The R Word

written by Haili G

The R Word

It's a trigger. Nobody can talk about the 'R' word, since it is SO taboo. Not me! I WILL voice my experience and how it has changed me!

I will never forget the fear, anger and self hatred that followed, as well as the feeling of disgust.
I was the victim, yet I had so much self hate. I told myself it was my fault for years.

IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT!

I was in the Air Force when the rape happened. Not once but twice. I reported the first rape but the Sergeant laughed in my face and still gave me the LOR (Letter of Reprimand). Later, I found out my roommate in the military had the same situation, with the same Sergeant, and the same consequences were given to her.
I didn't know she had been raped. I would have gotten the courage to speak out. The Sergeant was endangering the lives of so many people. If this happened twice, who could say it didn't happen more.

After being out of the military for five years, I had to accept "defeat" and go into therapy. "The hardest part is admitting you have a problem," NO! The hardest part is admitting YOU NEED HELP!
Therapy was the hardest decision of my life, but also the most rewarding. I have gotten to know my 'triggers' and what I can do to ease the side effects of the triggers.

If I could go back, I would have spoken louder so everyone could hear my voice.  My chance is now:

IF SOMEONE ABUSED YOU, DO NOT BE AFRAID, BUT TELL A PERSON YOU TRUST RIGHT AWAY!
Keep trying until someone listens to you and helps you. Call the police.

IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT!
IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT!
IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT!

 

"I am a sister, a daughter, a friend, a survivor."

My story begins when I was five years old. I was sexually abused by my half-brother until I was about nine years old, when he enlisted and moved out of the country. I was always taught, “if a stranger ever touches you, you tell mom and dad right away,” but what if that stranger was family? I spent many years pondering what had happened to me, confused because it couldn’t be that bad if it was your brother, right? Am I supposed to tell? Will mom be mad at me? Was it abuse?  

I let this secret sit inside of me while my half-brother was home and would reward me with coloring books and a box of crayons (with a sharpener on the back!), but also two years after he left for the army. Eventually, I became terrified that I would never find the courage inside of me to tell someone what happened.

One night in July, the summer before sixth grade, I was in the shower. It was a normal day and a normal night. I hadn’t seen my half-brother in about a year, yet for some reason that night I was dwelling on what had happened to me, and I was in denial that it was abuse. I turned the shower off without washing all the shampoo out of my hair, threw clothes on and went straight to my twin brother. He was climbing into bed as I blurted out, “C sexually abused me.” Keep in mind that we were innocent 10-year-olds, so he calmly yet nervously directed me to our mom, whom I repeated those four words to. The first words she said were, “Oh, honey,” and opened her arms, and immediately a weight was lifted from my shoulders. Mind you, it wasn’t necessarily the easiest night of my life although my mom and I had a “sleepover” in her room, I was up until about 4am crying and going into detail with my mom about what had happened. Although it was hard to accept what happened, it was a step on the road to recovery.
I began to see therapists on a weekly basis; it’s only plural because I went through a couple after a trial and error type of process (it’s weird, you wouldn’t think finding a therapist is like finding the right pair of shoes, but it is). Even so, therapy wasn’t really for me. I talked to my mom a lot, I taught myself how to play guitar, and I began to journal almost every day. I was growing and recovering without even realizing it. In finding healthy outlets for stress and anxiety, I learned to forgive and move forward. I had great friends and an amazing support system that was (and still is!) my family. I consider myself extremely lucky, despite the circumstances. I’ve learned that I am more than the pain and shame I held inside for so long. I am a sister, a daughter, a friend, a survivor.

"You couldn't even meet my eyes."

written by Cara

There was never a time that I thought rape was a subject I would be close to. When I moved to university last August, I ensured I would take every precaution; I sat through endless safety talks with my dad, I never went out too drunk or alone, and I did not accept any drugs being pushed at parties. Rape was not a thing that could happen to me. It was a dramatic movie scene in a dark alley. It was a faceless stranger with no good in them. It wasn’t a part of my life.

The sad reality is that campus rape doesn’t have to occur in a dark alley late at night. A rapist doesn’t need to be a stranger. It can happen in a first year dorm room, with friends drinking and laughing just meters away down the hall. A rapist can be a trusted friend, a friend capable of great betrayal. A friend, and the last person I would ever expect to violate my body, mind, and future.

You and I had been drinking with our separate friend groups on a Friday night. We were celebrating the end of a week packed with studying for and taking our first university midterms. I was starting to sober up when we convened in a floor lounge, but it was clear that you were far from being at my level. Your words were slurred, movements sloppy, and eyes glassy and unfocused.

You and I slipped away from the group after a little while and sat in your room. Still slurring your words, you asked if I wanted to have sex with you. I said yes.

But the genuine consent I gave was eradicated the second your hand struck my face. That night my body became a collage of swollen skin, multi-coloured bruises, scratches, and teeth marks.

Even though the few I told were supportive and concerned, many asked me why I allowed it all to continue. “Why didn’t you get up and walk out?”

I didn’t walk out because I was scared. If someone as drunk as you could harm my body so forcefully when things were going your way, how much worse could it become when things were not?

I feigned consent to save myself from the potential of worse injury. I held in my tears, whispered fake encouragement to you, and waited for the moment that you would tire and leave me.

Your eyes were too glassy to make eye contact. You were only vaguely aware of your hand hitting my jaw and your teeth biting into me, making me bleed. You would later admit to me that you didn’t remember much of the night’s events; you didn’t know you were stripping my dignity away piece by piece, leaving behind a shadow of the girl underneath you.

The second you left the room, I crumpled into a ball on the floor. Naked, crying, shaking, I lay there trying to make sense of it all. After a few minutes I found my belongings and fled.

You couldn’t even meet my eyes.

I was told that I handled myself well during the days that passed. My best friend praised me for approaching the situation practically and without emotion. But the truth was that the screaming apathy that enveloped me signaled that I was nowhere near being okay. I’ve always been a highly emotional time bomb, waiting for the smallest tip of the balance to react. Something that could shut down any and all feeling inside me was not just an indicator that something was off. It was a toxin, and I was praised for allowing it to poison me.

The worst part of it all was the phone call home. Hearing my mother sobbing, my father screaming vulgarities, I knew their worst fears of parenting had come true. It broke my heart. The commentary between my family members and I was no longer innocent. They were hurting more than I was, because they couldn’t save me or take away the pain. The emotional pain caused by rape does not solely affect the victim; it takes many more prisoners.

I criticized myself over and over again for consenting, but more than that I criticized my accusation. How could I accuse my friend, who had had too much to drink one night, of raping me when I didn’t retract my consent the second I felt uncomfortable? I told myself day after day that it wasn’t rape, and that I was horrible to make such a claim.

But sex, consensual sex, should not leave you naked on the floor, nursing your swollen face and sobbing into the carpet. It shouldn’t cause your focus to stray from your obligations, like your schoolwork and your social groups. It shouldn’t make you sleep to forget. Consensual sex shouldn’t leave your mind or body damaged.

This was not consensual sex.

This was rape.

You couldn’t even meet my eyes.

When we met to discuss what happened, you were unprepared for what I was about to tell you. You expected to discuss how your quick departure that night might have hurt my feelings; you were shocked when I said you had raped me. You genuinely didn’t remember much of the evening, but why would you? You had been plastered. You didn’t see me after, curled in a ball, gasping for breath and trying to get ahold of an imminent panic attack. You didn’t see the bruises, all different shades, that began to develop on my breasts and between my legs mere hours after the assault. You saw none of it. You didn’t need to. You were ashamed.

Maybe I was lenient because I could see the remorse on your face and the tears in your eyes as you came to terms with what you did to me, your classmate, your friend. Maybe it was because I had known you for a few months, enough time to determine that you were respectful, funny, and kind, and I didn’t want to see you as anything other than that. I had already decided not to press charges against you—you weren’t a criminal in my eyes, and I wasn’t mentally prepared to face the police.

I asked you to watch your drinking in the future. You swore you would. I should’ve left it at that. Instead, for the next five months, I tried to mend the fences, initiating conversation and finding excuses to see you. I thought you were hurting as much as I was, that your cautious behaviours towards me were not calculated to prevent me from the hostility or grief that I inevitably felt every time I saw you, but rather were borne of your genuine caring for me. I knew the incident had not been kind to your psyche. I felt as though you deserved some comfort. You didn’t.

You deserved my hatred. You deserved to be exposed to the girl you were seeing, the friends who thought you could do no wrong. You didn’t deserve my friendship or attention. You deserved nothing less than the feeling of shame and my actions following that night wrongly indicated that all was forgiven.

Nothing was forgiven.

No person, man, woman or otherwise, asks for rape. There is no outfit that indicates that a woman is open to being taken advantage of. No amount of drunkenness, on the part of the rapist or the victim, makes rape admissible.

There is absolutely, positively, no excuse for rape.

Not even if you initially consented, like I did.

Consent does not have to be permanent.

I told myself that it didn’t matter what had happened. It didn’t matter that, deep down, I felt betrayed by you, my friend, and that I was regretful that I hadn’t swallowed my tears and hadn’t pretended to like it. But it did matter.

I stopped going to class, and started sleeping as frequently and for as long as I could without my friends or roommate becoming suspicious. I told my parents I was trying my hardest, that I didn’t know why my grades were so terrible; but of course I knew why. I just couldn’t tell them the reason without deepening the emotional wound they were trying to nurse.

I blamed these academic failings on my laziness, and, to an extent, it was accurately placed. As my self-esteem and sense of purpose as a university student dwindled away bit by bit, I became incredibly lazy. I convinced myself that there was no point in going to class or social functions because it would mean facing the implications of that night—admitting to myself that something in me had changed, that you were capable of inflicting more harm than even you had known, and that I was now considered a victim of rape—no longer myself. No longer familiar. I wished I hadn’t told my RA, my friends, and especially not you. If it had been perceived by all as a clumsy, drunken one night stand, then no one would know the truth of what had happened and all my problems would disappear.

I tried to date someone, and my life was blissful as long as I focused solely on him and nothing else. I stopped sleeping in my room because it reminded me of the sleeplessness of that night, and instead began to spend each night clinging to this new boy who swore he’d never hurt me like you did. If there were no thoughts about my crippling school performance, my rapid weight gain, or my slow but steady isolation away from my floor mates and friends, then there were no problems. If I pretended like things were normal between you and I, ignoring the fact that you were still seeing someone who was totally unaware of your disturbing capabilities, then there were no problems. If I told myself over and over again that you had not damaged the deepest level of my heart, where my self-love and extroversion used to live, then there were no problems. I lived in this superficial mindset for the last months of the term, telling myself that I was in love with someone new, that it was all in the past, that there was no need to think about that night ever again. On multiple occasions I almost convinced myself I was telling the truth, but an uncertain feeling that had been residing in my gut since October kept preventing me from believing the words I fed to myself.

I soon had to face those problems, however, over winter break when my final grades for first term were returned. I had failed three important courses that I needed to remain enrolled as a university student. I didn’t care. I wanted to forget forever that term that made me feel so small and stupid and weak. I was tired of feeling so controlled by my emotions that I couldn't even pass my exams.

Being home with my family was the most therapeutic experience I had felt in a long time. I found myself feeling self-medicated with love and food. I felt fulfilled, but hollow, as though I was only a shade of myself. By the time I was due back at school, I felt recharged. Not whole, not me, but rested.

I immediately put effort into my mental health. I met with counselors, ate vegetables, put more effort into speaking with my neighbours, and read each week’s assigned passages before they were due. There were many days in which I felt productive and excited for the future. I’d sit on the edge of my new boy’s bed for an hour or two, chattering on and on excitedly about the day’s events and the promise of tomorrow. But it was like putting a Band-aid on a broken bone; it did nothing but make it look like I was trying. But deep down I felt removed. It wasn’t me succeeding. Something inside me was still gnawing at my insides, telling me it was time to confront the assault. Something still wasn’t sitting right. Something still isn’t sitting right.

Being a victim of rape hurts. Feeling like a stranger in my own body is the most obscure feeling. Seeing myself naked for the first time after the assault, I saw my imperfections where I used to see beauty. I didn’t notice the smoothness of my skin anymore, but rather its eye-catching swelling and discolouration. It has taken a long time to find beauty in myself since then, and it is still a work in progress. I found that, in terms of returning to my body, it was okay to feel removed and unfamiliar for awhile. It was okay to change how I looked, or to stay the exact same. What wasn’t okay was that I allowed myself to accept that you had claimed ownership of my body by degrading and using me. I tried and failed over and over again to remind myself that I am beautifully flawed and unique in body and mind, and that my body was my own to repair and worship for its resiliency and healing powers.

If I could change one thing about my recovery, it would be my processing of emotions. The morning after the assault, after crying to my parents and lying in bed feeling so bare and raw, I got dressed and got into the car with my best friend. We bought coffee and drove to a shopping district to walk and talk. My face was expressionless, the tone of my voice was matter-of-fact, and I told my friend that I just wanted to find a solution and move on from it entirely.

Where was the time I needed to accept what had happened? Where were my emotions? I disallowed myself to express the pain I felt, and subsequently slowed down my recovery, clouding my head and allowing myself to self-destruct later on down the road. I wish I had cried. I wish I had asked for more help than I did. I wish I had acknowledged that I was broken and needed to be fixed. And now, six months later, I’m finding myself doing just this.

I cannot say my experience has made me stronger. In fact, being raped stripped me apart until I was too weak to stand. I had to learn all over again how to accept my body as it is, how to approach relationships with other men and women, and how to see qualities within me that make me special and loved by those around me. It has made me question all aspects of my life: my sexuality, my purpose in university, and my ability to trust. I made the difficult decision to leave school after this year to heal, causing my entire course of my education and, subsequently, life, to be altered. There are silver linings, though; through my experience I have been given a platform to speak out against the horrendous rape culture that is so ingrained in modern society, especially on university campuses. I understand what it is like to feel lost and scared, and it has given me perspective into coping methods for myself and others who have dealt with similar horrors. I do not feel empowered.  I feel awake.

I’ve also discovered the complexity of consent. I have been belittled or tossed aside for lack of credibility due to my consenting. The concept of consent is one that muddies the waters and disallows the situation to be black and white. How could you know I was uncomfortable if I had said I wanted to have sex with you initially and never protested throughout? But I believe there is a fine line between what has been verbally deemed consensual and what is assumed to be so. Had I known you would become violent, there would have been no consent whatsoever. Consenting to sex is not equivalent to consenting to violation, embarrassment, and injury. In fact, they don't relate whatsoever. I remained in your clutches out of fear, and while I never want to consider what could have happened if I had stood up to you, I was and to some extent still am ashamed that I wasn’t brave enough to do so. I didn’t realize at the time that I chose to protect myself, and that it was not the wrong choice to make. I came out with minor injuries, but if I had protested, it could have been worse. The specific situation will change what is right to do, and in mine I felt it was best to remain passive. It is a choice that victims have, and it cannot be a black and white issue. Consent is forever an option, not an assumption.

Most importantly, my rape story has shown me the genuine kindness that can be found in more people than I thought was possible. I broke that new boy’s heart because I have felt since then that I am incapable of loving correctly. To this day, even after multiple splits, short-lived apologies, and an ever-growing animosity between us, he has remained my best confidante, kindest supporter, and most forgiving friend. I shunned friends who didn’t understand why I was rejecting support. Now, nearly seven months after the assault, those friends have allowed me back into their lives, always patiently accepting that I am not who I was before and ensuring me that that is okay. In a time where I’ve appreciated myself and the world the least, the world has given me more love than I can fathom.

I’m not whole yet, and the process of refilling the torn holes in my personality is excruciatingly slow. As I sort through the parts of myself, old and new, that have been shaped by each experience I have lived through, I’ve realized the distinction between what I’ve been through and what defines me. I refuse to allow your mistake to become a part of me, no matter how long it takes to recover. Only recently have I been able to begin to accept what has happened, and still there are days that I defy reality and tell myself a different story. There are still days that I stay in bed, disregarding the classes I must attend or the homework I must complete; but there are other days doing nothing but studying and preparing for the future of my schooling, which is now more uncertain than before. Some days are spent at the beach, in the rare sunshine, or in the company of friends who never tire of hearing me vent about how you hurt me. Some days are empowering; some days are spent under the covers, crying and feeling helpless. There is no timeline for recovery. Recovery is fluid and oftentimes painful. But so is being a mere shadow of oneself. The start of recovery is choosing which pain to take on.

I won’t let you define me.

To my two friends who immediately responded to my call of distress, my patient and kind roommate, those who supported and comforted me with the utmost discretion and sweetness, and my family, I owe you a great debt. There is nothing more kind than what you did for me, and I respect and appreciate what you have done. The efforts you all made proved that I was not alone, no matter how much I felt as though I was. There is strength in numbers, and your pooled contributions to ensuring my external life remains wholesome and filled with love is something I could not have achieved alone.

I’m sorry to those who I isolated myself from, and those who I couldn’t accurately communicate with. I couldn’t find the words to shape my experience or my mental struggles until now.

Thank you to Rupi Kaur and her book of poetry, Milk and Honey, for putting into words the feelings I couldn’t express and for emphasizing the importance of empowered women and their impacts on the world. Strong, open men and women are a necessity for spurring change and encouraging others to speak out against objectification, sexual assault, and abuse of all kinds, and Rupi’s book eloquently inspires just this.

A direct address to the man who raped me:

There is no need to attack you, belittle you, or turn anyone against you, because you’re already suffering enough: you get to carry a trophy of regret with you for the rest of your life. You’ll always have to remember what you did to me. Only you will understand the weight of the guilt you undoubtedly feel.

I will thank you for your total acceptance and courtesy following that night. You made it difficult to place the blame on you. But I have not written this with the purpose to blame; the purpose is for me to heal. In no way will my healing process involve you. You will never be able to shake the truth of what you’ve done from your shoulders. I hope you do something to help rape victims in the future, though it will never make up for your despicable actions. I hope you’ve seen what a dehumanizing, gut-wrenching journey this has been for your victim, and that it inspires you to live differently. I hope your friends, partners, or future children never go through what you put me through. I hope you realize the damage one night of irresponsibility can cause.

That night wasn’t worth a lifetime of remorse. You can’t even remember most of it anyways. You didn’t mean to rape me, but you did.

You couldn’t even meet my eyes.

 

Reclaim Project: Gia

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!

Dear Me,

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.

Love always,
You.

Photography // a. lentz photography

Reclaim Project: Hannah

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!

After assault, the lesson seems to be clear: do not show your body, the public is only there to hurt you, men cannot be trusted, you cannot be trusted. You are stripped of your senses the second you are assaulted, and they don’t return after. After you’re raped, somehow everything smells like the cologne your abuser wore, or everything around you has been drained of its color. Touch will sometimes feel like an imperceptible breeze; sometimes it will feel like a blanket of thorns. People on television or in books will describe a survivor’s relationship to the world after assault as “complicated,” but it’s simple: something inside you has died.

My first assault happened when I was six. He was a part of my family. In a roomful of wolves, I felt we were the only humans, and I felt close to him for that. A child navigates the world like a mountaineer when she is so young-- all exploration and glory. All survival. When I was alone with him, he was meant to be my caretaker. Only a man with demons like coal can produce such horror. My therapists now have referred to him as being “sick,” or “untreated,” as if the mental illness he gave me can somehow be an access point into empathizing with him. He smelled like gasoline and burnt toast and that’s all I can say. I’ll never know what I was like as a young girl, just like how my parents could never afford a video camera to film my brothers and I as children. I lost two years of my memory. At six years old, I was grown because I needed to be in order to live. In order to pull my legs up and place them in front of me, one, then two.

Often I think about what led me to my second assault. It was my first year of college, in the springtime in Vermont, when the tops of snow banks get shiny and crunchy like a candy apple. At this point in my life, I was in love with my brain, as ambitious young women are, imagining their careers, soaking up everything they can, concerned with not leaving anything out. I would daydream about fame in the art world, I dreamt about love and sexuality. I freely touched my own body, with the exception of a small area by my right hipbone, the skin above my appendix. It makes me feel a sharp tickle, an anomaly since childhood, a phenomenon I hadn’t realized was a physical manifestation of my trauma until many years later when I heard the phrase, “the body remembers.”

My second attacker acted like an animal. He respected my wishes to take our encounters slowly, didn’t even kiss me until I let him. He acted like an animal. He waited until I was drunk and then his sweat was everywhere, dripping onto my skin. I couldn’t move and I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to leave, my exhaustion was too draining, I only wanted to be removed from his room, taken into the air like machinery lifts a log in chains-- I wanted to be moved anywhere but there. He acted like an animal, acute and quick, trying so hard to get me to lie silent.

When a woman lives long enough, she dies. When a woman lives long enough, she will encounter the same pain, again and again, wrapped differently, perfumed differently, but the same. I wake up and I ask myself what is it about me that makes men take advantage of me? It’s not naiveté, it’s not gullibility, it’s not my sexual history, it’s not the way I dress, it’s not that my favorite color is yellow-- and I list these things in my head, wracking my brain, trying to figure out what has made me so vulnerable to assault.

And that’s the thing. It’s not one thing, and it’s not anything. It’s not me. I want to say it again: it’s not me that makes men want to take advantage of me. It’s not me. I know what it is, despite the daily self-shaming I put myself through. It’s what makes women strong, and what makes men feel threatened. It’s the way men are taught to value the tenets of masculinity, and it’s the way that this hollows them out, a shell of performativity, obliged to assert toxicity against any non-male. I know that this is what makes men want to take advantage of me. And none of that is my fault.

So how is it that I can know this and still feel shame around what happened to me a third time? (Are you losing count yet?) The last time I saw my third rapist, I was dressed up like a panda for Halloween. He came to the party I was at, no costume, and as I peered at him through a bonfire, I wondered what might be under his skin, what kind of person he was dressed up as. Because I knew he raped me and threatened me, and I couldn’t leave my house for weeks. When I saw him, I screamed at him, “Get the fuck out of my life,” and a friend of mine escorted him out, how lucky, how lucky to feel safe. Safety is a luxury for survivors. Metaphor forced, I’m glad he didn’t put a mask on that night, betraying the truth, my truth.

My third story of what happened to me is the same as before, the redundancy growing exhausting and foul. None of these men deserve my story, they don’t deserve anything from me. Not my story, my pity, my forgiveness, my beautiful heart, my time of day. My work is for me and the people who can feel this in their gut, our collective cringe resonating against the cowardice of those who thought we were weak.

How are we meant to love after rape? How do we allow someone to receive our trust when our boundaries have been breached and our internal organs, like a million glass swans, have shattered against the inside of our skin? Most times I cannot believe I am alive, the devastation relentlessly picking at my depressed body. Is it possible to refrain from putting our trauma aside and using it instead to inform how we learn to open ourselves up to the possibility of finding people who love us? I’m not talking about being accepted as broken and addressing everything around it. I’m talking about using our heart the way we use our mind-- ambitiously and gracefully, with wit and poise, unforgiving in its processes. Let’s use our trauma to address our loneliness, shamefulness, and pain-- and let’s use it to thrive in the company of others who listen to us, and feel our stories in their bones.

I’m not interested in dwelling in the possibility of recovery anymore. That’s not meant to sound cynical or rude-- what I mean is that my life has changed forever, and this is who I am now. I’m too exhausted to entertain the idea that I might go back to the way I was before I was raped. Trees hibernate when it’s too cold for them to continue growing. They lose their leaves to preserve water. When their environment allows them to grow more, they will. So too am I not wistful about previous summertimes. I’m preserving what I have left, getting ready to learn how to give and love and find new passions. It’s normal to expect to return to our lives, like we do after any event. I’m just too tired to worship that belief. So here I am, fresh out of the fire, arms outstretched past the smoke, sunshine on my fingers.

Photography // a. lentz photography

"I will accept myself unconditionally."

written by Daniel Straw

I raised my right wrist with the “survivor” temporary tattoo proudly displayed. I had just completed a half marathon on behalf of the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization that provides education, support, and advocacy for abuse survivors and their allies. In the process of training for the race, I raised over $1,000.00, but more importantly, I shared my experiences on social media and thereby dispelled much of the shame that I was carrying around with me. By sharing one of my worst secrets, it lost its power over me.

My parents divorced when I was five years old. My mother got custody of me and my two younger siblings. However, since my mother had a high school education and my dad was a flake, life was challenging to say the least. From the time I was five until my mother remarried when I was about 10, we moved frequently, staying with friends or family mostly. The first time I was sexually abused was when I was about six years old. A male babysitter coerced me, my two younger siblings, and two other younger children in the household to perform sexual acts on him and each other. As far I as I can remember, this was a one-time thing, but I’m pretty sure he was never caught. Fast forward nine years. By the time I was 15, my mother had been remarried for five years, but I had little in common with my stepfather. He isn’t a bad guy, but he was a jock in high school and I am much more introverted and bookish. In addition, my siblings were much better at being squeaky wheels while I just flew under the radar most of the time. I was a good student, active in church, and generally the good kid. If I did get busted for something, which wasn’t often, I usually didn’t get in too much trouble.

It wasn’t until years after the abuse ended that I realized how vulnerable I was to being exploited. I had been previously abused, there was no meaningful male figure in my life, and I was unable to compete for attention with my siblings. I learned early on that my role in the family was to make everything as easy as possible since everything was so chaotic. I needed to do my best to manage things on my own because the adults in my life only had so much energy to go around. Add in a healthy dose of hormones, and you have a recipe for disaster.

My step-grandfather first molested me the summer before my sophomore year in high school. At the time I found it exciting. Someone was paying attention to me! Someone thought I was attractive! So what if he was a dirty old man, I would take what I could get. I think one of the biggest roadblocks to my recovery was processing just what my role in perpetrating the abuse was. Of course, I know now that I was in no way at fault for what happened. I was a child, no matter how smart or mature I thought I was. The abuse continued for three and a half years. He lived nearby, so we had frequent encounters over that time and even took a few vacations alone. It wasn’t long after the first time that I didn’t want it anymore. But who could I tell? If I told someone, I would be at the center of a shit storm that could wreck the family and I didn’t want to be responsible for that. I decided to stick it out until I went away to college. Then I could run away, it would be over, and I wouldn’t have to tell anyone.

Off to college I went, but when I came back for Christmas break, my step-grandfather made it adequately clear that he didn’t think it was over. I did the only think I could think to do. I left a note for my mom, which she wouldn’t find until I was on a plane back to school. She found it just as I planned, and most of the fallout occurred while I was at school. The police called me, but I was in no shape to deal, so I never called them back. Despite all this going on, I did not tell my friends at school what had happened. At the time, I was living in an all guys dorm, which was great in some ways. It was like having a bunch of new brothers. But, I didn’t think they would understand or like me if I told them about the abuse. I mean, what kind of guy lets himself get molested? And by an old man? These things just don’t happen to real men, or so I thought then. So I had friends, but I had little in the way of moral support at school.

Of course, when I came home for the summer, I had to endure endless rounds of the “why couldn’t you tell me” conversation. In some ways, these conversations were more painful than the abuse. According to my mom, I “didn’t show any signs” that anything was going on. I realize now that she was trying to absolve herself of her guilty feelings. At the time we had this conversation, I believed her. I figured, “Well, yeah. I’m so smart and sneaky, there was no way she could have figured it out.” It wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I truly understood out how oblivious she was. In hindsight, I think her comment hurt me so badly because it felt like victim blaming. It was my fault she didn’t figure out that I was being abused because I wasn’t showing any signs. As if somehow, even if I couldn’t tell her, I should have been able to send out signs for her to pick up on. Bullshit. The signs were there and she was too wrapped up in other stuff to notice. After therapy and reflection, I realized there were signs that a parent should have noticed. I had been in honors classes since junior high, but the year the abuse started, I bombed out of honors English and did poorly in Geometry. I wore jeans no matter how hot the day was and kept myself covered up. I can’t tell you how many times I got busted for having porn in the house. I drank heavily and came home obviously smashed a few times. The drinking was chalked up to typical high school shenanigans. However, given the extensive history of alcoholism in my family, this probably should have raised some warning flags.

For you other survivors out there, if someone tells you that you weren’t showing any signs or otherwise tries to excuse themselves for not figuring things out, don’t buy it. For you others, if someone discloses to you, for heaven’s sake, don’t ask them why they couldn’t tell you. They are talking to you now, listen to them. Don’t redirect the conversation back to yourself and your issues.

Recovery has been a slow and painful process. I’ve struggled with anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and alcoholism, just to name a few challenges. As a guy, I’ve had to deal with my sexual identity and masculinity. In many ways, I don’t identify with stereotypical “male” behaviors and thoughts. Nevertheless, it is impossible to totally ignore how American society traditionally defines manhood. Men should be strong, decisive, and forceful. A real man would never let himself be molested by another man, and he would be lucky to be molested by an older woman. Of course, this is bogus. One of the benefits of working through recovery is that I’m feeling more comfortable being me. I’ve been in therapy for years, but it wasn’t until I got a therapist that knew what he was doing that I made any real progress. After a year of treatment with him, he helped me realize that my drinking was interfering with my recovery. I could only go so far if I was drinking. So, I got sober on February 2, 2016.

I realized that part of my recovery would require me to share my experiences and try and dispel some of the secrecy around the abuse. This was a scary thing for me. I had told very few people about the abuse. I mean, it’s not like it comes up in casual conversation with coworkers or friends. I was also afraid that some members of my family would not appreciate me airing the family’s dirty laundry all over the place. But ultimately, this experience is mine. I own it. I have the right to tell who I want and I have the right to tell it however I want to. Fundraising for the Joyful Heart Foundation was the perfect opportunity. Through my fundraising, I shared my story with as many people as possible, and I was blown away with the response. I received nothing but positive feedback and comments. I didn’t hear much from my family, but that’s okay. My self-worth and esteem no longer rely on things outside of me. It sounds dorky, but for the first six months of my sobriety every day I looked in the mirror and said “I love myself. I will accept myself unconditionally.” Today, I believe that. When I think about that little boy that was hurt, the man I am today imagines holding him close and safe. I tell him he is okay now. I understand what hurt and scared him, but that I am here to protect him.

As I held up my wrist for the photo, the next runner in line said to me “You made it!” I still get choked up thinking about it. More than anything up to that point, for some reason, those words brought it home for me. I made it.

"Healing is possible. It has no timeline."

This is an anonymous story submission. If you'd like to share your story, please contact us here.

"I didn't tell a counselor, not any of the five or six I'd had throughout the years until I was 21 years old. Though I could easily tell them about my mental health otherwise, it took over 7 years to seek professional help for the aftermath of my experience with sexual abuse.

I was scared of blankets for three years. I was terrified of men who were bigger than me for five. But seven is the number of years it took me to finally seek help.  

The help was sought out as a result of a serious relationship and my caring partner's gentle nudge. As intimacy came into play in this relationship, we both realized that approaching it healthily required some outside help.

The questions that followed my admission and recollection of what happened were unpleasant. I had to specify what was said, where I was touched, how my consent was breached. When? How many times? How often? Reliving this brought back the pain I had refused to admit for so many years. At the same time, I knew that admitting what happened was the first step in my healing process.  

I think about why I didn't seek help sooner all the time. It's as if telling someone other than a friend would make it real. If I finally told someone what happened, it had to be true. I didn't want it to be true, I just wanted it to go away. There was also the fear of a professional not believing me. I knew a friend would, but what if this professional thought I was making things to be worse than they were?

After seven years, I am finally starting to close up the rest of this wound. I don't panic when sharing a blanket anymore, I no longer break down in tears in the face of intimacy, the guilt is disappearing from my choice to say no, and the man I am marrying towers over me.

Healing is possible. It has no timeline. It requires trust in a professional and belief in the results. I now know that I didn't seek help because I wasn't ready. I didn't quite trust the professionals I had been working with. I wasn't ready to talk about it yet, and that's okay. What's important is that I've started to heal at all." 

Reclaim Project: Anastasia

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've been waiting years for the words to write my story, but have found the the harder I listen, the less I receive.
I've tried to dig around past years of repressed memories.
I've tried to write it in a way that appeals to a crowd.
In a way that's artistic.
A way that's beautiful.
But nothing would come.

(images from Anastasia's journal)

(images from Anastasia's journal)

I finally found that the best way to write, is congruent with the best way to live your life, honestly.

When I was a little girl, I was sexually abused. It's one of my first memories.
It wasn't artistic.
It didn't appeal to any specific audience.
It most definitely was not beautiful.

It was ugly.
It was wrong.
It affected me. It affects me every day. It will affect me for the rest of my life.
It forced me to carry shame and guilt from much too young an age.
Stole the innocence out of getting to choosing who I would give my body to.
It changed the way I see my body. My earliest self-body shaming memory was at the beach. I was four years old. Over the past few years I've gone to multiple counselors to try to begin the healing process, but I've given up every single time. I always believed that people who didn't know me, didn't deserve to hear my story.

How the times have changed. How my mindset has changed.

The closest I've gotten to beginning my journey towards healing has come from honesty. Learning to share my story. Learning to listen to others stories.
Learning that there is not shame in what happened to me when I was too young to defend myself.
That someone else's ugly choice was not my fault.

IMG_9693.jpg

Right now I'm in between.
In between my heaviest and my thinnest.
In between knowing who I am and having no idea where I'm meant to go.
In between hating the temple that carries me through every day and being thankful for every journey it has brought me through.
A temple that I've over indulged to its heaviest, and starved to its thinnest in an effort to have control over what was taken from me.
In between tearing that little girl down the way she was years ago, and building up the beautiful woman she is becoming.

This story is my becoming."

(images from Anastasia's journal)

(images from Anastasia's journal)

Photography // a. lentz photography

She always says, "I am not what happened to me."

Written by Maxwell Udell

My wife calls me crying, trembling with fear. She’s upset that her male doctor asked to do a pelvic exam on her, that a little boy looks similar to her assaulter, that she’s having a flashback in the middle of something important.  I struggle to find the words to calm her down and keep her in the moment, to take her pain away, to let her know that it’s okay now. I just can’t seem to find the words, they evade me and her. She seems distant, terrified of that memory. I try pulling her back into the moment, I wish I could make it all go away.

I am not perfect, I make many mistakes, so it's wrong for me to judge, but I am furious with this man. He gave my wife feelings that she can’t help but feel, a memory she won’t forget, a sickness that’s taken away what could have been beautiful moments in her life. He didn't ask and he wasn't sure of what he was doing before he did it. I never really know if what I’m saying or doing is helping and this is overwhelmingly frustrating. I’m furious that he took advantage of her. He was wrong. She never consented and now she has to live with what he did to her on a daily basis. By no choice of her own, my wife is traumatized and he is to blame. Shame on you.

Bless her, she's been through so much – the hospital visit after the assault, being questioned; reliving the memory over and over, dodging questions from a private investigator hired by her assaulter who was trying to get her to say something to get him off the hook, going through counseling and standing a trial where she was told she was never raped. She's been facing it since the day it happened.

She carries on through life, graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, when the assault happened her junior year, with a degree to teach children - kindergarten through 3rd grade. She attracts friends and people into her life who fall in love with her, friends and family who are more than glad to be a part of her life. Her smile radiates, all who see it see a strong, confident woman. Her light does not go unnoticed, it shines. When she talks, people listen. When she laughs or shows happiness, it's contagious. She sets the example for all sexual assault victims that their life goes on.

Living with the memory is something she may be forced to do, but not living is what she refuses. She always says, “I am not what happened to me.” I couldn’t agree more. She's so much more in so many ways.