Living in a Body That’s Been Raped
Trigger warning: sexual abuse, rape, trauma, interpersonal relationship violence … #MeToo
I’d like to believe that my body is my own. But over and over again, that has seemed not to be the case. Behind doors or in public, in America or overseas, my efforts to protect myself, protect my body, have proven futile and gone ignored. It seems I walk with an invisible target sign on my forehead, on my back, on my legs, on my navel, on my breasts, on every part of my body—a target sign that went up the first time I was raped, and one that I haven’t been able to get rid of since that first time, one that predators recognize and close in on.
I wear headphones, even when the noise in my head is too loud for me to turn on music—to show men that I’m busy and can’t hear them (even though I always do). I read books on the train to show men that I’m occupied (even though they still interrupt me). I recently bought a fake wedding ring made of stainless steel and zirconia crystal, in hopes that men will leave me alone. I’ll let you know if that works.
I’m not sure what makes me so vulnerable, but I hate myself for it. Hate my body for it.
There was a time, I think, when I was beautiful. I didn’t feel beautiful at the time, runway-thin and -tall and -starved though I was, but looking back, I hadn’t known I’d already been raped too many times to count. I didn’t know it was possible to be raped by a boyfriend, over and over, didn’t know domestic violence could disguise itself as one-true-and-forever-love (as in, stop trying to escape), didn’t know that consenting to a relationship didn’t mean consenting to sex even the times when I protested, even when the pain made me cry—didn’t even know that sex wasn’t supposed to be painful, humiliating, degrading. Didn’t know that sex could be something other than something mean that men do to women. Didn’t know that sex wasn’t supposed to break me. Didn’t know the definition of the word “sadist” at that time.
I have a female body, don’t I? Essentially, a fuck-receptical. That’s what men seem to think of me.
I knew my body was disgusting, then. Even when I was asked to model runway, emaciated and bony. But when I see those photos, I seem to have been pretty. Once. Back then.
The photos after I turned twenty-seven are different. At that age I was forever changed by what was irrevocably rape by anyone’s definition—and that recognition flooded me and broke me. I was on a date with a mesmerizing man, a professor of theater (and theatrical he was). The warning signs, red flag after red flag, seem obvious to me now. Looking back, it seemed a rehearsal for him, one he’d completed over and over. How many young women had he lured upstairs before me to hear his guitar and see his astonishing library? He hadn’t been lying about the library—that was real. But my stomach turned when he offered me a gorgeous early edition of a classic, finally recognizing that his intent was transactional. The door was already closed.
I refused the book, but I consented to kissing. I hope to God that does not mean consenting to sex.
The moment I can pinpoint when I became ugly, was made ugly, was when he stripped me, even as I struggled to keep on my dress. I should have known better than to wear a loose dress, a piece of lace art far too easy to take off a woman. Take off me, specifically. Wearing something so easy to be stripped of, did that mean I asked for it? I hope to God not, but I still wonder. It still makes me sick. The moment he stole my dress, made it no longer my own, my body also became no longer my own. My body became ruined, or, to use the active voice, he ruined my body.
I recognized my ugliness as I watched him, seemingly from across the room, shove his hand inside me, even as I saw myself retreat, heard myself say no, stop, I don’t want to. Perhaps it was my mistake that my backward retreat was even closer to the bed, which he pushed me onto. I remember looking at my hand, after he had unzipped his slacks and pressed my hand to his erection—I looked at my hand after I pulled it back and saw it differently, saw how my knuckles were wider than my fingers, saw the blue veins on their backside. Had the lines on my palms always converged into rape?
What I do know is that I cannot stand the photos of myself from after that happened. They look like me, but they are of someone I can’t recognize—someone bad, dirty, ruined, raped. Was it kindness that, after he was finished doing what he wanted to me, he insisted on walking me through the snow and to the subway, even though I said I wanted to walk alone, and that he held my hand up to the turnstile, which finally barred him from me forever? Did that gesture negate the ugliness he’d given me?
The dress, of course, was ruined to me. My favorite dress. The dress I had worn to the Great Gatsby publishing party and won a prize in for “best-dressed.” He stole that from me.
The doctors put the weight back onto my body, and now I recognize it even less.
I try not to look in the mirror, avoid it as much as possible. Don’t want to see my body that’s been force-fed, plumped up, violated, and demoralized.
As a marathon runner, my body has always been strong. Couldn’t I have pushed with more conviction? Or was it truly too late? Why, after a certain point, did I give up my fight and freeze? Did my body betray me when I froze, or was it protecting me from something that could have been even worse?
How did the man at the top of the stairway that I climbed up the cliff on my way home, and the man who blocked the doorway in the hostel basement in London, know that my body was no longer my own? What makes me up for the taking?
I am disgusted whenever my body reminds me that my biology makes me a sexual being. When I get aroused, I run to the bathroom to clean myself.
But it is hard to shower when my boyfriend used to rape me in the shower. So much pain and fear. The anal rape was the worst, even as I begged him not to. I thought I might drown as I choked on the water. As my words were literally drowned back down, unable to escape through the glass door freckled with water drops. But it is hard to get clean without a shower where bad things happened, feel like they’re still happening. I’m between a rock and a hard spot, when showers are both necessary for hygiene and terrifying reminders of what’s been done. How can I ever get clean?
Sometimes I sleep in my day clothes, because I don’t like the feeling of my jeans being unzipped, of my shirt being taken off, even by me. When the air touches my bare skin, or I see my long legs and where they lead, I might be taken back to an experience I don’t want to have.
It is not easy to rest in a body that’s been raped, and not just because of the nightmares. Humans rest lying down, but they also have sex that way. I feel vulnerable and exposed on my back, like it’s happening again. I turn to my side to try to protect myself, to will the sensations away, but no—it happened from that angle, too. I squeeze my eyes tight to get rid of the memories, but that only seems to make them worse.
Bessel Van der Kolk wrote that the body keeps the score. That’s why it’s possible to relive a rape over and over. Why I can feel it still, even though I try to keep it in the past. I feel betrayed by my own body, that it won’t let me forget. That my brain pumps cortisol into every part of me and my amygdala screams danger, even when there is no danger here, even when I am safe in my locked apartment where I have a doting dog and a pair of gentle ring-necked doves and an art studio with professional-grade media. I have a pair of griffin statues to protect my front and back doors; and a friend gifted me black tourmalite crystal to further keep me safe—I’ll take these bits of magic. I have everything I need. I have worked hard to escape the poverty of my childhood. But having everything I need doesn’t seem to be enough for this body to heal.
It’s hard to look in the mirror. Not just at the weight that’s been put back on me, but even more so to see the private parts of me, the female parts, my hourglass silhouette and long hair that’s been pulled—all have been been claimed by predators.
Are boys ever taught not to catcall when they grow into men? Why do men feel free to comment on my body as I move through public? Does being in public mean that I am public? Even the well-meaning ones who tell me I “have a great smile” seem to be pointing out my vulnerabilities, my roots as a Californian who exudes warmth and an open-heartedness, which I cannot seem to shake from my demeanor. My smile has been bred into me, and I can’t drop this signature, hard as I try. It signals I’m fine. I’m friendly. Everything is fucking fine. Is this smile I can’t shed an invitation?
I don’t want to be a target. A deer with long legs stalked by hunters. I don’t show my legs anymore, because they are wider now and covered in grotesque scars that misshape the contour of my skin. When I took a broad knife to my inner thigh, I was safe from him.
Back then, the scars made me too flawed for runway. Today the scars make me too much of a spectacle to wear shorts or a swimsuit. Scars I plan to cover with tattoos. Scars carved under the influence of red wine, vodka, and tequila.
It is a privilege to meet western beauty standards. But God I hate being called beautiful. In my experience, those who find me beautiful have ill-intent. I’m not beautiful. I’ve been made ugly, and I wish that men could see that, see someone they could look away from, someone whose body they needn’t comment on or desire or take. Don’t people know I’ve been ruined? What will it take to stop them? What will it take for me to finally feel safe from the male gaze and how very far that gaze might go?
I live in a body that is terrified of sex, something healthy that most people can do. After three years of a mutual crush, I invited my neighbor over, who had been a cover model of color for the glossy pages of Brooks Brothers, Q, and more. Today he was a stunt man in film. And he, who could attract anyone, wanted me. But somehow he seemed to see me, really me, as a woman with a mind. He told me that he saw a woman’s body as a canvas to paint with pleasure and respect. I just wanted to have sex with someone I trusted, someone safe, someone I was attracted to, like a normal person.
But it was not long before I saw myself sob, retreat, sob and sob and sob. My body felt my ex-boyfriend. My hands looked the same as they had after the prestigious theater professor made them ugly.
He stopped. He stopped? Yes, he really stopped. I wasn’t used to that. He stopped and asked what was wrong and I sobbed and gasped onto his strong shoulder, because even though it was consensual, even though I had sought him out, even though I felt good, I could not separate pleasure from rape. And so he held me while I cried. I was a wreck for months, barely keeping up with my responsibilities, reliving all the violations of the past every day, every single day. I haven’t had sex since. That was nearly a year ago.
A body that’s been raped is a body on alert. Hyper-vigilant. Jumpy. Easily startled. In a world where professionals like me stand tall, it’s hard to resist pulling my shoulders inward to protect my heart. Worse than what’s been done to my body have been the injuries to my heart, to my spirit.
But spirits go on, find a way to manage, to heal, and—I’ve heard it’s been done—to even thrive. I want that for myself. For my body and for myself.