The Reclaim Project is an initiative to help sexual violence survivors to feel comfortable in their skin again. We're partnering up with photographers to provide these photo sessions in the hopes that we can help to portray female bodies as belonging to actual human beings, instead of objects. We'll be sharing lots of these sessions over time, each one paired with a statement from the survivor about how their experiences have shaped their body image, mental health, and view of their sexuality. Click here if you're a survivor interested in setting up a session, or here if you're a photographer who'd like to participate!
I’m writing you this letter because it has come to my attention that we’ve had more non-consensual interactions with men than we have had loving ones. From a young age you were subjected to the male gaze. A grownup in your family who you trusted violated your innocent view of the world. This violation would scar you so deeply that you would go on to sleeping in your mother’s bed until you were seven and moved to a new state altogether. You had no idea of the hyperawareness you developed over bodies and how much went into yours. In some ways, you thought this meant you could control it - how much or how little you ate. It was something you could say no to and not feel bad about it. It was the twisted version of an imaginary friend that always stayed by your side. Time would pass and you would forget this event for a while. You would create new memories, all the while still being anxious about men and overly controlling about food.
It’s not until you are 22 and a virgin being raped by someone you’ve barely spoken to that your life will spiral out of control. It’s not until you put your trust in people you thought had your best interest at heart that you remember being sexually abused in early childhood. The doctors will turn out all the lights and force you to retell them everything you’ve learned up to this point, waiting for you to change your mind. You’ll learn what rape culture is from when they point blankly ask you “were you drinking? Are you sure it was rape? What were you wearing? Who was around you that day, can we give you a rape kit?” This is when you will become even more familiar with what it means to be a statistic in the eyes of everyone around you.
You will feel damaged and everyone’s reactions to your trauma and how you cope will make you feel worse than the rape itself. You will try to drink, take drugs, and self-harm the trauma away. You will jump into a sexual relationship with a boy you loved because you will want to have a do-over at your first time. He will promise you that this time he won’t run and you can be officially together - all the while you still will not know if his intentions with you were honest or self-serving. You think this is the one time to rewrite what had just happened. Your abortion you have a month later will tear you both up in ways that you will never speak in detail about to anyone or each other. You will try to sweep it under the rug, but you’ll both know what happened and how it changed you.
Your best friend and roommate will look at you with a blank stare. She will promise you that she loves you and wouldn’t dream of hurting you. She will go on to kiss the boy you were seeing, one week after you were raped. She will not apologize for it, instead she will do anything in her power to drive you two further apart. She will tell him that she has everyone’s best interest at heart because she is his “best friend” and is the one who is hurting. She will gaslight your experiences, your first love, your pregnancy, your first time, and everything about who you are as a person in order to make her own actions seem pure. She will tell you that your trauma and the way you are coping with it is “too much” for her and that you’re causing her extreme anxiety by talking about your experiences. She will go on to label the day you were raped as the worst day of her life with no personal regard of what that day has done to you. She will use being drunk and self-hatred as excuse for some of her actions. She will confess to you and a few others that she was intentionally harming you because she was not happy and did not want you to be happy. That was not a friendship, that was abuse. You get through it somehow, with people who show you what friendship actually is.
You will be shamed. You will be called crazy, manipulative, and selfish. People will stare you down and laugh at you while you try to eat lunch on campus in peace. You will think you are crazy because they told you so. You will feel like a small helpless child for asking too much of people to care for you, and to sleep by you at night. You will be called too emotional for expressing any pain at all. It will not be until you start therapy, a recovery program, and support groups that you meet others like you and you realize you were normal - you were responding to trauma and retraumatization from the abuse.
You will meet a woman in the same situation as you in group. She will teach you what it means to have a female best friend. Just like the friends who helped you get out of that mess and into treatment alive. You will learn this person was also assaulted on the same day as you, and this was the universe’s sick try at destiny. You will cry, laugh, burn things, and find some form of recovery. You will start going to parties again, trusting yourself to meet new people. You will get assaulted one night and then abused by a serial predator within the same three-month time frame as before.
But I am writing you this story, our story, to tell you that you are not the problem. You have come across varying extremes of trauma, and people. You made some mistakes in recovery, and taken responsibility where it was necessary and when it was necessary. But you are not crazy, this was not your fault, and you did not deserve this to happen to you. From the age of 5 onward - it was not your fault. You are brave for trusting your surroundings - everyone is entitled to trusting their surroundings. What other people did to you is shameful. They are the ones who are problematic, and should feel awful for their actions. You responded the best you could with what was happening to you and your body. You are a result of repeated sexual trauma since childhood.
People who do not understand what that means will let you down. They will shame you, and they will silence you. Some people will do really fucked up things to harm you even more, even knowing all that I’ve written. Some will even stop talking to you because they don’t know how to handle more than one rape, they won’t understand why you can’t be communicative and just get better. Pity them - for they have no self-awareness of their actions and the lasting effect it can have on other people. They have no idea what it is like to be raped, abused, and betrayed.
You will come to terms with all of this and despite it all, you will graduate, you will live on your own, you will find some weird form of closure. I cannot promise you that your future will forever be free of sexual harm, but I can tell you how hopeful I am to one day be loved, understood, and safe in a relationship. I can write to you and remind you of all that you will and have experienced so you can remember it. You can keep it and look back at where you have come from, and you can cry for the old you. But you can also smile because you know that it won’t break you, it’ll just reshape you into a stronger empathetic person.
I believe in you Gia, and I am sorry for what you have experienced.
Photography // a. lentz photography