boyfriend when I was 18. He was Maltese too. There were times when I didn’t feel or want to have sex. I did it anyway, thinking that’s what I have to do to keep him happy,” a woman, now in her 20s recalled.
Hundreds of people in Malta have shared their disheartening stories of sexual abuse, with some recounting broken trust from lovers over-stepping the lines of boundaries.
This is the fifth part of a multi-article series shedding light on victims’ stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the country – from rape to micro-aggressions, stalking, threats and digital abuse. Here are their stories.
What’s clear among respondents is that some victims find it harder to say no to people they’re with.
“I was in bed with my boyfriend. I told him I don’t want to have sex… he proceeded to climb on top of me and have sex with me. He raped me. He fell asleep on me. I’ve been raped,” another 23-year-old Maltese woman said.
Even-though she knew something wasn’t right, she didn’t grasp what had happened until later.
“I thought I was to blame because I was naked in bed with him… that I should’ve just given into his desire.”
A few nights later, she was in bed with him again. He took off his condom without her consent and finished inside her.
“I’ve never been so scared in my life. It’s been two years and I haven’t been with a man since then. The idea of sex terrifies me,” she said.
After the incident, she took the morning after pill twice and “prayed for a miracle”.
“My period was late for a week and I was terrified. My life was over. When eventually my period came along I was so happy. Since then I count my blessings,” she finished.
A 55-year-old Maltese woman described being forced to watch porn to satisfy her spouse.
“He made me watch pornography with him because it turned him on. I was disgusted.”
“When I was 16, my first boyfriend forced me to let him touch me. He said these things are normal to do, and that all good girlfriends should do this,” another Maltese woman, now 18 said.
Some felt obliged to remain in relationships, to walk on eggshells in fear of retaliation.
“I was a teenager dating a 27-year-old guy. One day he started to act strange,” a 25-year-old Maltese woman explained.
“I told him that I’m not feeling comfortable but I couldn’t leave because he threatened to hurt my mum or my sister so I stayed in that hell for a whole summer.”
Like countless others, none of these survivors felt empowered to get help from the police or that it even merited a police report in the first place.
“I was physically and verbally abused by my husband during our marriage. I couldn’t report it because I was terrified of him,” a 36-year-old Maltese woman said.
In fact, in Lovin Malta’s survey of nearly 1,000 people, less than 5% of respondents said they filed reports.
“When my ex-husband attacked me with a knife, I knew I had to go to the police or I would die. But I still couldn’t go through with it. I ran away and we got a separation. He went back to his country,” a 45-year-old female respondent said.
Sexual violence, while often affects women, leaves marks of trauma on men too.
“Anytime my (now ex) boyfriend had an argument he would threaten to call police on me for something that I did not do,” an 18-year-old Maltese man said.
His ex would regularly threaten to kill himself if they broke up.
“There were also times I felt a bit pressured to consent to have sex with him even when I was not in the mood.”
He never felt that speaking up was an option, in fear that police would shrug it off for bigger issues. His perpetrator still harasses him online.
“My partner at the time always wanted to have sex but I never let him. I was still a virgin. One day he decided to take matters into his own hands and started touching me and removing my clothes in my parents’ house, in my own room,” a 25-year-old man said.
Luckily, he plucked up the courage to get him to leave.
“I kicked him off and threw him out of my house. And that was the last time we ever spoke or seen each other.”
After years of therapy, he is now engaged.
Another 24-year-old man was raped by his female partner on multiple occasions. He didn’t recognise that it was assault at the time.
“It didn’t seem like full-blown rape at the time, but I would often be pressured into having sex because she felt like it. She was also physically abusive. I can only see it now after therapy,” he said.
“My ex-girlfriend would share embarrassing details about our sex life to others as a joke. I confronted her by revealing something embarrassing of hers to show her how insidious it is,” a 36-year-old Bulgarian man living in Malta said.
He says he has reported sexual harassment to police before to no avail. It left him with trust issues.
“Police don’t bother with these ‘little’ things, although they affect a person badly and can lead to serious issues, either it being mental problems of embarrassment, or verbal to physical confrontation.”
Some respondents described micro-aggressions they received from partners.
“Both my ex and my current boyfriend sexualise me even indirectly. If I dress a certain way, then I am a slut asking for attention, if a boy likes my photo, then he is liking it because he wants to fuck you”, a 21-year-old Maltese woman said.
“They over-sexualised my past before I had met them or make me feel guilty by saying things like ‘I hate how other boys have fucked you or have used you’ as if they themselves were virgins. My ex would even get emotionally violent, stop talking to me and harass any boys who liked my photos (even photos of surroundings),” she added.
Another 25-year-old said she was subjected to derogatory name-calling if she spoke to anyone of the opposite sex.
“I had a physically abusive boyfriend who insisted I was a ‘slut’ because I spoke to his friends. It was isolating.”
Like other forms of sexual violence, it is difficult to know how many people suffer from abuse from intimate partners.
Victims are often reluctant to come forward to police or divulge their experiences with someone they now. More worryingly, some might not even recognise that they were sexually assaulted and therefore may not even realise they are a victim when sex and romance come into play.
In order to empower people to speak up, we need to give people knowledge to firstly recognise when they’re being abused.
Demanding or coercing a partner to engage in sex when the other person is uncomfortable is rape. Indeed, convincing a person to have intercourse or using threats through words or weapons doesn’t mean they are consenting. And speaking of consent, it can be taken away at any point, even if sex has already begun.
Around 1,300 sexual offences were reported to police over the last 11 years, and four cases of domestic violence are filed every day in Malta. But with just 30 people charged for rape a year and around 85% of sexual assaults remaining unreported, we’re far from having a clear picture of how dire the situation is.
What’s more, a quarter of offenders are likely to retaliate against victims if they were contacted by police about the crimes. The circumstances get murkier if the offender is a person the victim knows, like a partner, often forcing the survivor to internalise the acts, endure the lasting psychological trauma.
Besides empowering victims to know their rights, they deserve an advantage over their aggressors. This can be done by removing the 10-year time-bar on sexual offences.
If you have suffered sexual assault, whether it was recently or not, and would like free, professional emotional support or legal assistance, get in touch with Victim Support Malta on + 356 2122 8333 or send an email on [email protected].
These are just some of the hundreds of personal, anonymous testimonies of sexual harassment victims have experienced in Malta. This series aims to give a voice to victims and empower them to break their silence to kick-start action.
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