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!
Content warning: rape, sexual assault
You don’t need to hear the story of all the guys who have hurt me. Yet you do need to know how it changed me.
One day I woke up and the reality of the past year hit me. When combing through the memories of the last year I found a propensity to push away anything lasting. The line between my sadness and me, and truth and fiction blurred. What did I do to deserve this? Did I deserve it? Have I always had bad luck and not noticed it, or had my spring semester of sophomore year started a chain reaction, like falling dominos?
I lied. Rather, I did not realize until now that in order to understand the change in me, you must see the dominos falling. From there to here.
Often the start to a problem doesn’t have an exact moment in which it began. High pressure converges on low, forming a storm, in which lighting strikes, splitting a tree in two. This analogy works perfectly to explain the month in which it all began.
Fresh out of a difficult breakup, somehow, I had the false impression I was ready for a fresh start. A freshman in college, with exciting ideas bouncing around in both my head and heart, I didn’t stop to ask myself how I really felt. Yet this excitement and enthusiasm to meet new people and explore new academic avenues is not any excuse for what happened.
To the First,
I will be brief because the encounter was exactly that. Brief yet devastating. An innocent get together. Did my smile tell you I wanted something more? My hospitality? Or was it a glint in my eye that only you could see? I may never know the thoughts that led you to your actions, but no excuse will ever validate that evening. Kissing suddenly got to a place I was not expecting, or prepared for. I pushed your hands away, too scared to say no. It was as if my vocal cords froze. Afterwards you immediately left.
For a long time, I did not consider it rape. I didn't actually vocalize "No," so I blamed myself. My body felt dirty. Used. Seeing you in class was a reminder of my "mistake" everyday.
To the One Who Left,
“What if…” scenarios ran through my head daily. If I hadn’t pushed you away, forcing you to leave, would I have gone down this path? I constantly blamed myself for leaving the safety of your embrace. Was this karma telling me I shouldn’t have left someone who loved me so deeply?
From that moment on my life seemed to move in a way that cannot be described by words. It was almost as if I was downing. Failing to catch on to anything, or anyone, for support.
During the descent, I did not realize I was falling. I had lied to myself enough that I did not consider it rape. Telling myself that I was happy, and did not feel pain made it bearable but was not a lasting solution.
I met new people, fell too hard, and hurt myself even more. My body felt used, no longer sacred. I was in search of someone to hold me and fix my problems but no relationships lasted. I either felt something lasting and pushed them away or they left because they weren’t in it for a relationship.
To the Many,
Was it your fault it didn’t work out? Was it mine? Although it is human nature to assign blame, it was neither your fault or mine. I was not ready to share the pain that I held inside me. I wanted someone to hold me in such a way that one day I would wake up and the pain would be gone without any words uttered about my past. Although I should have shared, pity shouldn’t be necessary to treat someone correctly. I did not want pity. I wanted someone to love me for all of me, inside and out, before they saw my broken side.
To the One,
Only months after I came to terms that I was raped, I hit the ground hard. And you are to blame. I considered you a friend but you crossed many personal boundaries in just a matter of 10 minutes. Sexual assault is not any less devastating than rape. The way your hands grabbed me, I felt defenseless. You kept asking, “Is this okay?” and “Do you want this?”. I was quite clear in my responses saying, “No” numerous times, yet you persisted. Although I pushed your hands away and no clothing came off, inappropriate places were still groped. The most unsettling aspect of the ordeal was that if you had been more persistent, I would not have been physically unable to defend myself. Just asking for consent is not enough. Consent is a verbal and willfully given yes. I only succeeded in getting you to leave my apartment by agreeing to send a nude snapchat, which I never sent. Days later you apologized. Crying in public, I replied. I said that I will no longer be able to talk or hang out. Which prompted "I would appreciate an explanation". If you needed an explanation for your actions, I wonder how many other girls you have hurt.
Still in shock, I did not cancel my plans for later that same day with another male friend. We had plans to walk at the arboretum which I decided would calm my whirlwind of thoughts. During the walk, I cautiously mentioned the sexual assault earlier that day, simply stating a friend had touched me inappropriately. The words were absorbed by trees around me but not by the ears of my company. The arboretum was a wonderful choice but events afterwards were not.
To the Next,
I had study plans that evening across campus but needed to shower before I left. I planned on showering off the disgusting feeling of his hands touching me. You offered to wait while I showered and give me a ride to my evening plans. A free ride, why not? As I showered I heard you come into the bathroom and my heart dropped. “Why me?”, instantly flew through my mind. You asked if you could join and I replied with, “I would prefer if you stayed out there”. When does “I would prefer if you stayed out there” mean it’s okay to get naked, and join me in the shower, your eyes raking over my naked body. Especially after I had shared my encounter earlier and clearly seeing I wasn’t okay. That aside, when is it EVER okay to directly defy the wishes of a girl? How did my silence and tears slowly running down my face did not tip you off. How? I was broken and instead of leaving me alone you decided to remind me of how disgusting I felt. Seeing you naked reminded me of all the times I have had men treat me without respect. Now I see you at work and it flashes back to me every single day. Seeing your hands takes me back to when they touched me when I did not want them to. Hearing your voice makes me shake, become nauseous. You are an everyday reminder of memories I wish to forget.
To everyone in the past year, you have all played a role that has resulted in who I am today. From the One Who Left, to the First, to the Many, to the One, to the Next, and to the Best.
I do not need to explain to you what you did wrong and the role you played in my fall, but I do hope this post reaches people who are unaware how their actions can harm someone.
The first step in recovery for me was admitting I could not handle it all myself. The instant I decided to tell someone, I started my steps toward recovery. So, this is to the Best; the one who stands next to me while I find strength to stand on my own. Your companionship is more important to me than I you realize.
When I originally signed up for this project I wanted to share my experience but having signed up only days after my sexual assault, I did not feel confident enough to reveal my identity. I feared, and still do, how people will react. However, I have found that every fear I face, the stronger I become. I want to show both men and women who have gone through any type of sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, or anything that broke them into a million pieces that we can stand stronger when we stand together.
I still struggle. I have body image issues. I struggle to see my body as something that hasn’t been ruined by men who have used it for their gratification. I doubt myself, constantly asking “what if?” Meeting men still scares me. I say yes to a date, but then terrify myself and back out. Yet, I have discovered ways to cope. I have found peace in nature. The smell of plants, the fresh spring air, and rustle of leaves in the breeze calms my soul. Without nature, and close friends, I would not be where I am today.
Should have. Would have. Could have. None of those will change the past. Neither will they validate the actions of the inflictor of your pain.
Everyday, I remind myself: Judging myself on my actions will not change the past. Silence does not mean yes. Just because mine wasn't as "bad" as others does not invalidate my experience, my feelings, my body, me.
Do not worry about the number of times you fell, rather focus on the number of times you’ve stood up.