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
By nature, forgiveness comes very easily to me.
If you’re lucky, life is long. There is no way around life being hard. Life is harder if you are incapable of forgiving those who wrong you – no matter how badly. This is a lesson I learned at an early age, and have carried with me into adulthood.
I forgive the first man who raped me. I forgive him for entering into a bet of who would take my virginity before I was a legal adult, and taking the bet very seriously. I forgive him for pretending to be drunk so I’d take him home and make sure he was safe. I forgive him kissing me and telling me that I’m beautiful and then fighting me to get my clothes off when I was vulnerable. I forgive him for pinning my legs above my head, ignoring my cries and the hundred times I said no and begged him to stop. I forgive him for whispering,” Too late now, princess” into my ear as he destroyed innocence. I forgive him for wearing my virginity like a badge, for carrying it around like a trophy.
I forgive my then boyfriend for not believing me. I forgive him for telling my mom so she’d know what a whore her daughter was. I forgive him for telling me that I was disgusting for having sex with someone that wasn’t him. I forgive him for calling me a liar, and shaming me into having sex with him since I’d already done it anyway. I forgive him for seeing me as damaged goods. I forgive him for his inability to love me after I was raped.
I forgive the people who asked why I was hanging out with college boys. I forgive them for asking why I was alone with a boy. I forgive them for asking why I wore a skirt around boys. I forgive them for implying that being raped was my fault. I forgive them for adding to my belief that this is just what happens to girls like me. Too trusting. Too flirty.
I forgive my friend who believed the boy who raped me when he said I was lying. I forgive her for being jealous and mad that he had sex with me first. I forgive her for dating the boy who raped me. I forgive her for helping him when he needed to defend himself against raping me.
I forgive the friends who testified against me when I reported that he raped me to campus police. I forgive them for calling me a whore and viciously slandering my character to anyone who would listen. I forgive them for saying I had a list of men I’d screw on a calendar once I became a legal adult. I forgive them for saying these things in front of my mom. I forgive them for lying under oath to protect the man who raped me.
I forgive. I forgive.
I forgive the second man who raped me. I forgive him for flirting with me for weeks, for earning my trust and making me believe he liked me. I forgive him offering me a drink at a party surrounded by our coworkers and friends that wasn’t just a drink. I forgive him for slipping me a drug that would cause me to black out until the next day. I forgive him for dragging me home, and removing my shoes and pants when I was incapable of saying no or lifting any part of my body. I forgive him for ensuring I wouldn’t be able to fight back when he had sex with me while I was unconscious.
I forgive my friends at the party who let him take me home when I couldn’t even walk. I forgive them for believing him when he said I was an animal in the sack even though I couldn’t speak or open my eyes . I forgive them for making jokes about me being easy and partying too hard.
I forgive. I forgive.
I’ve never forgiven myself.
When the Louder Coalition was first brought to my attention, I did not hesitate to participate. Forgiveness had been in my heart for so long, and having an outlet to share my journey and how I learned to forgive the people who hurt me so badly was a gift.
Then I started writing. I would write and scratch out words and start over and everything was wrong and I couldn’t be honest and I wanted to hide and I started having nightmares and it started to hurt and I realized I’d never forgiven myself. It was a brutal truth that I’d buried for over a decade. I still hated myself for the pain I caused after I was raped.
The first man who raped me was my best friend. He knew my secrets. He knew I wanted to be in love and to be loved when I had sex for the first time. He knew I wasn’t waiting for marriage, but so naively for love.
After I was raped at 17, it became my mission to find someone who loved my body and me. What an impossible mission.
I hated myself. I hated my skin. I began to hate anyone who touched me. I’d seduce anyone who expressed interest, and despise them afterwards. If anyone could have loved me, I wouldn’t have felt it. I wouldn’t have noticed. My means of survival was to feel nothing.
Eventually, I moved away from home to a place where I could be as insignificant as I felt. Where I could be as invisible as I wanted. My bad habits continued. I hurt so many people. I used so many men, and tossed them aside. I lied and manipulated. I hurt friends. I hurt family.
To say I was broken does not begin to describe me in the couple of years following being raped. However many men I hurt, it will never measure up to the ways I hurt myself. To the damage I was causing my heart and soul. My body felt like a prison and a weapon. I hated my skin. I hated being me.
Then I was raped again. My survival tactics changed.
I withdrew from friends. I withdrew from anyone I thought I could trust. I found a man who wanted to love me and used him as a shield. He was possessive and he was a safe place to hide.
I hurt him, too.
Finally, I moved home. I went to therapy. I worked on my relationship with my family and friends. I worked on trusting people. On rebuilding myself, finding something to believe in and a life that made me proud.
Love, accepting love, is a battle I’ve yet to win.
It’s true that if you don’t love yourself, no one else will. It’s not because they don’t love you, but because you will not feel it. You will not see it. You will not believe it. When you walk around believing you are damaged and broken and disgusting and undeserving of love, no one can compete with that. They can try. They will lose.
The first time someone called me a whore, I shrugged my shoulders and thought,” You’re right. I’m disgusting. I don’t deserve good.”
I didn’t realize, until this project, that I’ve never stopped believing that about myself. I’ve come so far in my journey to heal. I’m open about what happened to me. I live to help other victims and to reach out and help others find their strength. Find their voice. Find peace. Remind them they are not alone, they are loved and that it doesn’t always have to hurt as badly as it does in that moment.
Until now, I walked with shame for the way I behaved. It was my dirtiest secret. It betrayed what people believed about me and I didn’t want anyone to know the truth for fear of people seeing through my cracks. I’ve been so scared that people would see me the way I see me.
It’s time to heed my own advice. It’s time to heal myself. I don’t need to be ashamed.
I am strong.
I am brave.
I am beautiful.
I have endured endless pain, and still love fiercely.
I am worthy of love.
I am worthy of happiness.
I am worthy of self-acceptance.
I am worthy of forgiveness.
I forgive myself.
Photography // Colleen Merchant Photography