I was a shy, quiet nineteen-year-old and it was meant to be an adventure. A term at a Catalan university to expand my horizons, gain some language skills, assert my independence and experience life abroad. Instead, at the hands of a rogue landlord who used his position of power and authority to manipulate, groom and sexually exploit me, it turned into a nightmare. Whilst the whole experience lasted only around six weeks, as a formative sexual experience it has had profound and lasting effects on my mental health, relationships and sense of self.
The story begins in 2006, when I was beginning the second year of an English literature degree. I had opted to spend a semester abroad, but was the only student from my university that year to choose Barcelona. My British university put me in touch with a student who had studied there the previous year; this was the extent of its support. She gave me a Spanish sim card and recommended using a website called Loquo to find a flat.
Equipped only with a few words of holiday Spanish gained from language DVDs, I sent some tentative emails to enquire about rooms in the summer break leading up to my arrival. The only reply I received was from a man offering me a room, in readable if misspelt English. Looking back now, I wonder if the alarm bells should have already started ringing. He was a live-in landlord, married with a young child, who stated he was looking for ‘girls only’ to share his home, and asked me to send a photo of myself which was, he said, ‘very nice’. At the time, however, I was so pleased to have found a place to live that I transferred the deposit and prepared to move.
I now regard what happened to me next as grooming, with him trying to break down the usual landlord-tenant relationship and gain my trust via what appeared at first to be friendship. In the weeks before my arrival we chatted a little over email about our interests, hobbies and what bands we liked. On arrival, he was all smiles as he greeted me in perfect English, spoken with an American accent. He was Greek but had grown up in New York, he told me, where he had studied at a prestigious performing arts college and dated Uma Thurman. Tall and dark-haired, he told me he was 29 (losing ten years from his real age). He worked in a call centre, but spent the rest of his time composing music.
The flat was still and quiet. My room was small: it looked out into an interior lightwell.
The landlord was quick to tell me about the previous occupant, showing me photos of a Swedish young woman. He denounced her as naïve and irresponsible, sleeping with different boys all the time and behaving immaturely. I promised I was not like that.
Some things immediately seemed awkward and uncomfortable. The other lodger was a French student, who appeared to be unwilling or unable to have a conversation. Oddest of all was his wife. A Frenchwoman with sad, hollow eyes, she too barely spoke and had pallid, waxy skin like she had had all the life sucked out of her. As well as looking after a young son she was heavily pregnant. They didn’t share a surname and had separate bedrooms – ‘we’re more like best friends than husband and wife,’ he told me.
Small things were different to home. I wasn’t used to the culture of casual drug use, and the social sharing of marijuana as a way of bonding and unwinding. I felt that it was polite to join him, and was pleased to feel included.
As I didn’t know the city or anyone there, he offered to show me around, introduce me to his friends and take me to cafes; he worked shifts, and was out at night, leaving the daytime free. The internet on my laptop didn’t work; he took it, promising
to return it when it was fixed. He also took me to buy a bike. He’d gone out of his way to help me settle in, and I was grateful. My parents were pleased too; they hoped I was not imposing on the family.
I tried to make friends, chatting to a young Norwegian man and some young Swedish women in my language class on MSN messenger, and making arrangements to meet for dinner. The landlord began to echo parts of my online conversations, plans I was making, back at me. Had he installed spyware? He told me no visitors, and certainly no men. When he found out we were meeting up for a night out I was told that I was a whore, that I was going out for casual sex. I was upset and denied this, but didn’t know what else to do. I started making excuses not to meet them. Dead cockroaches started to appear in my room. My passport disappeared. I panicked – several days later he claimed to have ‘found’ it in the hallway.
There were other things. Such as sexually inappropriate comments about women in the street. One day he showed me porn. I’d never seen it before and didn’t know what to say, so didn’t say anything. I was totally unprepared for a person I considered to be in a position of authority to cross the boundaries in such a way. I was also unused to being around men who spoke about women in such explicit ways – and uncertain, embarrassed and confused about how I, as a woman, was expected to respond. It certainly wouldn’t have occurred to me to challenge him, or that I had the authority to do so. I’d spent seven years at an all girls’ school, and was not yet used to spending much time around men, let alone men who were older and more experienced than me. Legally, I was an adult, and fully capable of consent, yet I still I understood very little about the way sex and relationships worked, and what was considered ‘normal’.
Very few people had shown an interest in me sexually at that point so what he did next genuinely took me by surprise. When he came up behind me, pressed his body against mine and put his hands on my breasts I didn’t think it had really happened. So when finally, one night when we’d been smoking weed after practising my Spanish together, I found myself placed on all fours, him mounting me from behind, I didn’t know how to understand it. It was all unreal.
But the infection which followed immediately afterwards was real and incredibly painful and frightening. It was cystitis. I didn’t know that at the time, having never experienced it before. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened. I didn’t really know anyone yet, and what would I have told them? Anyway, surely no-one would see it as inappropriate as we’d been spending so much time together and I hadn’t pushed him off me; wouldn’t I, in fact, have been leading him on? The next night, I awoke to find him on top of me.
He was reluctant to let me have a key, but I began to lock my room. He took this badly. He told me I was xenophobic, that I was messy and dirty. He told me not to wear vintage clothes, that I looked ridiculous, as if I’d found my trousers in a bin. He began to message my friends on social media with a series of aliases. The power was psychological: I began to doubt what was real and what was not, and felt more disoriented and alone than I had ever felt before.
Shortly afterwards, when I had been living in the flat for around a month, he brought a pair of Estonian students to see my room. I told them I’d signed up to live there until February; it was not far into October. He strongly suggested I leave but I resolved to stand my ground, partly due to obstinacy and partly due to my initial difficulty finding a room – where else would I go?
One night, in October, he told me to leave. As he stood and smirked I bundled up all the possessions I could carry. It was clear that I no longer had a choice: as the landlord, he had all the power to evict me at his will, based on whatever excuse he invented. I lost my deposit, six weeks’ rent I had already paid, and the remainder of my possessions. Another international student let me sleep on her futon.
The few people I told back home were suspicious of my story. They thought I must have been the provocateur, that I was weak whereas they would have stood up for themselves. I stopped telling people.
It was only ten years later that I sought any kind of counselling, when I was able to put names to the experience, such as rape, grooming and emotional, sexual and psychological abuse. By putting a name to it I have regained some power over how I feel about the situation, and have been able to gain some understanding.
In retrospect it’s apparent that I was a particularly easy target for manipulation and exploitation. My vulnerability as a lone woman away from home was compounded by my youth and inexperience, my lack of knowledge of the city, my inability to speak the language and my removal from the usual support networks. On top of this, as I recently discovered at the age of thirty, was undiagnosed autism. This condition can make it difficult to ‘read’ people and situations, and to understand their motivations. In my case, I also believe it made me unusually trusting: I had no reason to doubt those in authority, and had an overwhelming urge to keep my head down, do as I was told and try to fit in
I understand now that he was a psychopath, a misogynist and a fantasist who relied on the vulnerability and confusion of young women. But how many other young women away from home, insecure and grateful for a friend, did he groom and rape? How many young women did he leave confused, disoriented and even feeling responsible for his abuse of power? How many other men are out there preying on the susceptibility of those without developed defences? All the recent cases suggest this was less of an unusual experience than the norm of grooming the defenceless, performed by men who do it because they believe they can.
Natalie Bradbury is a writer and researcher based in Greater Manchester. She is interested in art, architecture, education and cities and is currently finishing a PhD at the University of Central Lancashire focused on post-war education.