Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I have a difficult relationship with my body, and a lot of that conflict comes from my identity as a survivor.
I hate it, sometimes, when I think about how it was used to make me feel so worthless, and also in some sense how it was worthless because it failed to keep me safe. (And the vulvodynia. If you want to educate yourselves about a majorly neglected medical problem this holiday season, make it vulvodynia.)
And yet I also love it because of how it did keep me safe.
For me that attitude crystallized when the nurses were examining me in the hospital, mentioning that I was not bleeding very much, and I am thinking “Wow, OK, I’m in pain,” and then they say nobody is ever going to believe I was raped without any major injuries, and I was angry, for a second, at myself (why didn’t you fight back more?) but luckily in another second I was able to convert that into love, a deep wonder and awe and appreciation that my body was able to do whatever it did to preserve itself.
I was able to do that, I think, because I’d spent a pretty long time hating it at that point, and I needed a kick in the pants to turn that around, and not being dead after, well, a whole lot of kicking was the best opportunity I got.
I’ve been lucky.
And when I was at this lecture, I actually heard something that brought all of these feelings to the fore—when Professor Hoang was screening a video about “sticky rice,” Asian-American men who love Asian-American men, and one of the interviewees said that he was surprised by the experience of “sleeping with a body that’s like mine.”
My first reaction was to think “why would anyone want that?” followed by “well, I want that, actually, sometimes,” followed by “now I understand why I’ve been so conflicted over my queer identity.”
It was nearly instantaneously that a number of things suddenly fell into place. The facts of my queer identity: I first came out in high school a few weeks before the barrage of bad experiences began. Then I didn’t tell anyone I was attracted to women—didn’t think I, myself, was attracted to women—until well into Swarthmore (and well after Coming Out Week), when I started liking my body again and consequently being able to imagine sleeping with bodies like mine.
I had been explaining this denial in my head as “I learned that I had to shape myself to male sexual desires to survive, so I did” but hadn’t been satisfied with that explanation at all. Now I’m completely satisfied.
And I wanted to share it with you.
A few extra words on the overlapping topics of survivorhood and queerness—one thing a lot of queer survivors have to deal with is the “Oh, well you’re gay because you’re scared of men” reaction.
I don’t have to wrestle with this question for myself because, luckily, I had a chance to form an autonomous sexuality before I was ever abused. But speaking as the authority I’ve appointed myself, what’s bullshit about that reaction is that it’s presuming to describe somebody else’s experience for them.
I used to say “That’s completely stupid because sexuality is genetic and if every female victim of male-perpetrated childhood sexual abuse (let’s not forget about all the other kinds of abuse out there) were lesbians, there would be so many lesbians, dude.”
(Interesting story: when Freud was treating hysterical women, one of his first explanations for the phenomenon was that hysteria was caused by childhood sexual abuse, but he later backed off of that explanation and became convinced that some of his early patients were actually lying. Admittedly without having done much research into it, I see this as typically male (and typically Viennese) denial of a pervasive social problem. My source here is the wonderful Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery.)
And no, dude, there’s not that many lesbians, dude. But I’ve come to realize that it’s also important to leave space for people who do believe that their sexuality is connected to their experience of abuse; here’s an argument as for why.
What I’ve come to think is that we need to respect people’s personal narratives, essentially, because those narratives will always have something to teach us.
(Also, if I could print off all of these columns and hand them in to my professors as a final project, my next three days would look a lot less miserable.)
So with that I’m signing off as your sex columnist this semester. It’s been an emotionally exhausting process, and for that reason I’m extra grateful to everyone who took the time to connect with me, because you all made it immensely rewarding.
And I hope I connected with some of you.
I think we can all do a better job of practicing sexual self-awareness (and careful and caring communication), and I think that these values (with safer-sex information as an important basis) are ones that sex-positive people need to do a better job of promoting.
Over and out.
May your breaks be full of less guilt and more sex,