It took years for feminist activist Sophie Lu to realize she was raped—and even longer to process how it affected her sex life going forward.
Illustration by Niallycat
My First Time is a column and podcast series exploring sexuality, gender, and kink with the wide-eyed curiosity of a virgin. We all know your "first time" is about a lot more than just popping your cherry. From experimenting with kink to just trying something new and wild, everyone experiences thousands of first times in the bedroom—that's how sex stays fun, right?
This week, we're talking to feminist activist Sophie Lu about her experiences of sex after leaving a violent, abusive relationship.
I grew up in a pretty conservative household. My mum is Taiwanese and she’s quite traditional. I didn’t have any sexual experiences until university, when I got into my first relationship aged around 20.
He was my first proper boyfriend and it was the first time I’d had sex. About six months in, the relationship suddenly became very abusive—physically, sexually, and emotionally. I was raped two or three times quite early on in the relationship, and I stayed with him for another five years.
To outsiders, he seemed sweet and gentle—quite camp, as well. People didn’t expect him to be abusive, and I never told people what was going on. One of the reasons I found it so hard to leave was because he had two sides—a double-sided personality. When he wasn’t being abusive, everything was fine. We even got on really well.
The first time he raped me, we’d had a really bad argument. I guess he was looking for a way to punish me. He was working at a bar at the time, and he asked me to come see him on his lunch break.
I thought he wanted to talk. We went behind to this wooded area behind the bar, and he said, “I feel bad. I want to have sex.” I told him that I didn’t want to, but he said he didn’t care, and told me to get down on my knees. He forced me to give him a blowjob, and then got me to turn around and had sex with me. I was crying at the time. He’d done it to punish me—to make me feel degraded and to make himself feel better.
When I look back at it now, it obviously wasn’t consensual. At the time, because he told me what to do and I did it, I didn’t make the connection that I had been raped. I took me about four years to realize that. But at the time—this sounds crazy to me now—I just thought it was an extreme argument. I’d never been in a long-term relationship before, so I didn’t have anything to compare it to. And I didn’t want to be on my own. In hindsight, it would have been much better to be single.
In films or TV shows, where they show abusive relationships, they make it look like it happens all the time. But most of the time, it isn’t like that—it’s relatively normal. Then there would be times where arguments would happen that were way off what is acceptable. He’d knock over entire bookshelves; throw chairs; throw objects at me. One time he smashed my head into a mirror and the neighbors called the police.
I wanted to leave him by this point, but I was scared about having to pay the rent on our London flat all by myself. He’d also put up all these barriers to me leaving. He’d threaten to take his own life, which he knew was something that I really feared, because one of my closest friends committed suicide when I was at university. He’d stand on a bridge when we were having an argument.
Eventually, I cheated on him with a 19 year old from work. Even though we lived together, we were barely talking at this point, and the abuse was so bad that I was miserable when I was around him. Having this double life—sleeping with this guy who was sweet and young and kind of silly—made me feel happier. Having this brief fling made me feel empowered. It felt like a small bit of revenge.
I began to get involved in activism, and co-founded a feminist group. Being able to create a separate life and identity—and meeting with people who cared about my safety—made me realize that I had to end things. I told him that I wanted us to live separately when our tenancy agreement ended.
He took it badly, but luckily for me, he didn’t react in a way that was violent. He got really depressed and stopped going to work, and eventually had to be declared homeless and moved to a homeless shelter.
After we broke up, I started being really open about the abuse. Someone I’d known at university and kept in touch with via Facebook got in touch with me—I think I’d been talking about the break-up online—and we started a relationship. It felt really good that I was finally able to have sex with someone who understood issues around my safety and consent and didn’t brush them off. It was such a relief.
We stayed together for about a year, but ultimately it didn’t work out—we’d got together a few months after the abusive relationship ended, and it was a bit too soon.
My advice to people who’ve experienced sexual abuse is to be as open as you can. If you’re entering a new sexual relationship where things are good, talk about it. If there are things that are triggering to you, it’s okay to say, “I don’t want these things to happen to me,” and to be really upfront.
When I was having sex, I’d find myself revisiting the memories of the rape. Things would remind me of it, like having someone put their hand on the back of my head, or push my face into a pillow. But these were still things that I enjoyed, so I felt conflicted by that for a while. I felt guilty, like I was fetishizing my rape. There was a lot of shame. Eventually, I realized that I enjoyed those things before I was raped, and I would have enjoyed them regardless of whether or not I was attacked. They’re completely separate.
Don’t beat yourself up if you find things enjoyable, sexually, that are also slightly triggering. It doesn’t mean you should avoid sex altogether. Being open about your needs, and communicating them, will help things get better.