Hand to heart, I do not know one woman who has not experienced some form of sexual humiliation. Whether it was unwanted expectations or comments about her body, threats to her safety, or actual assault, every female I know has been belittled by the views or actions of someone wielding unhealthy, typically masculine, power over her. And the more I try to breathe into this realization so that I can open up and face it, the deeper into frustration I fall over the devastating consequences of it all.
A dear friend suggested I read Roxane Gay’s It’s Not That Bad, a book of beautifully brutal essays from a variety of voices and gender identities discussing the life-altering effects of unwanted sexual experience. I have been baby-stepping my way through the collection, nodding and sighing uncontrollably. This line from Nora Salem’s essay “The Life Ruiner” hit me squarely in the gut:
Perhaps the most horrifying thing about nonconsensual sex is that, in an instant, it erases you.
Sure, we may look the same on the outside afterward, but we feel completely hollowed out inside, an empty container mindlessly discarded after its contents have been devoured. So we split, we run like hell from our bodies and spirits because facing the shock and pain is unbearable. What was once a childhood temple of pleasure and freedom, allowing us to run, jump, play, explore, and deeply know becomes, in an instant, nothing but a receptacle for our most vicious secret, a painfully shameful memory, plus fear, fear, and more fear.
All of this distancing from our bodies and spirits comes at a price: we leave behind our inner voice, our instincts, rendering us rudderless in a choppy and unforgiving sea of shame.
I remember mine like a movie. I asked him for a ride because I needed to get home. I was already late for curfew and terrified because I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be with people my parents didn’t like. The persistent no’s that left my mouth carried no weight, had zero effect. Each word soundless, each movement overpowered. It was as if gravity no longer existed and I had vanished. I remember as my spirit left my body and floated away.
Afterward I felt like a zombie, going through the motions of daily life, having no real connection to anything or anyone. Standing in the shower—a total cliché, I know—letting the water pour over my being yet feeling absolutely nothing, unable to bring my spirit back to me. The only heat I felt bubbled deep within my stomach where the hatred brewed, for him and for what I wrongfully believed was my own stupidity. It was low and it was dark and I can see it so many bodies and faces of the women I pass on the street.
With no spirit to hold me, I was completely ungrounded. I became those weightless, soundless words. So I used anger to anchor myself to the world, to propel myself forward so that I could do the things people expected of me: school, work, basketball, socialize. Acting tough also gave me some protection from the outside world, as well as from the deep despair I was experiencing inside. It went on like this for years.
Fast-forward 18 years and I’m pregnant! My partner and I are insanely excited to love and cherish the little being growing inside me. As the months go by I watch my breasts and belly take the shape of mighty Mother Earth herself. I am struck by the strength and brilliance of my body and its ability to create miracles.
For the first time in a long time, I recognize my body and am grateful for it; I am alive and living inside it again. I can feel it humming with the energy of the Universe as it prepares a soul for its release into the world. Having that little being inside me filled up all of the hollow. In fact, pregnancy delivered me back to myself. I was able to feel and see myself wholly once more and to respect all of the wisdom and divinity of my femaleness.
When it was go-time in the delivery room, I became, once again, acutely aware of the vulnerability of my sex. The midwife, an all-business, no-niceties kind of woman, reached up, without warning, shoving her hand into my birth canal. All breath left me and, in an instant, I was back in that car. My partner was standing by my side when it happened and I nearly tore off his arm, pulling his eyes to mine with a look that shouted, “What the fuck is she doing?!”
Tears welled in our eyes because we both knew what I had been through. All in all, the birth took forty-three hours. I could not open up my body and let go. And why should I have? Trusting my body and my instincts had long been a dangerous game.
Once our daughter was finally born and ready to come home, the real work began. Like most new moms, I was so concerned with my baby’s body and wellbeing I completely neglected my own. Not to mention nursing was much tougher than I could have ever imaged. Because we had such a rough start, once we got the hang of it I continued nursing until she was two and a half.
But to be perfectly honest, nursing wasn’t just difficult because of the physical issues like shallow latch, thrush, and nipple tenderness, it was also emotionally challenging. Having been divorced from my body for so long, it felt bizarre to pull out the part of me that society demeans and unsubtle men leer at to feed my baby. But I powered through and, thanks to the regular positive hormone hits, eventually found some pleasure in nursing.
That all changed when my daughter became a toddler. I began to get irritated with her when she wanted to nurse. At the time, I told myself I was just burnt out from the long days of entertaining, feeding, and keeping her alive. But as I look back I now recognize that it was not having complete control over my body that infuriated me. Sure, the other things were annoying, but her grabbing at me touched a deep wound that I had not truly dealt with. Toddlers can be pushy and so can dudes who want sex, so in my tired, triggered brain the two were indistinguishable and equally threatening.
Now that my nursing days are over, things have calmed down considerably. But on occasion I feel a twinge of anger-fear rise when my daughter mindlessly grabs at my body or stares a bit too long after I step out of the shower. Intellectually, I know she’s just interested in how our bodies are different. But on a deeper, more subconscious level I can sense the familiar ache of that old wound.
Through depth hypnosis, a healing modality that uses guided mediations to access hidden memories and fears, I am steadily healing that part of me and am coming back into myself. My spirit feels fuller and more present than it has since the rape.
But I also know that I will not allow anyone to look at or touch me without my permission, not even my child. (Not that I “allowed” it in the car.) It’s not because I don’t love and trust my daughter, but because I am a me-too mommy who finally knows that I deserve, we all deserve, to have our boundaries respected, even if it hurts another’s feelings sometimes.
These days I work to give of myself as long as it feels good and to say “no more” when it doesn’t. My boundaries are clear and I do believe that by respecting myself I am teaching my daughter to respect herself too. By watching me, she feels more confident telling others that her body is hers alone and she is the boss of it. My hope is that she’ll be able to recognize red flag behavior in others before her safety and spirit are at risk.
In my best moments, I set these boundaries with patience and care. In my worst, I lash out and pull away. Incredibly, I have noticed that as I face the rape wound head on, I have a greater sense of relief. Because I am no longer running, I am in more my power and balanced, lashing out less and less.
I pray for the day when society lets girls grow into unbroken women. When people of all gender identities are respected and valued for their unique gifts, not as objects of pleasure or abuse for another. On behalf of girls and women everywhere, stop trying to break us. While we are, and always will be, strong enough to put ourselves back together again, it is a giant waste of our time and our gifts. Besides, we will never truly be erased.