I met M at a small underground festival when I was 24 years old. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but I quickly learnt he was part of a European experimental/techno collective and record label after we started chatting. Like everyone at that queer event, he was very warm and welcoming, and had a brief but nice conversation about our backgrounds. It was then that, out of the blue, he very strongly grabbed my thigh. I was slightly baffled about the gesture, especially as it seemed starkly at odds with the safe environment which brought people together under the banner of no racism and no sexism. In slight confusion, I ignored the movement and continued with the conversation, until I was tired enough to head home.
A couple of months later, I was working an experiential music festival in my home in Eastern Europe, to which he was invited to play. Following his visit, we started talking online. It was around that time that I also started familiarising myself with the queer scene, which was barely present in my country, but provided a safe refuge from the predatory, objectifying hetero-normative culture I had come to know through my private and professional life. I welcomed his friendship, as well as that of some queer and gender non-conforming people I met during that period.
He often spoke of himself as a sexually open, unconventional but big hearted hippie, to whom sexuality was a form of casual communication between friends. He would consolingly listen to my experiences related to non-belonging, racism, and objectification. He would often speak incredibly highly of me – which was not only flattering, but also made me feel seen and heard in a way only those closest to me did. He was there in my darkest and most defining moments, including when I made the life-changing jump of moving to London on my own. His friendship felt like a warm hug, just like the scene I associated him with: a world that proposed an alternative to interpersonal and political systems exploiting the vulnerable.
The attachment to this new found safety and belonging made me turn a blind eye to the red flags. Even though they were there. Even though they were huge. He was a good 17 years older than me. He talked about his unconventional sex life, and according to his accounts, he was surrounded by women who were either ‘obsessed’ or ‘in love’ with him. One story in particular stuck with me, as it sounded much like he took advantage of someone that was a fan and mentee. While I personally wasn’t a fan of his, I perceived this relationship so meaningful that I shut down the uneasy feelings whenever they arose. Each time he made sexual remarks towards me, I put it down to his sex positive nature, and concluded that this is how he interacts with friends.
Three years of us talking went by, sharing the good, the bad and the painful. Until 2019, when he came to play a gig in my new home, London. In a year riddled with bereavement and loneliness, I was over the moon to see my friend. His behaviour in real life was much like his behaviour online, but turned up to an extreme. He would unexpectedly grope my breasts or draw my hands to his penis, then upon my dissent, he would counteract with extreme kindness and politeness. The constant fluctuation of his attitude towards me felt absurd and incredibly confusing. However, my excitement of seeing him still outweighed the negatives. I wanted to make the most of our time to catch up, so I decided to go to the hotel room with him. I definitely wouldn’t have minded some intimacy, although I made it clear I didn’t want to have sex as I have not been sexually active for several years, and also had severe trauma related to it. Looking back at the sequence of events, it seems unbelievable that I didn’t leave. But as someone coming from a family where abuse and love went hand in hand, I understand the reasons that might be hard to grasp with common sense.
Once in privacy, M swiftly and aggressively removed my clothes in a split second, and got on top of me. What followed was violent, one-sided physical activity, which mostly consisted of me trying to protect myself from him penetrating me. He was large and aggressive. His actions were mostly comparable to pornography where women are in a submissive and degrading position, without the safety and boundaries of BDSM, or an intimacy coordinator on set. It was coercion and control. He tried to convince me several times to engage in an act he had a fetish for but I said no to. He tried convincing me with words, and at times physically (although luckily no full penetration happened). The next morning, I left feeling confused and conflicted. I’m no longer a weird sexless person, and I slept with someone I trusted.
The next few days, I experienced slight bleeding. I was concerned about my health, but never went to a doctor. From then on, every time I heard about SA in the media or from friends, this night came to my mind. Then, just like with everything else, I swept it under the rug. At the end of the day, he is my good friend, and little misunderstandings happen in friendships.
Circa two months later a very similar incident took place, although from my recollection slightly less violent than the first time. Still, it included things I said no to, which led me to cry after the act. He, on the other hand, laughed – I’m still unsure why.
We continued talking online, including through lockdown. He seemed more talkative, more honest, and friendlier than ever. Our bond grew stronger by the day. He asked me to share traumas I had been too ashamed to talk to anyone about, offering to work through these painful experiences with me. It was also during this time that he sent me unsolicited photos and a video of him masturbating. He immediately apologised and said he loved me. By this time, the pattern of apology instead of permission had become painfully apparent.
In 2021 and 2022, we very seldom talked due to difficulties in both of our lives. The rare occasions he reached out were motivated by a need for sexual gratification. Following another in person encounter and sexual experience with him (this time consensual), his comments towards me grew wilder and more disrespectful, referencing the actions in 2019 that brought me pain and trauma. It became harder and harder to suppress the thoughts that had been there all along. As stories of sexual exploitation kept surfacing from the music industry and beyond, I couldn’t stop drawing parallels. One night, I broke down crying on the toilet, staring at my body which I felt was taken away from me. As I understood what really had been going on for nearly 6 years, I developed an anxiety that stopped me from being able to eat, and I couldn’t work for weeks due to uncontrollably crying for days, even in public spaces.
I am ashamed of myself for having continued to be friends with the person who assaulted me, for fighting for our friendship that clearly wasn’t what it was, and for being together with him consensually after seeing how coercive and brutal he can be. I kept trying to mend this relationship and to cover up the trails of the abuse, and I thought that by being good buddies and even being together with him consensually, I could turn the tides of what had really gone on.
He knew about my lack of safety net (both familial and economic), as well as my tendency to be vulnerable, which might have been a green light to help himself to my body without the fear of any repercussion.
I finally had access to therapy, where I learnt about grooming and manipulation tactics, and the deeply conflicting feelings that come with understanding these processes in retrospect. “Shame is blame turned inwards”, said my therapist. I don’t know how long it is going to take for me to come to terms with the loss of this illusionary friendship that was so formative in my life, but one thing I know, is that I don’t want to hate myself anymore.