Uncensored

 

*The following may be triggering to those affected by sexual assault.

 

It’s January 25, 2020 and my friends and I are throwing a party in our dorm room. Well, technically, I’m in my room and there is a party in my common room. 

I can hear Doja Cat’s “Go To Town” playing and the loud convoluted chatter of my friends who are taking shots, playing pong, and standing in conversation circles. I was just there, smiling and laughing – talking about how I was “so drunk last night” and “don’t remember anything.” Just the usual party small talk. 

And that’s when it hit – suddenly, with no trigger. It’s not like the movies. The room doesn’t spin and the only sound is not my own heartbeat. There is no slow-motion movement or blurring together of sounds into some euphoric rush of overwhelming feeling. And while I am acutely aware of everything around me, I remember.

Instead of looking my friend’s eye as we talk, I see him. I see him giving me a handle of vodka and watching me drink half of it. I see him grabbing me by the wrist and slinging me back into the cement wall. I can feel him thrusting in and out of me as I daze in and out of consciousness. I can feel his hot breath on the back of my neck while he whispers, “I love you.”

I didn’t want to be at the party anymore. 

Five years ago, in 2015, my boyfriend repeatedly raped me and emotionally abused me. But five years is a long time. Since then, I have dated, hooked up, felt heartbreak… all in all, I have moved on with my life and sought out therapy for those moments when PTSD creeps back. I tell everyone around me that it was a long time ago and I have grown, changed, and healed from it.

Although it is true that time brings growth and change, I have begun to realize there is a deeper complexity to healing from abuse.

Healing is not linear, and the quantitative and qualitative factors of my experience do not equal how I “should” heal. I’ve since realized that if I continue to say I’ve fully healed – I wouldn’t be telling the truth. I am healing, constantly. But I am not healed. To continue saying I have healed completely would be a disservice to myself and other survivors. 

After five years, I can’t help but feel my panic attacks and tears are no longer justified. It feels as others expect me to be capable of talking about my assault in a calm way – one that doesn’t make them feel obliged to comfort me or feel uncomfortable themselves. It is as though they want me to say it so matter of fact – well, a few years ago, I was raped. But none of it was a matter of fact. It was violent and rough. 

Does healing mean I have to talk about it medically? I’m diagnosing myself. Taking apart symptoms and side effects and treating my wounds with sterile words. Instead of saying that I was raped the first time I had sex, I self-censor. No, I have had sex. It is exhausting to be quiet – to reel in the passion and pain I feel when I speak about what happened. It is as though my calm words will materialize into finally being ‘healed.’ So instead, I withdraw into my room and leave the party. 

There is inconsistency in this society that encourages speaking up and speaking loudly. I don’t feel powerful – I feel muffled. This culture of social movements and empowerment tells me my experience is worthy and powerful so long as I have already healed from it – so long as I have come out the other side stronger.

But the truth is that I have flashbacks every day. The truth is that there are days where I can’t look at my own body or eat. There are nights when I can’t sleep because I have flashbacks so painful I can’t stop scratching my arms until they bleed onto my sheets and I have calmed down. The pain is still there, and even though I am working through it in a safe environment in therapy, I am done saying that I am “fine now.”

But how then, do we as a supportive and empowering community talk about sexual assault’s long-term effects and still address this lasting pain in a healthy way?

Art and pop culture seem to be leaning towards a hyper-exposure of rape and sexual assault. Art exhibits, poetry, and writing show-and-tell sexual assault in graphic detail. While these images pack a heavy punch of shock factor, they don’t share the long-lasting psychological and emotional effects of assault.

It’s similar to watching a movie that relies solely on jump scares to frighten the audience, as the reality of the horror is shrouded by the simplicity of a single perceived picture. These images may scare you in the moment but they don’t affect the psyche for as long as a movie that raises deep psychological and warped problems. In order to leave the audience with a better understanding of the deep psychological problems that accompanies sexual assault, we need to unearth more artistic expressions that explore and represent these complex experiences. Short films like Naima Ramos Chapman’s “And Nothing Happened” are just the start to using art and film to discuss the long-lasting effects of assault. 

Do these physically explicit images only reinforce the idea that rape is solely a physical act that can heal medically? These pictures don’t encapsulate the long-lasting effect, but they are a good start to exposing others to the pain and topic of sexual assault.

Survivors of sexual assault do not go around describing the moments of their assault in the same excruciating detail that art portrays. The art may show it, survivors and supporters may feel the pain, but no one will say it. People want to hear you are healed, and even though we are told we don’t have to be, we feel like we should be. There is importance to displaying and encouraging healing; however, we may have crossed the line between support for survivors and self-oppression and self-censorship. 

Turning pain into artistic expression is an outlet for many. I have used poetry as a way to capture and identify my emotions and feelings. I’m done turning my pain into poetry. I cannot do it anymore – I cannot continue to focus on those seven months of my life and explicate every moment like a Longfellow poem.

I cannot make art out of my pain because the pain I feel has evolved and changed so much in the past years that I feel detached from the initial suffering and emotional struggles. I can no longer isolate or identify my feelings. I feel so much. I feel used. I feel strong. I feel broken. I feel, and I feel, and I feel – until I can no longer feel anything. They say too much silence is deafening, but too much feeling is desolate. It is empty, and it feels like there is no space in this empty place for so much feeling this long after my assaults. 

My uncensored truth is that I was repeatedly raped and manipulated by my boyfriend. My truth is that even saying those words aloud makes my body ache.

Besides the violence and coerced sex, I was told no one would ever love me again and that I wasn’t worth all the trouble – each of these phrases salted by his reminders of how much he loved me. I will always be a person who was sexually assaulted and emotionally abused, and the effects are so much deeper than physical pain. My experience is something that will never leave me and I will live my entire life continuing to heal from those moments.

When talking about assault, it is always important to remember that no one person’s story is the same. Yet, we are all doing our best to live our lives past the assault. I will no longer censor what happened to me or reduce my truth by numbly saying I am ‘fine now.’ I will no longer feel like my scars should be healed, because healing is not ever linear or skin-deep. But, I will share my uncensored truth with as much passion and feeling as I want. 

 

 

Photo by Gabriela Velasco

Yoga, Gender, and Consent

I am a yoga instructor and I take my job very seriously.

An instructor may just seem like a fitness-oriented job, but it’s a lot more intimate. It’s my job to make every single person in the room feel safe and comfortable, while also challenging students with different affirmative goals and themes they can hopefully learn to practice off the mat. While that description may sound dangerously similar to any other exercise franchise, like SoulCycle — there is an added layer of closeness in yoga.

We don’t have machines to run our practice: instead we guide students into getting to know their bodies and breath in a way that is, for many people, almost a spiritual experience. This is no small feat, especially considering everyone’s different physical abilities, experience, and even different levels of trust. Further, things like tailoring tone of voice, wording of queues, and especially physical adjustments to fit the demographic of each student is essential in building that trust. 

In creating a safe space, gender becomes a component that often dictates the dynamics in the room. Just by looking around when I teach or even in class as a student, it’s plain to see that the majority of practitioners are female. After watching the Netflix documentary about Bikram Choudhury — founder and leader of the cult-like Bikram Yoga franchise — and his twisted empire resting on sexual harassment and a heinous abuse of power, I couldn’t help but wonder: how do male yoga instructors navigate gendered boundaries and build trust with female students? 

Unfortunately, this disgusting and predatory behavior of Bikram Choudhury, though extreme, is not unlike the decades of disregarded patterns of unwanted touch and attention in the yoga community.

According to a New York Times article by Katherine Rosman titled “Yoga Is Finally Facing Consent and Unwanted Touch”, while in many professional fields where jobs involve touching people are usually regulated by the government, “yoga teachers are not, and there are no industry trade groups that police these issues.” In other words, when you walk into a yoga studio yoga instructors can “touch you as they see fit” without any governing bodies checking in to make sure it’s kosher. In this way, the issue of consent becomes less and less of a necessity.

Further, Rosman notes how the yoga community has a history of turning a blind eye to these issues. Similar to how Bikram was able to manipulate his loyal followers into ignoring his web of abuse and mistreatment, teachers in the community are reluctant to discredit those they see as “gurus.” Thus fueling the power dynamics between teacher and student, and “many teachers have built their businesses and personal brands in part from associating with these figures.” In a yoga class, without respect, trust, and consent, there is simply a person in a powerful position telling — in some cases, forcefully — someone else what to do with their body. 

Nonetheless, as a female instructor my role as leader and physical adjuster is not read as nearly as sexualized or forceful as a male instructor’s.

Yes, I am still respectful, nurturing, supportive, and non-judgmental in order to create the safest and most comfortable yoga environment possible. However as a woman, I am seemingly non threatening and, even as the leader of the class, the power dynamics between teacher and student tend to be more equalized.

I talked to a male Vinyasa yoga instructor, Adam, about how his gender has shaped his teaching style and affected how he may customize his teaching voice. “If you’re watching this as an outsider who has no idea what yoga is, it looks like a pretty strange situation. For instance, it may be one male instructor and maybe twenty women in a room,” he told me. “They’re all moving their bodies and doing the physical positions that he’s calling out. That power dynamic needs to be constantly kept in consideration.”

Adam also noted the importance of not only keeping himself in check when it comes to these power dynamics, but also building trust so that students have space to do the same. According to him, while his gender doesn’t fundamentally change the way he would structure a class, he says, “I want to be cognizant of the different experiences that people have. As a man, as a white guy, as a straight guy, these are experiences that are mine and people in the room may have different ones.”

Adam’s unique identity as a teacher is then separate from his identity as a cis-gender, white male, as he “tries to incorporate an understanding of different perspectives” in class while still being himself. Additionally, he noted how even smaller aspects of his presence as a male instructor have to be tailored to make students more comfortable. Things like wearing certain clothing to teach versus to practice as a student require that extra thought, as Adam said he’ll sometimes wear leggings but will try to avoid “revealing clothing” or  “those skin-tight leggings” when teaching. Adam said, “I need to create a safe and nurturing atmosphere. To make sure everyone is comfortable and can practice without worrying, it’s best to play it safe.”

Playing it safe, it seems, is the best way to approach finding the balance between being a male, being a leader, and respecting boundaries. 

Wording and tone can also be read differently because of gender, which is something that Adam tries to be actively thinking about when he teaches. Even the way he may queue something needs to be considered when taking into account his role as a male instructor. Adam noted, for example, how a “strong willed, long-standing female instructor” may have more legroom to queue than a male instructor of the same reputation. A female instructor who has years of experience and a loyal following may be able to queue things bluntly with commands like “Do [insert pose]” or “Get into this position right now.”

On the other hand Adam, no matter how much experience he has or how many regulars come back to his classes, says he generally avoids “very strong commands” in his teaching unless he’s sure it’s appropriate. His classes are still physically challenging, but only because of the poses and exercises his queues, not because of how he queues it or because he’s forcing anyone to do it. Instead of commands, Adam chooses to consciously “offer a range of suggestions” and frame his classes in a way that he is merely a “guide” for students. 

Physical adjustments are a whole other story when it comes to navigating people’s levels of trust and physical limits. Even as a female instructor who is often adjusting female students, I still am getting comfortable with the idea of touching strangers or students I don’t know outside the studio. Many times corrections involve rotating someone’s hips or tilting their pelvis, manually rolling open their shoulder or chest, or supporting their legs, hips, or midsection in a balancing pose. These areas of the body are quite personal and intimate, and places that many would be alarmed to have poked and prodded. Thus, consent becomes essential to the building of trust and that safe space. Unless a student in my class happens to be another instructor at the studio, no matter how well I know someone I always ask, “Do you mind if I adjust you?” before even moving towards them.

Consent in yoga creates a sense of respect for others’ bodies and boundaries that will ultimately help students feel like they are in control of their own practice.

I also discussed the importance of consent with Adam to explore the ways in which it takes on a deeper meaning for male instructors, especially considering the community’s history with unwanted touching in class. At times, even the verbal consent that I typically ask for may not cut it. When a male instructor comes up behind a student and asks if they want an adjustment, again we can see how power dynamics may affect how that student will answer. They may feel intimidated or pressured in the moment to say “yes,” especially in the middle of class where ‘everyone’ is getting adjusted and directed.

Adam then brought up how helpful his studio’s use of ‘consent chips’ has been for ensuring that students who are not comfortable with adjustments don’t have to worry about saying so on the spot. These chips have two sides: one gives consent to being adjusted, and the other says no, thank you to being touched. Adam explained how he’ll put one next to every student’s mat at the beginning of class with the ‘no, thank you’ side faced up indicating non-consent to begin with. That way, students start out the class opting out of physical adjustments, instead of starting with opting in and then feeling like they have no choice. Those who then want adjustments have the option of flipping their chip to the consenting side. Adam said that this system has helped him “give more adjustments in ways that are helpful to students because they have decided that they want to receive them.” Additionally, students are allotted the security that their mat will be a safe and uninterrupted space for them unless they indicate that they want the instructor to intervene. 

Interestingly enough, Adam noted how he does not give savasana adjustments. Savasana is the final rest or meditation at the end of a yoga class where students are in stillness for several minutes with their eyes closed, and one might argue it is perhaps the most vulnerable and personal portion of class for most students. I myself have never given an adjustment in savasana, as Adam and I both agreed that there’s something invasive about touching someone who has their eyes closed. Even if their consent chip is flipped up for adjustments, I feel I would be interrupting someone’s personal peace by intervening in their meditation. Female or male, giving adjustments specifically in savasana seems to be based on instructor preference and teaching style.

Yoga, like many things in today’s world, is influenced by gender and instructors are therefore tasked with navigating the implications that their own gender identity has on their power in the studio. Though I am a female instructor and am inherently viewed as less demanding and intimidating, I still must go to great lengths to fine tune my teacher’s voice to fit the room and cater to the needs of students of differing levels and physical boundaries.

Considering this community’s past lack of recognition of sexual harassment and issues with abuses of power, it is then necessary for male instructors to take even more precaution in considering their role as gendered and the implications of that. Adam is one yoga instructor who recognizes the power dynamics that are constructed in an environment where a male leads a predominantly female group through physical postures. He’s taken the necessary steps to still create relationships of trust and respect with his students by being aware of his tone, wording, clothing choices, and always making consent a first priority in approaching physical adjustments. Unfortunately, the broader yoga community still has an immense amount of progress to make in addressing and reforming the oppressive and abusive nature of certain gendered circumstances in the studio.

That being said, my individual community and many others are some of the most supportive, nurturing, and positive groups of people I have ever been a part of, and teachers like Adam are the reason the yoga community continues to provide students with loving and safe spaces. 

 

Gif by Ash Sta. Teresa

Climate Strike or Coachella?

Freshman year of high school I decided to become a vegetarian, not really knowing my motives behind it or what it would teach me. I soon began watching all of the typical documentaries that introduced me to the idea of animal agriculture, and how these practices were one of the leading causes of fossil fuel burning. I was angry, hurt, and left wondering, “Why wasn’t I ever taught this?”

Since then I have always considered myself pretty conscious of my carbon footprint, so when I heard about the Amazon rainforest burning and the subsequent climate strikes, I felt called to join. I didn’t have many expectations, except that the strike in New York would probably be one of the largest in the world. But that day left me with very mixed emotions. 

I had no other plans for September 20th besides fighting to address the climate crisis alongside hundreds of thousands of other people. There were more children and teenagers who attended this protest than any other I’ve been to before, and after seeing them all I probably trust them with my life more than the people in charge right now. Even on the ride from Brooklyn into Manhattan, the J train was filled with families and young children with homemade signs, and I thought about how there was already a generational gap between me and these kids — kids who are literally forced to think about whether or not they will be able to live on a habitable planet for the rest of their lifetime, while my only existential dread as a child came from rumors that the world was going to end in 2012. 

I attended the march with my boyfriend and two other friends, and when we got off the train at Chambers Street along with what seemed like an entire freshman class, we were greeted by the roaring of hundreds of thousands of other people. The crowd marched from Foley Square down to Battery Park, and before we even rounded the corner onto Broadway, there were kids standing on the ledges of government buildings and chanting with the crowds. They were so fearless and there was no authority in sight to even try to stop them. We continued walking down to Wall Street, and I had my own sign that I made that morning that said “PROTECT OUR MOTHER” on one side and “CLIMATE JUSTICE NOW” on the other. The rest of the signs were a mix between calling for action in a serious tone, and memes, all of which were very thoughtful.

We chanted, we screamed, we walked proudly, all united for one of the most important causes of our time. Kids stood on top of garbage cans and hung from the railings of construction sights. For one day we all got to see a glimpse of what our future would look like — a generation of people who make their own rules, are creative, and actually give a shit about important things. 

There was anticipation as everyone neared the end of the route and began filling Battery Park, but the energy that I accumulated from the march itself slowly started fading as I stood in the lawn with songs like “Drogba (Joanna)” starting blasting into my ears. Sure, it’s a fun song to hear from cars driving by as I’m walking through my neighborhood in Bushwick, but there was something about hearing it in this setting that felt disingenuous.

If the people who organized the rally wanted us to be having conversations about how to help our dying planet, they were being drowned out by pop music. My boyfriend and a couple other friends I met up with after even said it felt like we were at a festival, not a climate change rally. The speakers began coming on stage, and the first were a group called The Peace Poets, who performed spoken word rap songs and compared us to indigenous people on strike, fighting for their native land to be protected… really?

Already feeling drained, I decided to move to the outskirts of the lawn where I could sit against the fence and listen from afar. I was feeling discouraged by the two hours that were ahead of me and the lack of service I had to even check the schedule of the event, so I looked up at the trees above me and meditated on the reasons why I was there in the first place. After two people spoke about the health issues they’ve dealt with as a result of fossil fuel burning, I heard a group of teenage girls next to me go “Jaden Smith”?! as they fled toward the stage. I sat and listened for a couple minutes, but I was not interested in even standing up to see the show. Then Smith started playing the song “Icon” off one of his latest albums, and suddenly I couldn’t even bear to sit there anymore.

As I walked out of the park, there was a middle aged man dancing around to the song, literally as if he was at Coachella. It’s not like I don’t understand or appreciate the impact of music when it comes to social change in the world, but at that point I felt like the day was full of empty promises. Even in between speakers when the organizers came on stage and asked, “How’s everyone feeling?!” and the crowd roared, I turned to my boyfriend and jokingly said, “I mean, I’m not happy we’re here.”  It’s like we were encouraged to dance and sing and forget about all our problems here, when that’s exactly what we shouldn’t be doing for like, two hours. Was it too much to just sit and listen? Did we really have to be entertained and encouraged to follow the acts on Instagram? As I walked out of the lawn back toward the street, a man stopped me to talk about an organization he worked with in the Bronx to fight climate change. While I usually do anything in my power to avoid handouts on the street, this person was actively using their time to get people involved in something that would actually create change. I listened to what he had to say, took a paper he was handing out, and thanked him, walking away with a little more hope than before. 

On the train ride home, my boyfriend and I had a thoughtful conversation about what the day meant to us and how it left us feeling — and the feeling wasn’t so good.

We questioned whether or not people were actually encouraged to do anything different, or whether or not these young children now had the idea in their head that protests were all about famous acts and a day off from school. The week following the strike, nothing felt different. Even after the UN Climate Summit, it seems like everyone in the world is putting the responsibility of this movement on one 16-year-old girl. There have been comments on Greta Thunberg’s Instagram like, “keep inspiring us.” Are we all taking a backseat because we see one person taking action?

I applaud Thunberg for her bravery and acknowledge the sacrifices she has had to make to fight for a cause she believes in, but is she now accountable for the success or failures of the climate justice movement? And while it’s crucial to address the change that needs to be done on a federal level to rid our planet of plastics and fossil fuels, does that mean we shouldn’t even try to change our individual actions? The point of this movement is to get us thinking about what we can do differently. If we are not consuming consciously, if we are still buying fast fashion, if we are still not aware of how much waste and plastic we accumulate, then how are we going to call out big companies for their carelessness?

I was sitting in class this week and the teacher had everyone say one thing they cared about. An overwhelming number of people mentioned the environment, sustainability, or climate change. Yet when I looked around, there were multiple people still scrolling on websites like H&M and Zara. 

I don’t think they even grasp the irony. 

 

Photos by Nate Jerome

 

The Point of Painful Things

The following may be triggering to those affected by assault. 

 

The rape is not the point of this story. 

You will read that word, what it means, all its weight and history and implications and you will miss the point. Don’t do that. Focus instead on the before and after, as I’ve done my best to do over the past month, and perhaps this will not go down as another assault lost to the wind.

The stranger who stole my dress in the nighttime is not the star of this story. He is nameless, though his face manifests itself everywhere and women find themselves having to burn bloody underwear to forget. I watched the sunny, yellow cotton turn a violent red; a broken honey pot turned artifact of war. I was returned to the doorstep of my host family unceremoniously by someone who didn’t even know he’d just won a battle.

Flight. Fight. Freeze. Perhaps my stillness conveyed something sexy. My screams conveyed that I did not want to die. They rang clearly, uninhibited by alcohol and fueled by fear. That broke the sexy spell of an unmoving body, and suddenly his dick was inside of a someone, not a something. 

The feeling was not once but always. It is when I get grabbed on the train and drugged at the party. It’s my ex boyfriend throwing me around and my friends hiding embarrassing things under concealer. I think our quiet has convinced the world that we are a bunch of some bodies not somebodys. The difference is harrowing.

It took me ten minutes to start screaming. I have yet to stop. The doctors handed me a rape kit and some Xanax and told me to calm down. The world handed me Black skin and a vagina and told me to cover up.

I hand you this story and I am telling you to scream. 

I keep thinking, I can’t believe I didn’t die. They do that out here in South Africa — and everywhere. It was dark that night because there were no stars in the sky. I think of that minute detail often.

I believed, in a sweaty, scathing stupor, that I must ask — are you going to kill me?

Both he and the world looked at me with eyes that said, of course, he’s already done exactly that.

I shook with anger and fear and a thirst for blood and felt with complete certainty that both he and the world were sorely mistaken. 

The HIV prophylactics the paramedics gave me made me loopy. The anti-anxiety meds made me stop shaking. Their questions make me angry. Why didn’t YOU fight back? 

I had to call my mom.

My brother is going to read this. He’s twelve. 

Mom told dad because she had to. I’m telling you because I can. Do not question for a moment, it was violent. You needn’t hypothesize how horrible it must be. I am here to tell you.

I had to call my boyfriend.

I moved across the world and found what I worried may exist everywhere. Now I know, for certain, it does. The rape is not the point. The bruising and lacerations and potential exposure to HIV is not the point. The shaky fingers are not the point. They are all repercussions of a fact which I will beat to death until the same is done to me: the world for women and children is violently unsafe. 

I am a journalist by trade, by passion, by the things I’m good at. I like stories, so let me tell another. 

Once upon a time, on a night like any other, Uyinene Mrwetyana was being raped and murdered in a post office. 

And another. An average of 110 women were experiencing something similar in this country. I got to wake up the next morning. That makes me a special statistic.

I know hopelessness as the feeling of relief when your rapist doesn’t kill you. What pitiless joy I felt at being alive. How clear my defenselessness became in the wake of my entry into adulthood. Black girls don’t grow up, we are robbed and told that we’re being gifted reality. 

You are so beautiful, the world says. Let me tear you in half. 

I literally dare you. 

Let’s not talk about the frivolous stuff. Let’s talk about the small spaces, like the car. And strange men, like the driver. Let’s talk about tough talks, like with my mother. Or rough looks, from my host sister. We can discuss and reiterate and rearticulate and go through all the proper revisions and the fact remains the same. The test results do not change. My heart does not lighten. 

I write to you with the intention of telling the truth, especially when it hurts. I am a journalist, that is what we do. I take this story and I gift it to you all, a nasty present that proves the injustice of the world we’ve been thrust into. If there is no autonomy offered to my body then my brain will take it from here. 

I write to you because I believe in the fundamental change occurring publicly. I want the world to know that even its most protected — the sweet children they place in ivory towers and convince to change the world — even we are unsafe. I want the world to know that my suffering will be very loud. It will be shared and dissected and used for scientific research. I didn’t consent but I’ll give my body up to science, if it helps. 

I write to you because it’ll happen again. And again and again and again, and I’ll be damned if I’m not screaming through the whole thing.

Remember, the rape is not the point. 

It is a repercussion. Not for my actions, but for what we’ve decided to tolerate. The aftermath has lasted exponentially longer than the attack. It has been painful in a way which makes one want to die. It is the most regular I’ve felt in a long time. That’s the point. In all my grace and grandeur — in all my brilliance and beauty and perceived importance, I was assaulted. 

There is no safety net. That is the point. 

I wished someone had told me sooner before I realized it is displayed everywhere before me. The ugly truth exists twofold: I can neither pretend this didn’t happen, nor bring myself from putting it to paper. It must be documented. It will not be a secret between me, my rapist, and a God who failed to protect me. It will be another story, another byline, another injury sustained in the name of being alive. 

My new therapist says I must give myself time. He says not to intellectualize my experience. You’re traumatized, he says.

Yes, I reply. I’ve been traumatized. 

You’re in pain, he says.

Yes, I reply. I am in excruciating pain.

Heal how you see fit, he says.

So, I take a deep breath and scream.

 

 

Photos (in order of appearance) by Jamaica Ponder, STAA Collective, and Kathy Fernandez

If you or a loved one has been sexually assaulted, you can call the RAINN hotline for free, 24-hour advice at 1-800-656-4673.

 

My Boyfriend Sexually Assaulted Me

The following content may be triggering to those affected by assault.

 

The fact that I had been raped took months to sink in. As ignorant and naive as it may sound, I never thought a significant other could sexually assault me. My definition of rape back then was that it had to be outwardly violent, and that it happened between a stranger and their victim. My assault was passive-aggressive, it was manipulative, and believe it or not, it was soft. 

I remember saying no both times. He was only aggressive the second time around, but it was something I was used to — so it never alarmed me. I found temporary comfort in the thought that we had been consensually rough in the bedroom before, so that moment wasn’t any different.

What confused me the most is how he would ask and beg, but he’d still do whatever he wanted halfway through my responses. 

I loved him and I didn’t have the strength to stop him. Deep down, I knew it was wrong but I perceived him like a beam of light. He had my mom’s phone number, he watched movies with my brother, he went out with me and my friends, he even told me he loved me. So there was no way he had the heart to hurt me like that, right?

I buried both of those experiences in the back of my head for what felt like forever. I was too ashamed to bring it up to him, and even when I found the courage to leave him, too much time had passed. I felt as if there was no point in me confronting him. Not only because it felt like I was re-opening an old wound, but also because I had naturally fallen out of love. I began to build sexual relationships outside of the one I once had with him, so the last thing I wanted to do was think about it. 

Little by little, I began to realize what he had done to me.

Soon after cutting things off with him, I went home with someone I had known for two days. I remember teasing him for asking for my permission to do the smallest of things. From holding my hand to kissing me. I found it sickly sweet, but deep down it comforted me. For the entirety of our night, he’d ask for reassurance on everything he wanted to do, followed by a whisper, “Just let me know if you want to stop.” I loved it, but I couldn’t help but feel saddened at how someone I had dated for nearly two years couldn’t compare to someone I had known for barely two days. 

Even though my assault did not necessarily affect my sex life, it wrecked me in other areas. I have been working on my commitment issues that are tied to long-term emotional trauma in therapy for almost a year now. I’m proud to say that I’ve made a tremendous amount of progress, but I definitely haven’t seen the “other side.”

My confidence and self-worth fluctuate at a comical rate. There are days where I am filled with guilt and I bombard myself with questions like how could you let this happen to you? I know now that I am not at fault for what I went through, but some days it’s just harder to remember that than others. 

When I say my relationship was tainted by two unfortunate events, I don’t ask for pity. It’s simply a fact. I’ve had the hardest time coming clean about this particular issue, mostly because it’s not a pill that’s easy to swallow. To be quite honest, I believe I’ve only told three or four people, one of them being my therapist. I’m a lot stronger and healthier than I was two years ago, but most importantly, I’m educated. 

Any sort of unwanted sexual act that violates consent is considered assault.

It doesn’t matter if the culprit is a stranger, a friend, a family member, or even your partner. Like I mentioned before, I loved my ex-boyfriend with every fiber of my being.

Despite no longer being together, I’m still carrying an array of moments we  shared — both positive and negative. If someone mentions something that reminds me of a date we went on or an inside joke we had, I’m not afraid to mention him in conversation. It’s hard for me to hate him, but I am also not too keen on his memory. 

Would I like to speak to him again? I don’t think so. Part of me feels like we’ve grown too far apart, but aside from that, I’m slowly finding closure within myself, and I am perfectly fine with that. 

 

If you feel as though your boundaries have been crossed, call the RAINN Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.For more information on what consent looks and feels like, click here

Photos (in order of appearance) by Willow GrayDariana Portes, and Juliet Denbaugh

How I Discovered I’m a Love Addict

 

“Hi, my name is Ana. I am a 21-year-old junior in college, and I’m pretty sure I struggle with love addiction,” were the first words to come out of my mouth during my first Sex Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) meeting. 

Realizing that I was love addict was a lengthy process, but finding what triggered it was almost instantaneous.

For almost two years now, I have been conducting a strict, solo-polyamorous lifestyle. Which, simply put, just means “single with multiple partners.” Most of the relationships I am currently in are nothing but casual, and they are based on both sex and friendship. In my head, this pattern seems ideal. I mean, I’m getting all the perks of being in a relationship without having to worry about commitment, having to introduce someone to my family, or wanting to be intimate with someone new.

So why does it hurt so much?

I began to suspect I had some addictive tendencies whenever I would find myself mistaking sexual encounters with a new romantic opportunity. To this day, I crave emotional connection, non-sexual affection, and the feeling of falling for someone. All because it temporarily boosts my perception of self-worth. Unfortunately for me, I oftentimes find myself having sex in order to obtain all of those things. Mostly because it seems to be the easiest and quickest method. Unsurprisingly, all this does is put me in the perfect position to get constantly burned. 

I frequently catch myself putting other people’s needs, specifically those of my sexual partners, before my own.

Although I can admit this is a nice gesture, it is definitely an unnecessary one. I begin to act like “the perfect girlfriend” in order for me to get a glimpse of the perfect boyfriend. Deep down, I’m aware that I could never really hold a genuine romantic relationship with a lot of the men I’m involved with. Yet my mind never fails to overwhelm me with negative emotion whenever these men don’t treat me how I dream of being treated. In the past, I caught myself defending this behavior with “the golden rule” — but I recently discovered it’s rightfully inapplicable in this scenario. 

So, what exactly is love addiction? To be quite frank, I found out about it less than a month ago. In fact, it was hard for me to believe it was a real thing. However, that thought quickly changed after going on an hour-long Google binge which ended on the SLAA website. 

While The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not officially recognize love addiction as a real disorder within the manual, it is considered a behavioral addiction amongst many psychiatrists. Like any other addiction, this particular one provokes compulsive behavior that can lead to self-destructive tendencies: practicing unhealthy habits, having falling-outs with friends and family, and even developing new addictions. 

In my case, I am severely addicted to the rush I get from the disingenuous relationships I’ve developed over the past two years. My symptoms are merely focused around the dependency within romance. My coping mechanisms include finding new partners or contacting old ones, fantasizing about love, restricting my eating, and of course, having sex. 

Though I’m still unsure from where exactly my addiction stems, I am confident that the absent relationship I had with my father growing up, the highly manipulative, age-gap relationship I had with my first love at sixteen, and the sexually and emotionally abusive relationship I had with my most recent ex boyfriend are all contributors. I will not go into detail about what exactly happened in each of those chapters of my life, but I am grateful to be at a place where I am comfortable enough to admit that they happened and that these events still haunt me. 

I’m still having a hard time trying not to blame the people I mentioned before for my current struggle with love addiction. I understand that being angry at them is acceptable, but at the end of the day I know I’m the only one who can improve my life.

In other news, I also have a hard time staying away from sex and the habits that come with my addiction. For example, I only ate one meal yesterday and I spent the entire day crying because I told myself I should try and limit how much I communicate with my current partners.

All I want is the constant reassurance and happiness that stems from a romantic relationship. It makes me feel confident, it makes me feel wanted, and unfortunately, it makes me feel good enough for everyone.I’m still confused as to why I seem to need it from a man I find attractive. But I’m proud to have been brave enough to come to terms with my ongoing problem.

 

 

For more information about sex and love addiction, you can visit Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.

Photos (in order of appearance) by STAA Collective and Francesca Iacono.

 

The Wolf Inside the Insta-Gym

“You’ve got thighs like a rugby player… massive calves, too,” my male classmate informed me during a History lesson in ninth grade. It was a non-uniform day, and I’d opted for bare legs and a skirt.

“Is that a good thing?” I whispered back in horror. I had never played a game of rugby in my life.

“Dunno,” he shrugged nonchalantly, and turned around to continue flicking paper balls at the bin.

At five foot one and a half, with naturally well-endowed thighs and bum, I welcomed the Instagram fitness generation with open arms. Finally! Here were some mainstream representations of curvy women who diverged from the five-foot-eleven-legs-up-to-heaven-Jack-Wills-thigh-gap-Tumblr aesthetic I’d grown up with. I could finally embrace my short ‘scrum-half’ thighs, the anxiety over which had, among a complex multitude of other factors, contributed to an eating disorder from the age of fifteen to eighteen.

It was probably around 2016 when I felt the tide change.

Between Kayla Itsines at the willowy end of the fitness spectrum and the protein-powered bodybuilders at the other, came a hoard of girl-next-door hourglass influencers with their “strong not skinny” slogans and progress shots, providing us with resources and hope that we might one day achieve that level of thiccness* and see the light at the end of our own “fitness journeys.” However, what has become clear to me more recently is that as long as social media is fueling the fitness industry, our ‘journey’ will never end; new paths will form, and it will keep changing direction depending on the fickle barrage of images illuminating our phones each day.

*having a bubble butt and perfectly proportioned breasts, while still maintaining a corseted waist and washboard stomach – lumps in all the ‘right’ places, essentially (popular usage includes “Damn, she thicc”). 

On a visit to Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt last October, I was flicking through a book of essays on modern capitalism, and I chanced across one on gym culture. It didn’t focus on the obvious connections — the gym industry’s endless production line of products and extortionate monthly membership rates — but instead, it looked at how the mechanical repetitions of gym workouts satisfy an innate need for manual labor; a (somewhat Victorian) subconscious desire to be cogs in an industrial system.

Unfortunately, I forgot to jot down the name of both the author and the book and have had no luck locating it since, so I’m yet to discover if their hypothesis rings true. But the word mechanical stuck with me and made me look at gym culture in a new light. As did a resounding phrase in Jameela Jamil’s well-articulated critique of the Kardashians — “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Before I begin my interrogation of the very structures that I myself profit from, I should probably pause for a serious privilege check: I am a healthy white western woman, my body is accepted by mainstream society, I am lucky to have the financial means to go to the gym at all. This is not a radical or brave article to write, but I think it’s worth writing anyway.

I am a religious gym-goer and regular exercise is a huge part of my life. In fact, it is vital to my mental health — I get cranky and anxious without it. Nothing boosts my endorphins like going for a run around the city at sunset or feeling increasingly strong while lifting dumbbells or falling asleep with that glorious post-gym muscle ache. Morning exercise sets up my day and objectively puts me in a better mood. For the most part, I find it empowering and therapeutic. As a recovered anorexic, exercise is also what enables me to eat huge, healthy portions and feel good about it (perhaps a problem in itself, but as anyone who’s experienced an eating disorder knows, those anxieties never disappear completely, so you just learn to adapt). It’s hardly a ground-breaking revelation that exercise is a very good thing.

But Instagram DIY gym culture can become just as toxic and obsessive as portion controlling and weight-loss regimes. And when you take a step back, it’s actually a very unnatural process — not necessarily the exercises themselves, but the intent behind them.

Unlike aerobic or functional exercise, in our current aesthetics-focused gym culture we work on remote sections of our bodies in a clinical way. We are constantly overloaded with tips, tricks and equipment for “growing that booty” or achieving that “perfect hips to waist ratio” or sharpening our abs — we don’t think of the body holistically, but break it into remote areas to work on, chipping away at ourselves like clay models.

Unsurprisingly, this can lead to dysmorphia and relentless perfectionism, and it is no healthier than watching Burberry adverts. Because you find yourself trying to enlarge your bum but not your thighs or tone your arms without making them “bulky.” Or you may exercise your chest and put weight on your boobs but not your stomach. It makes bodily satisfaction practically impossible, because there is always more work to be done. And then, it’s no longer just a case of “booty gains” but of sculpting your “side booty”, “upper booty”, “under booty” (who KNEW there were so many different parts of booty?) and suddenly your Instagram Discover page is a veritable minefield of at-home workout videos by tanned Gymshark warriors clad in beautiful pastel-colored lycra performing a hundred different variants of the same exercise. You can’t seem to take your eyes off their absurdly spherical gluteus maximus pulsing up and down like a mesmeric orb. Before you know it, you end up operating like the exercise machines you use.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t save pretty much all of the aforementioned workouts for my gym sessions, and that I don’t feel great when my bum feels perky — the overwhelming irony of this article is that I am a complete slave to what I’m critiquing — but when you’re in the gym doing 40 donkey kicks on one side and you start thinking about how ridiculous it actually is, it does break the spell a little.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to feel and look good — whatever “good” constitutes on the Kendall to Kylie Jenner sliding scale nowadays. The free routines and advice flowing out of the Insta-gym certainly give people more autonomy and more resources for getting fit. It’s much easier to tone your muscles than it is to drop three dress sizes and miraculously stretch your legs to conform to the Victoria’s Secret paragon. But it still capitalizes on insecurity while making us feel like we are entirely our own agents. We are told that we are in control of our bodies and our workout plans, but we’re still subscribing to an exhausting ideal that has just as much capacity for self-loathing, physical shame, and guilt as the other extreme. What starts as an easy and empowering method of toning up can often end in a desire to sculpt every limb to perfection.

We are also told that with the right amount of work, we can achieve the same physique as our favorite Instagram athlete; but it is still a genetic lottery, just a different kind of genetic lottery to the catwalk.

This tiring pursuit of “body goals” also participates in a much broader narrative — the upward neoliberal trajectory that instills in us an unceasing desire to progress and consume; a constant echo of more, more, more. It is the same narrative of dissatisfaction that convinces homeowners they need to redesign each bedroom and bathroom every two years in order to remain on trend.

It is ever-present in the language of these fitness influencers, who hark on about gains and “progress shots.” That their lingua franca is saturated in monetary semantics is unsurprising given how Instagram is becoming an increasingly capitalist platform where influencers can earn thousands through sponsored posts and fast-fashion adverts — where ‘selling an ideal’ is no longer just metaphorical. What begins as a healthy way of connecting to your body, getting out of your head and realizing the strength you’re capable of, ends up getting tangled in more images, more dysmorphia, more dissatisfaction and more spending.

Will I stop utilizing these Instagram workouts and attempt to switch off from this gym generation? Probably not, no.

But it’s still important to be aware of the wolf in sheepskin, and how addictive this ostensibly healthier approach to achieving body confidence can become. As with everything nowadays, it feels like we’re so focused on becoming that we forget to simply be.

 

Photos (in order of appearance) by Alida Bea, Nikki Burnett, and Camille Rose Perrett.

 

Letting Go of the Shame Surrounding My Mental Illness

 

*The following many be triggering to those affected by self-harm and depression.*

 

Last month, I found a note I wrote when I was 9 years old. It was hidden deep in the bedroom closet of my childhood home. Soon after I began to read it, I realized it was a suicide letter.

Suicide itself was not specifically detailed, so it was a little cryptic. I tiptoed around the topic; I don’t think I had ever even heard the term “suicide” before. In the letter, 9-year-old Maya explained how life was too hard for her and that she needed to leave. I wrote to my family and friends that it was not their fault, and that I’d always love them,  apologizing for being selfish, but with a hint of hesitation by including the idea that I thought their lives would be easier without me.

The letter was the first of many folded up pieces of scrap paper.

After years of therapy and intensive treatment, I’ve learned to dig deeper into my memory to evaluate childhood events and dynamics that contributed to the development of the mental illnesses I have today. I was already aware of my mom’s alcoholism and of my parents’ broken relationship. But, this was the earliest, actual piece of evidence I found that tangibly initiated my mental health trials.

Seeing 2008 as the year listed atop of the old wrinkled paper shocked me. I was mortified that a child young could house the feelings, thoughts, and emotions that I still struggle to work through today, as a young adult. The letter triggered a series of events within my mind. I began to recall memories I had buried so deeply that their existence was almost erased.

I watched the new Christopher Robin movie, and emerging from the adorable story and characters I loved so much as a child was another memory — one from when I was little and comparing myself to every animated character I fell in love with, constantly changing my metaphorical identity from Belle to Jasmine. Yet, out of all of the Winnie the Pooh characters, I thought of myself as Eeyore. I didn’t want to be the severely depressed donkey living in misery. I wanted to be Roo or Piglet, the cutest ones that made people smile. But the truth was, in my heart, I knew that I was Eeyore.

Growing up, I liked to constantly change my style. I was obsessed with self expression and figuring out who the “real” me was. In 7th grade, I wore dark purple eyeshadow for a week and decided that that was my thing. This evolved into glitter eyeshadow the following week, since that’s what the popular girls started wearing, and in my mind, I was supposed to be popular. At one point, I bought a sock monkey beanie with ears attached to the top and wore it around the house and out and about with my family for a few days because I told myself that THIS is the real me: I’m the quirky girl that wears a funky hat. 

When I was 15, I decided to embrace the hippie life because my dad was a surfer and drove a 1989 Volkswagen bus. I believed that hippie genes ran through my veins… which isn’t totally untrue. Numerous parts of my personality do reflect those of my dad’s, who grew up in Southern California with a group of friends who wore homemade loincloths on the beach and wrote notes in each other’s yearbooks preaching “make love, not war” and “peace, love, granola.” Dad always smells like patchouli and sandalwood…

My free spirit identity carried on until my first suicide attempt during my second year of high school. This was consequently followed by a thirty day stay at an inpatient behavioral health facility for teens. My mental health status had remained rocky since 2008.

When my junior year of high school came around, I returned from summer break with a bang and changed my style and physical presentation to what I believed would qualify as “girly girl.” I got really good at doing makeup, straightened my hair before going out in public– no matter what. I got a lot of attention that year and went through a few boyfriends. My social status rose quite a bit, and I got the full experience of what it’s like to juggle relationships, friendships, school, drama, HORMONES, sex, and everything else that comes with being a teenager. I was doing much better and managing my mental health closely. I was consistent with my new medications and participated in outpatient therapy. My social life was entertaining, but everything was still a secret. I told no one about my mental illness or past suicide attempt. I was beginning to thrive in my environment, I thought, so the world mustn’t find out that I’m crazy.

But, the truth must come out eventually.

I was carrying a giant, invisible backpack full of shame from my depression and anxiety as I walked through the halls of my high school wearing a new outfit and smile on my face. I learned how to perfect my under eye concealer application to hide the purple and puffy bags that lingered from the night before. Eye drops were always on hand for me so I could clear the redness after a cry in the bathroom. The back stall was safe. I could let my anxiety attack run its course unbothered and return to class seemingly fine. I learned to resist my body shakes and voice quivers so that I could be that girl who’s friends with everyone.

When I turned 18, my breakdowns became daily. I didn’t know how much longer I could carry this heavy backpack full of secrets. My back was breaking from the weight. I thought I could hear the cracks spreading from my spine to my skull.

In the last four years I’ve learned a lot about myself, society, and especially mental health. I started reading about the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and about the importance of raising accurate awareness. I watched documentaries about people like me, and I reminisced on the moments I shared in inpatient treatment with my peers. They became the people that I connected with on a deeper level. I had only known them for thirty days, but they had become some of the most important people in my life. They’re the true reason I made it through that terrible month; our vulnerability with one another and the stories we shared together about our struggles bound us together. That honesty and establishment of community was a crucial healing agent in my case. We had secret powers that helped us reach our own unique lights at the end of the tunnel, and none of us even knew.

I thought about those kids every day and began to consider the possibility that people at my school may be going through the same thing we were. Maybe they were also good at putting on a disguise. They could be sitting right next to me in class or meeting with a school counselor like I do. They could be at this very party, dancing and laughing. They could be in my friend group. They could be the people I think I know everything about.

My mom tells me that I have always been an advocate. I stood up for myself and those around me. She told me that the only time she’d receive “in trouble” phone calls from my preschool and my later elementary school was when I punched an older kid in the stomach for bullying one of my classmates. I’ve always known this about myself, but I was never confident enough to intentionally tap into it. I didn’t think I was powerful. 

But then, I realized there is a lot more to me than just my mental illness. It doesn’t rule me. I don’t need to keep playing a role — I could finally navigate the intersection of my identity and mental health.

So, I stopped faking it. I started acting on my impulses rather than strategically planning out my identity as if it were a Pinterest board.

I woke up from a nap one afternoon and got my hair cut. I watched my long, healthy hair fall to the floor. I looked at the dead ends. They had been there in my crises, they had been there in my weakest moments, they had been there through everything. And now, they were idly sitting under my feet, no longer a part of me. As I shed the dead follicles, I began to shed the preoccupation I had with my identity and the shame of my suicide attempt — I got a bob. It felt amazing. I went home and deconstructed my dresser and made a pile of things I would wear but didn’t really like on myself. The suede ankle booties from Nordstrom. The god awful basic grey t-shirt dress that was so short I may have accidentally flashed the entire cafeteria when I sat down. The low-top white converse that I thought made my ankles look weird. The black ripped jeans that were so tight I could literally feel them slowly cut off my circulation while I stood in front of the “twin day” spirit week wall beside my friends who wore the same ones. Most importantly, the push up bras that did nothing but torture my A-cup boobs.

After the demolition of my room, I bagged those and dropped them off at Goodwill. Ironically, Goodwill would become my favorite store. I flourished in my new skin, I felt comfortable, and I didn’t have to convince myself that anything was my “thing” because I didn’t have or need one anymore.

My newfound confidence in my appearance gave me the strength to lay my interpersonal cards on the table. I shared my story with what felt like everyone I knew at a weekend getaway sponsored by my school. I prepared a script so I wouldn’t mess up when I stood in front of a hundred of my peers. I read about a third of it to my audience before I realized I didn’t need to follow a structured layout like I always had.

I knew my story —  the paper didn’t.

I cried publicly and felt no shame in doing so. I soaked in the love from the audience when I finished and realized that some other people were also crying. Did I really do that? Yeah, I fucking did that. And, for the rest of the night, I sat with people who asked to talk with me. I heard multiple stories about their own struggles. I gave a lot of hugs. I thanked God for the opportunity my testimony presented me with, and for the fact that others who likewise felt isolated got to share a bit of their hidden selves with me. We unloaded our backpacks together. Life went on. I finished high school with satisfaction. I graduated from all those years of secrecy and false impressions. I granted myself a little diploma of truth.

But my journey with my mental health didn’t end there. There is no end; there is only forward.

The shift to college has been the most exciting period of my life thus far. It almost feels like a second puberty, except it’s entirely mental and much more definitive. I’m a force to be reckoned with, and I’ll say that now with a prideful glimmer in my eye. 

It’s important to remember, though, that my mental illness hasn’t disappeared. It’s still with me, but it can now be recognized and confronted.

I recently impulsively cut my hair (again) at 2AM on a Wednesday, watched the new dead ends fall to the ground. I have to continue to take care of myself, and that will never change. But, I’m no longer feel embarrassed or ashamed in talking about treatment or sharing updates on my health. I can be the fiery Aries, feminist, and passionately loving person that I am in coexistence with my depression and anxiety. My traumatic experiences have fueled my work in school and in society. Now, I shamelessly use social media as a platform to speak about what I believe in, and I’m grateful for the positive influence it can have on people’s ability to reshape their perspectives, especially about sometimes difficult topics like mental health.

The people who are advocates like myself, the people who may not agree or understand but still wish to expand their knowledge by reading whatever I have to say, the people who may be silently struggling, just as I was: these are the people that need to see my honest words

Yes, I have chronic depression and crippling anxiety. Yes, I have attempted suicide and been sent to a rehabilitation clinic. These are truths of mine. 

No, I am not insane. No, I am not weak. No, I AM NOT my mental illness. I am kind, passionate, persistent, powerful, and an amazing friend and dog mama. These are truths of mine, too.

What are your truths? 

 

Photos/art (in order of appearance) by Nikki Burnett, Dariana Portes, and Emily Millar

 

How To Help Someone Who Has Survived Sexual Assault

 

The following content may be triggering to those affected by sexual violence. 

 

A little over five years ago I was drugged and raped at a party in an upperclassman’s apartment by someone in my college graduating class.

After phases of shock, depression, anxiety, fear, anger, guilt, denial, numbness, embarrassment, confusion, insomnia, secrecy, flash backs, and self harm I have finally arrived at this current mental state. I am now able to speak about my experience without crying, hyperventilating, disassociating, or regressing. I am hurting but I am also still healing from this experience.

I was and am lucky enough to have caring friends, devoted therapists, and sympathetic family members; however, most of my support system has not experienced sexual assault themselves. While I do appreciate all of the love and guidance I’ve received from my network, it was a little difficult to talk to them about my rape because they didn’t fully understand what I went through.

Let me be clear: I do not wish sexual assault on anyone, but mending my relationship with myself was extremely difficult becuase I felt misunderstood. 

I am writing this article in order to help those with people in their lives who have been through sexual assault of any kind, not just rape, and want to help them. Below is a step-by-step guide to how to be there for anyone who has been through this kind of violence.

 

1. Accept the idea that anyone on the gender spectrum can be sexually assaulted.

Modern society has taught us that only those who identify as women can be victims of sexual violence; however, this is not true. To be inclusive of all genders I use they/them pronouns during this piece.

 

2. Understand that every situation is  contextual. 

Everyone is fundamentally different, which means how one responds to trauma can be different from how you may respond to the same kind of trauma. While this is true there are also some hard guidelines for best aiding a friend or loved one who has experienced sexual violence.

 

3. Just listen.

Do not tell survivors what to do. Part of going through sexual assault means that your choice and will have been taken away; being attentive, aware, and emotionally intelligent is crucial. This is because giving them options about what to do next allows a sense of agency to return to your friend or loved one: doing this empowers them to move through this experience with their own authority.

 

4. Give advice only if they ask for it.

Again, you’ll want to make sure that you give that sense of agency back to them. Providing unsolicited advice can come off as controlling or bossy, which is the absolute last kind of perception that you want to deliver. 

 

5. Don’t make it about you. 

Give yourself up as an autonomous person and just be there for the person that’s opening up. This is important because such an incredibly violent, disruptive experience is so deeply personal; abandoning your personal beliefs and opinions can really help whoever has experienced sexual assault to feel understood and valued. Keep an extremely open mind. 

 

6. Comprehend the idea that their experience, and subsequently their healing, is their own.

Remember: even if you have also been assaulted that does not mean that what they need in order to heal will be the same as what you needed to heal. They may not even want to heal in the first place! Again, every person and every experience is fundamentally different, which means that every solution can also be different.

 

7. Be willing to back off. 

Recounting an experience can be traumatic in and of itself, give your friend or loved one permission to stop talking about it if they need a moment or want to end the conversation. Additionally, just because they opened up to you once does not mean that you are entitled to speaking to them about the experience whenever you want to. Their assault is their assault, and honoring that idea can be represented by giving them space when they ask for it.

 

8. Never make them feel guilty. 

Remember that there are societal barriers that keep survivors from healing in the way that they need to. Rape culture is alive and prevalent in our community, meaning that existing as a surivor of sexual assault can be an incredibly difficult living experience day by day. Many victims of sexual violence are silenced or shamed; try your hardest to prevent them from feeling guilt or humiliation because of an atrocity committed against them.

 

9. Help them to establish a sense of security.  

Do they feel safe speaking to you about their experience? Do they feel safe around you in general? Do you know the spaces, people, or situations that would make them feel uncomfortable or afraid? Make sure your answers to these questions is “yes.”

 

10. Take care of yourself.

Being there for someone who has experienced a potentially life-changing attack can really weigh on you; self care is crucial in order to best help others. Self care looks different for everyone, so do what is best for you in order to emotionally and mentally support yourself.

*  *  *

This list was compiled from pieces of my own experience and words from other survivors. The golden rule is to treat someone like a human because they are and they deserve that kind of basic respect.

Rape and sexual assault are extremely dehumanizing experiences, and giving your friend or loved one that sense of control back can really help them begin to rebuild. I write this in order to best help those who have experienced sexual assault, but also to advise those with survivors in their life.

Take care of them and remember: they are hurting but they are also healing. 

 

Photos (in order of appearance) by Delaney ShulerAlyse Mazyck, and Dariana Portes

 

Cancer and Sex(ual Appeal)

I grew up in the 90s, during the peak of “heroin chic” — a look based on the emaciated bodies of heroin addicts.

However, I grew up into a primarily indoor artsy teen. I always had an appetite and just never seemed to be able to lose that darn baby weight that kept me from looking “so pretty.” Needless to say, I struggled intensely with body image issues for the next decade and a half.

Over the course of my cancer treatment, I lost and gained noticeable amounts of weight. From there I was routinely asked, “How much weight did you lose?” I was told that I “look good now” and “chemo suits you.” Since 2014, I have shifted in and out of periods of disordered eating and have now finally landed in a healthy mental place with my body. But the comments go on. People are quite quick to fetishize superficial benefits; weight loss, the social perks of an easy parking space with a disability placard. 

*  *  *

As a whole, the American general public is still stuck in the 90s when it comes to appearance standards. This antiquated obsession with skeletal women routinely invades my space and I’m expected to embrace it, graciously. But I’ve learned that impact > intent, so I no longer care if you think you’re being nice. 

What usually happens: 

Them: “Oh, you’ve lost weight!”

Me: “OMG, thank you so much!”

This kept the conversation nice and easy. But the frequency at which this type of exchange happens has made it very apparent that my overweighted-ness was my defining feature to everyone as a youth, and I’m done. If you come at me with a personal comment on my body, I will come back with a highly personal reason and we can take bets to see how comfortable that makes you. 

What happened this time:

Them: “Oh, you’ve lost weight!”

Me: “Yeah, I haven’t had an appetite for over a year. I’m talking with my doctors about it.” 

This led immediately to the assumption that I was dying. I had to explain that no, I wasn’t dying. But likewise, I wasn’t perfectly healthy. And that’s okay. 

I have since managed to move beyond basing my worth on my meat suits and I’d kindly ask that you respect that choice. Body shaming or praising comments are so beyond gross and upsetting to me now for so many reasons. I am at peace with my physical body for maybe the first time in my whole life but it takes daily effort.

What a bold assumption; silly me, thinking I could take on the Cerberus of misogyny, ableism, and fatphobia!

 *  *  *

The idea behind ‘heroin chic’ is a tale as old as time, unfortunately. In one form or another, disease and illness have been informing appearance trends for centuries, notably with tuberculosis shaping beauty and fashion.

Even today, illness and beauty and sexual appeal are so grossly entwined with one another that I don’t know where to start with it all. At the first MRI after being diagnosed, I was told by the technician, “Don’t worry, you’re too pretty for a brain tumor.” But then again, this is in line with all things within cis-hetero-patriarchy: a lady just can’t win.

While the socially desirable aspects of diseases are appealing to some, we’re deluded into thinking it’s appropriate to insist upon the beauty of illness. Yet, we also reject the notion that a beautiful person could ever become sick. Our ascription of worth, health, and decency to appearance is supremely fucked up. 

And I see it constantly in the form of people consoling those with illness or suicidal ideations or just general painful times with confirmations of their beauty. “You’re beautiful!” “She was so beautiful.” “You’re too pretty for XYZ!” etc. I’m routinely told that I’m either the best looking sick person around or that I don’t look sick. To which I respond… “Thanks?” I need to start calling people in by asking, “What exactly do you think I should look like?”

*  *  *

It’s amazing how much can change with a cancer diagnosis and how much stays the absolute fucking same. 

All I wanted was a boyfriend in college. I pined and longed and took up too much mental space thinking about it. Cancer finally forced me into an adult mentality towards relationships, among other things. I finally escaped sexual desire and it has been fucking blissful not to want. But even now, the first time and the split second intimacy becomes even the slightest possibility again I revert to teenager mode. I guess I was surprised to learn and understand that cancer hadn’t altered that.

But, I also realized that after cancer, I have no problem at all letting a person know I’m attracted to them.

The first person I was interested in after my diagnosis, my therapist said that even if it doesn’t work out, he’s already given you gifts. He’s shown you that you can still have feelings for someone, that you can experience wanting someone like this. “He’s shown you that there are experiences to be had outside of cancer.” That was essential for me to hear as someone who had been single throughout my diagnosis and treatment.

As I was starting to entertain the thought of dating again, most of my body systems had settled into relative predictability. Enough of the chemicals that had coursed through my body during chemo had readjusted, so I could have feelings again.

I began the process and immediately encountered the problem I had read about in books: when to disclose, i.e. when to “come out” as having (had) cancer. Because so much of my post-diagnosis life involves cancer it’s been challenging even to have the first few words without massive lies by omission.

Tell me about yourself!

What do you do?

What’s your writing about?

What’s your art about?

Where do you live?

As a baby cancer diagnosee reading about this issue in 2014, I didn’t get it. I honestly thought it would be simple — just tell the person ASAP.

Now in 2019, as a slightly wiser cancer patient dipping her toe back in, I was beginning to understand the unique challenges. I’d gotten my share of mixed bag responses to people finding out I have cancer and so adding the romance element just ballooned the anxiety.

Do you tell someone during your first conversation? What medium is acceptable? Does it need to be done in person? On the first date? Second? Third? When things start to get serious?

I’ll never know if that’s the reason why after I told a guy on our first in-person date and he seemed cool about it, he promptly ghosted me. 

With these forays into relationships with new people it’s just been impossible to tell how they will respond. Because cancer carries so much baggage in our society, telling a brand new person, whether you’re trying to forge a connection with them or not, is exhausting each and every time.

*  *  *

Sex post-diagnosis seemed entirely monumental.

The only intimate physical touch I’d had for over two years was from healthcare professionals in gloved hands. I was building it up as almost a second virginity to lose (even after I’d finally broken that bullshit construct down in my mind). So, when I found myself on a date that was heating up, I had to excuse myself to go to the bathroom. The choice presented itself: did I want to have sex — casual sex at that — finally, after all this time?

I did.

Honestly, the state of the planet and climate catastrophes were a factor at that  moment. I didn’t know when a long-term partner was going to come along and I didn’t want to die having never slept with someone again. This also happened to be the week after the deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. I remember feeling distinctly grateful to be experiencing a human connection closer to love than hate. Make of that what you will.

Months later with a different partner I managed to experience an orgasm. My first by a fellow human. This happened only after my diagnosis. I connect these two things and credit  my massive dive into self-discovery the last five years. It’s forced me to contemplate and connect to my feelings around self-worth in relation to relationships and pleasure. All of my sexual interactions post-cancer have been infinitely more balanced and consensual than they ever were before and for that I’m grateful. 

* * * 

I’ve been forced to make a lot of difficult decisions in recent years. Most times, in an effort to save myself. When it came to my fertility vs. my life for instance, it was easy for me. But then, I was also asked to mourn that loss and hide my rage at the fact that my fertility had ever been prioritized over my humanity. That was just my experience though and my reaction to it as the person that I am. Still, decisions made by necessity will always carry a different weight than those made by choice. 

As patients we are first and foremost people. And as whole beings we bring our unique histories, beliefs, goals, attitudes and priorities into exam rooms. I have yet to meet an illness that doesn’t in some way affect a patient’s sex life or intimate relationships. When we aren’t given the information or told how our bodies will be affected over time, it drives home the belief that we aren’t expected to exist after cancer, that sex is beyond the pale or some other dehumanizing, ableist assumption. 

I have found there to be infinite interpersonal and sexual complications unique to the young adult cancer patient, beyond the topics of fertility or pity sex. I would love for us to do better in 2019 than the rest of history in assuming basic humanity of sick and or dying people. Because I have also found that as offensive ideas of sexiness because of sickness (your consumptive looks, your heroin chics), sexiness and sickness almost always come hand in hand. 

 

 

Photos provided by Siobhan Hebron.