I am so inspired by the things I read about women who are not only reclaiming their own voices, but also their bodies. I am even more moved by women who are going a step further into vulnerability by helping other women do the same. I was blown away the first time I met Emily May, founder of Hollaback!, an organization dedicated to ending street harassment. We moved to New York City around the same age, the same season of the same year, and she has started a nonprofit and global movement to make the streets safer for women. I was inspired today to read about a twenty-something nurse in the UK who started an organization called the My Body Back Project to help survivors of sexual trauma reconnect with their bodies.
At the age of 15, I was in the midst of a hot and heavy make out session with my first serious boyfriend. When he put his hand down my pants I said “no Daddy, stop.” We were both stunned, didn’t talk about it, and I pushed it down to deal with again a few years down the road. I did not feel connected to my body for most of my teen years. I hated my body. I dreaded the days we had to swim in gym class when I had to wear a swimsuit and be naked in front of the other girls. I put myself on my first diet in the seventh grade when all I would eat for lunch would be a small stack of saltine crackers, the first “meal” of my day. Early onset endometriosis put me in a gynecologist’s office at 15. I was mortified by the way this small man talked about my “womb” with excitement and don’t remember much of the exams.
I first reconnected with my child sexual abuse when I was 18 years old and living in New York. I believe the intense acting training I was doing opened up the doors I had sealed tightly closed. The night it poured out of me was February 14, 2000. I remember it vividly. My parents (mom and stepdad) gave me a Valentine gift of a silver dolphin bracelet. I still don’t know why that triggered the memories but in hysterical tears I drove to my father’s house and screamed at no one in particular. I don’t know if I was heard by anyone. A year later I was working at a theatre in Connecticut and was very ill with stomach pains. I went to a doctor I’d never seen before who examined me and he told me “you need to contact any recent partners because you have chlamydia.” Empowered enough to speak up, maybe because I spent a lot of time in doctor’s offices in high school, I replied “would it make a difference to know I’m a virgin?” It did make a difference and he changed his diagnosis. I didn’t start to really do recovery work until a year later when I went into crisis. Learning that my hymen was not intact, though never knowingly having had sex, was a big piece of the puzzle.
I finally had consensual sex a couple of months before my 21st birthday. I am so grateful I waited to be with someone who I loved and trusted. There were times he would touch me and I would shut down. It was like I left my body and was looking in from the hallway. I learned that this dissociation was more likely if he had been drinking, particularly beer. The sense memory was too much for me. My father drank beer. Lots of beer. It would be years before I could be intimate with anyone while he smelled of it. For the first 5 years that I was sexually active, receiving oral sex made me nauseated. The idea of performing oral sex was out of the question. I tried but couldn’t. I would gag and cry almost immediately. When a man would touch me I would recognize the feeling as pleasure but would shut down. In my crisis work I would learn that as a small child it was likely that my body responded to my father’s touch with orgasm so as an adult approaching orgasm lead me to shut down completely. There were times I would completely black out and not remember what had happened.
It took finding a wonderful crisis counselor at the Beth Israel Rape Crisis Center and doing a lot of intensive work before I could reclaim my body. During the years I struggled with my sexuality I was in the grips of bulimia. I’d buy laxatives in bulk and take 6-10 a day, sometimes more if I felt I’d gone overboard. The little pink pills started to taste like M&Ms. Learning to inhabit my body sexually helped me to accept my physical body in a way that I no longer had to manipulate it to be something it wasn’t. I learned to love sex. I learned to be in control of my own body and to guide the interactions with my partner. I learned to really love the feel of someone’s hands on my body, but I still didn’t allow myself to have an orgasm. It was too scary, too raw.
It took finding my husband to achieve my first orgasm. Though a talented man, yes, it had more to do with trust. I cried and apologized unnecessarily and he was there for me. He was patient and quiet, caring and willing. He listened. He paid attention to how I responded to his touch. I think unintentionally women who have survived sexual trauma open themselves up to more hurt because they are too ashamed and scared to share their story with their partner. In my experience, if I wasn’t willing to talk with a potential partner about my past I wasn’t going to have a positive experience in the bedroom. The few partners whom I remember fondly all knew of my trauma history before going to bed with me and that made all the difference. Sexual violence affects how we see, live in, and relate to our bodies. Trusting that my husband loves me for me, that he has little expectation of what I look like and that he loves who I am has helped me to be able to trust and love myself. It is still a practice though, my practice. It didn’t come easily and living in my body is still work I must do.