Sex + Love

Way to Survive

Learning to love my body after sexual assault.

Illustration by Kelly.

Illustration by Kelly.

I’m going to start this story where the needles are, half an inch from my heart. I’m lying on my back with my shirt pulled up in a room full of people I don’t know. My tattoo artist has just started his work. The pain hasn’t begun yet. He’s only finished one word so far: in.

All tattoos come with stories, but sometimes you don’t want to tell them, or can’t, or won’t. I’m grateful my artist doesn’t ask me, but I’ll tell you. It’s a secret between you and me. No matter how many strangers might read this, I’ll pretend they’re all you, OK?

I’ve been sexually assaulted twice, both times by people I loved, and it took me a while to break off my relationships with them. I still think of the people who’ve hurt me with kindness. I did love both of them once, in different ways. The classic narrative of assault is simple: An unexpected stranger in a dark alley, or somewhere else disconnected from everyone and everything. But the truth is heartbreaking in its complexity. In the U.S. alone, sexual assault takes place on average, once every two minutes, according to RAINN (and if this has happened to you, please check out the rest of that website for resources, if you feel you could use them).

I’m staring at the ceiling of the tattoo shop right now, trying to count the popcorn, an old habit that started as a way to pass the time I spent in bed with the people who assaulted me. I’d count the tiles and mold spots—the popcorn—on the ceilings of our rooms. I don’t believe in God, so I count: I have been assaulted twice. There are 26 steps up the stairs to my bedroom, where I counted the minutes until my parents came home the first time it happened. There are eight window panes on my door. It has been nearly a year. Counting is my prayer. It is also a curse.

Before the artist did the placement sketch of where the tattoo would go, I stared in the mirror at home for hours, naked, bewildered at my body. I have always liked seeing bruises blossom into roses and purples and golds—I think of them as flowers. Unusually, I had no bruises that day. (My skin flowers easily.) But some flowers have thorns.

The artist is up to three words now: in a dream

Once, in one of my college classes, we raised our hands to count. You never think the ratio is real until it’s sitting diagonal, horizontal, parallel, and adjacent to you. And then you all cry together. The numbers go up if you are trans, if you are a woman of color, if you are queer. Women are sometimes afraid to walk home alone, lest they become a number, but I became a number through lovers—other girls, incidentally—whom I had initially trusted. Nobody told me that could happen, and for a long time, I didn’t believe it myself. But everyone is capable of cruelty.

It wasn’t even the assaults themselves that hurt me the most. It was that I believed they were my fault somehow. I apologized in one way or another each time. I apologized. I kept returning to bad situations, which filled me with such self-loathing that I would sometimes take scalding baths, like I deserved to be burned. I was trying to wash it all off me, but the water was never hot enough. Inevitably, I turned the cold faucet on anyway. I have to remind myself every day that it wasn’t my fault, and I still don’t feel like I’m telling the truth. Now, when I see something that reminds me—a word, a certain jacket, passing an old neighborhood—I have to keep my eyes on the ground. It wasn’t my fault.

in a dream you saw a way

It was difficult for a long time. I told my closest friends, and they nodded, but they didn’t seem to know what to say. I turned to impersonal online politics for help and found Tumblr conversations about sex positivity, which champions sexuality and loving yourself so that you may love others, like old Xeroxed copies of Riot Grrrl zines about self-love, straight from the ’90s to my 2014 computer screen: Sex is everywhere, love is all around. Positivity meant vocalizing everything, evidently, and so I swam in the vocabulary of sexuality. I tried to love myself to emotional health with the help of these discussions, because talking about it meant I was past the notions of body terror and betrayal…didn’t it? I tried to love my body. I tried to love sex, out of spite, and I couldn’t. It was hard to when all I could remember was that the last time I was naked with someone, I felt like crying.

I felt like I was trapped into boning, talking about boning, and being “unafraid and unapologetic” about vocalizing my desires. I thought that being an “empowered” queer person meant fucking myself out of my traumas and the patriarchy, and the fact that I didn’t want to meant I was doing something wrong. That it was my fault, all over again. I wasn’t queer enough, or sexy enough, or empowered enough. The weight was all on me. The pressure was just too much.

I decided to take a break from sex. I shifted my focus onto everything but my love life. I chased after bylines in my favorite publications, took trips with my friends to cabins and beaches, and enjoyed a lot of friendly kisses when I felt like it, without worrying about what they meant. I sought a new version of intimacy in the kindness and love of my friends. Now, I get my intimacy from friendships and from my dreams (and yeah, I masturbate a lot). Not worrying about other people and what they want from my body has freed me in the ways I had thought sex would.

in a dream you saw a way to survive

I came into this tattoo shop to remind myself that you may always remember what has happened to you, but your body will keep changing. A body can become unfamiliar to someone else’s in time. Here’s where counting becomes comforting: Red blood cells can live up to four months, white blood cells just under a month, skin cells a little over a month and a half. This means progress—my body is now all mine again. I survive my history by making my body new in other ways, too: I change my hair color constantly.

While I’d like this to be a neat narrative where I have gotten over my fears, my anxiety, my triggers, and my nightmares about sex after assault, I haven’t entirely. But I’ve learned that, sometimes, you don’t move on. You move through.

It took me a frustratingly long time to live with the aftermath of my assaults. Sometimes, I still get pulled back into nightmares, but I find comfort in the fact that I woke up. The sun is shining. There are dogs in the park. I woke up. I am not altogether my past. The bruises that bloomed faded away, too. Any body, with time, can be new. And that is a blessing. That is joy. That’s why I decided to permanently ink this quote by Jenny Holzer on my body: to reflect that.

Talking about this is difficult, and so I am out of my body again, hovering over myself like a ghost. Like Casper. I am a friendly ghost, telling myself (and telling you, too): It wasn’t your fault. Our experiences as survivors are complicated. They come in many shapes and forms. But if you have been in a sexual situation where you were too scared to say no, or incapable of saying no, that was assault. And it was never, never your fault. I want to hold your hand and tell you this with utter sincerity: You owe it to yourself to survive, first, always, and forever.

The artist is finishing up his work—I have a new tattoo:

in a dream you saw a way to survive, and you were full of joy.

I’m delirious with pain. I feel fuzzy and light, but I’m awake, and I’m not a ghost—I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive. The difference between this ache and the aches from before: I am safe. I could have told the artist to stop at any time, but I didn’t want to. I decided. I chose to mark my body as my own territory. It’s entirely mine, and though it always was, I know that now, and I blossom, and I bloom. ♦

29 Comments

  • thebrownette July 24th, 2014 7:37 PM

    This is amazing.

  • Danielle July 24th, 2014 7:42 PM

    I love you, sister.

  • alylee July 24th, 2014 7:45 PM

    This resounds much to close to my heart. On June first, I was date raped after the guy my friend set me up with got me drunk and took me upstairs. I’m still dealing with it deeply almost every day, and while I have started seeing someone new, I am not ready for a relationship or vulnerability. I am only in it for the fun of getting food, seeing movies, and sex on MY terms.

    I need to find my way to survive.

  • dottie July 24th, 2014 8:25 PM

    this is intensely beautiful. arabelle you are a wonderful, wonderful writer

  • dandelions July 24th, 2014 9:10 PM

    Arabelle, this is more than beautiful, it’s real. Sometimes the world can be really cruel and we feel lost, but we have stories, feelings, hope and dreams. I think that is god, too.

    Thank you and a big hug for you.

    http://desestructuralismo.tumblr.com/

  • ometembe July 24th, 2014 9:10 PM

    <3

  • Courtney Fulcher July 24th, 2014 9:32 PM

    I needed this tonight. Thank you.

  • makenzieK July 24th, 2014 10:00 PM

    Arabelle, your story has touched me. I have had my own scarring situations and have felt so alone for months, stuck in my own head with the memories. thank you for writing this, it brought me to tears in a beautiful way. you have given me hope that I can move through my own aftermath. again, I thank you.

  • jessieparty2013 July 24th, 2014 10:07 PM

    i think arabelles writing is so extremely beautiful and affecting to anyone who reads it and its sheds light on things that i would’ve never realized on my own to be strengthening, MANY THANKS

  • ears July 24th, 2014 10:43 PM

    This piece is so real and beautiful, I think it’s one of my favorite things I’ve read on Rookie. Thanks Arabelle

  • bonnie.mclovin July 24th, 2014 10:50 PM

    thank you. the amount i needed this is overwhelming.

    http://the-green-lighter.tumblr.com

  • TessAnnesley July 24th, 2014 11:15 PM

    I think my heart just imploded. This is so lyrical and powerful at once, Arabelle, thank you so much.
    I feel you on the hair colour thing – mine is a scary shade of purple and when small children ask why I dyed it, I know they won’t understand if I say, “I want everyone to know that my body is MINE.”

    Speaking of sexual assault, I wrote about mine, and people have liked it, so I thought you guys might too:
    https://www.facebook.com/BeingFeminist/posts/659262724142972

    Love you all.

  • beansprout July 24th, 2014 11:43 PM

    thank you, arabelle

  • Alienor July 25th, 2014 3:51 AM

    this made me cry so much :’(

  • Blou July 25th, 2014 5:28 AM

    I needed this tonight Arabelle, thank you. I was sexually assaulted last fall while away at school by someone I deeply believed I could trust. It took me months of continuing to date that person before I could feel brave enough to speak up, and months more of speaking to the police to be told I couldn’t press charges. But yesterday the student conduct department at my university called me to tell me that they will support my case and attempt to have the other student that assaulted me dismissed from my school. I’ve never started crying so quickly, it was like I had been holding my breath without even knowing it. But while I’m so glad I was able to stand up for myself I’m not there yet with feeling like my body can really be my own and something other than my enemy, so I really needed this. And sometimes I still need the reminder it wasn’t my fault. So thank you.

  • mothcub July 25th, 2014 8:53 AM

    Articles like this (and this is a really good one) are so important. I want to read thousands of them. I want to read every voice on this.

    I think there’s a big problem in terms of people being encouraged to springboard off an experience of abuse like this into the “I must love sex” mentality that you talk about. There’s not enough “It’s okay to not feel okay with sex” narratives being spoken about.

    People treat sex way too flippantly I think, like, people bury their emotional responses to sex and the idea of it. We have a lot of discussion about taking your time, and feeling ready, and not being scared, and taking ownership of our bodies, but I think there’s something missing – like, idk, there’s a lack of proper LOVE (for yourself and others) and FUN and CHILL in how we tend to navigate sex, but also a lack of respecting the gravity of it as a physical and emotional activity.

    I dunno but I’m glad you wrote this and I’m glad you discovered what you really needed. x

  • Ciara Jonah July 25th, 2014 9:13 AM

    I can relate to absolutely all of this, but the bit that stood out was how you struggled with sex positive feminism. I had and have the same issues, the idea that you have to be a “survivor.” Some of us survive in the basest of ways and the idea that you’re just not “empowered” as a woman just makes rape victims feel victimized all over again.

    Beautiful article, seriously. Happy you’re happy at least some of the time :)

  • tinytractor July 25th, 2014 11:08 AM

    It’s Friday morning, I’m reading this in bed and I’m crying. A lot makes me cry. Thank you for reminding me that it truly and completely wasn’t my fault. I can never hear that enough. I’m sorry this happened to you, Arabelle, and your tattoo is beautiful. Jenny Holzer is amazing.

    <3
    Taina

  • Gabby July 25th, 2014 11:46 AM

    <3 <3 <3

  • umi July 25th, 2014 12:08 PM

    no words………….i’m unbelievably astounded right now

  • Rose July 25th, 2014 1:51 PM

    arabelle, you are a heart warrior. <3

  • Yoki July 25th, 2014 4:55 PM

    We are survivors… I don’t know you and I’ll probably never meet any of you, yet I feel we are together in this. Thank you so much. This article means more than you can imagine. I don’t feel alone anymore.

  • Stephanie July 25th, 2014 5:29 PM

    Arabelle, thank you. Thank you for this. As a fellow survivor, a fellow counter, I can’t tell you how much this resonated. Your tattoo is beautiful and inspiring. Above all YOU are beautiful and inspiring!

  • CatLover July 25th, 2014 5:56 PM

    I’m a queer girl who has always counted. I have been raped twice in my life, and after I found my way through the mental and emotional fog left behind by the both of them, I marked myself with a beautiful tattoo. For me, it was not words, but a labyrinth, to remind myself that though the path of life may turn and wind, there are no real dead ends. That the way through (as you so aptly put it) the tough times can just be to chin up and keep walking.

    I am, at once, saddened and and strengthened by reading somebody’s similar story. I’m so sorry that this has happened to you but I applaud your bravery in reclaiming your body.

  • Abby July 25th, 2014 9:09 PM

    Thank you, for giving voice to all of us.

  • Paprika July 26th, 2014 12:33 AM

    I’ve never been sexually assaulted, but I was physically attacked by a guy I thought was my friend. It took so long to reclaim all the hurt and trauma. I’m trying to accept it as a piece of the history that made me. By owning that experience I can value myself more deeply; even though I hate what happened to me I love who I have am today.

  • Areeba July 26th, 2014 12:11 PM

    Gurl, I was never assaulted in sexual way but I was once inappropriately in public by a stranger. That fear is still in me! I want to come over i but whenever I walk in public, I feel like there’d be someone who’ll touch me and pinch me and I couldn’t do anything! But your words are SO inspiring. Thanks girl for being awesome!

    http://www.ihaveamessybun.com/

  • Vlada July 29th, 2014 2:21 PM

    Oh my gosh I don’t even know what to say

  • Hannah Joy August 5th, 2014 5:33 PM

    Thank you for this.