Image: Space2 by Francesca Woodman, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976.
Judy P. is an art history student at Brown University who is interested in the intersections of art, politics, race, class, and gender. This is her last post before she returns to school. Check out her other posts here.
When I was 5 years old, the son of a family friend raped me. It happened rather effortlessly, really. It must have been like taking candy from a preschooler. He was around 18, the eldest of 3 sons. We lived in the same townhouse complex, and we all hung out like one big family. When I think of the day of the rape, there are some fuzzy patches, but there are some unmistakable, viscerally clear images.
The rape itself never felt forced or violent—of course, rape doesn't only take this form. He had just woken up, and he gestured invitingly for me to come closer. I saw him as an older brother-type and blushed from the attention I got from him, a grown boy, practically a man! So I walked over happily. He grabbed me gently and embraced my tiny body. This is when the details get less legible. I was on the floor, spread out on a blanket. He was on top of me and pulling down his pants and my little girl panties. The moment he entered me, I shrieked from pain and shock and pushed him off eventually, running out of the house in tears.
When I saw him again, he acted like nothing had happened, and instead beckoned me over when no one was around to have another go. He took advantage of my age, my confusion, my vulnerability, and my girlish body. And he mistook my inability to stand up for myself as compliance. I felt tainted and ashamed and angry with myself. In fact, I didn't really frame it as a violation or rape until I became a teenager.
Looking back, what is so surprising is the wide gap between inner turmoil and exterior "normality." My whole life, a whopping 5 years, had been shattered in an instant, and yet life continued on the surface. No visible changes or irregularities were detectable, though I regularly battled the consuming fear and unfounded feelings of guilt that surreptitiously plagued my heart and body as a little girl.
I knew this was something traumatic and scarring the first time I woke up in the middle of the night, re-living the terror, and crying in silence feeling like the grossest person alive. It replayed in my head no matter how hard I tried to fight it off. I lived in burning shame and fear, wondering if I'd have to see him again, or if he'd try again, or if he would tell my parents what had happened (as if I was somehow at fault for letting it happen). My heart would beat painfully in my chest, and I would sweat daggers at the mention of his name. But on the outside, I was a put-together, animated kid. I had early built self-protective walls so that no one would ever know what I had experienced. I would never tell anyone, I promised myself. I would will it to be unreal and imaginary.
Inevitably, many nights I would lie awake hating myself, hating him, but mostly myself. My rape decidedly shaped my early growth, mostly by perverting my ideas about my vagina, self, self-love, intimacy, sex, and men. That, coupled with Christian guilt, made me the ideal prototype for sexual disaster. It affected how I felt in my skin (really shitty), made me feel dirty and guilty every time I felt sexual desire, and made me feel the need to always be on guard. I taught myself how to filter things out about myself and plaster on a smile for everyone. But for many years, I lived unnecessarily with feelings of profound shame, guilt, and self-loathing.
An important breakthrough for me was when I told myself something that was so obvious: what happened to me was not my fault.* After that realization, I suddenly felt free and big and in control. My rape no longer haunted me the way it used to–I had power over it.
What I want to make clear is that rape did not traumatize me out of having a sex life, although I haven't had sex in quite some time. I am not scared of sex (I just simply find it boring at times). More than anything, it has affected how I perceive myself and engage with my sexual identity. I sometimes feel uncomfortable when imagining myself having sex with another person. I get angry when a stranger looks me up and down or cat calls (but this is a duh). I always feel the need to assert myself and show that I have power in a situation. I turn men down to show that I'm at the reins.
Today, I am a proud, sex-positive woman who is open to new sexual experiences, but I can't help but get these weird feelings sometimes and put up protective walls. There is steady progress because my rape no longer defines sex or intimacy for me. I have healthy images of sex that get me excited to talk, to feel, and to do. I read a piece called “12 Things No One Told Me About Sex After Rape” a month ago, and the author, CJ Hale, said something really important:
“Every survivor’s story and experience is different, but too often the assumption is that if you have been raped, you are sexually broken and forever unfixable. That sort of discourse is not healthy or empowering or even sympathetic. What I want to say is what I wish I had been told: rape is not a form of sex, it is a form of assault. Sex feels good. Assault is traumatizing. It is possible for sex to exist after rape because they are different experiences, just like it’s possible for you to still enjoy going out to eat even if you got food poisoning once.”
I remind myself every day that I am a valuable person who has overcome rape. And I am genuinely excited about the new possibilities!
*Check out this awesome spoken word piece from Staceyann Chin that brings me to tears every time. What I'm referring to starts at 10:12.