Writing by Sophie Rose // Photographs by Mr Koo
When I was raped I lost myself.
It was sudden. I could feel it. Whatever I knew about myself, whatever I’d known, it slipped away after I uttered my first “no,” somewhere around the third or fourth time he hit my right jaw.
For the months following PTSD has wracked my mind. For that first bit of time I couldn’t remember who I was or who I’d wanted to be. And I realized I wouldn’t be able to find that girl anymore because she didn’t exist. I had to build her, again, from the ground up.
She would be different, she would need to make sure her friends and family knew that she would be different now. Because aren’t things always different when we do them again from scratch? We can never have the same thing twice.
And I’ve been doing okay. I’m proud of my progress, now, fifteen months later. My head and my heart are coming back to life. My friends and family have learned, mostly, how to support my healing, how best to understand the rage and confusion and intense sadness I am doing what I can to temper and soothe. How to love me for who I am now, and not to grieve who I was before. That’s been hard for me too. I miss her too.
But I’m stronger now. I’m better at listening to my gut and pickier about choosing friends. I’m more skilled in patience and more equipped to make it clear that I need those around me to listen to me, to recognize we are both going through this for the first time, that it’s hard for you, but it’s way harder for me, because I don’t know who I am anymore. And I’m owning the fact that I need to do and think and feel in a way that makes me feel strong. So I’ve been taking care of my mind. I’m still learning, but it’s working.
My body, though. My body.
For a long time I despised it. Because I felt like it betrayed me.
Why couldn’t it fight him off why did it react positively to his repulsive touch why did it freeze how did it allow all the warmth inside me to trickle out through my tears that night and why have I been only always cold, cold, freezing since then
I understood the impulse some people feel to self-harm. I still do, a bit. I’ve punched a lot of walls. I’ve always been a gentle person but I have new issues with anger and with authority and sometimes I just need to feel something other than self-loathing. Maybe if I hurt myself, my body would make my mind feel something that wasn’t hate. But I knew that wasn’t safe. So instead of continuing to bruise my knuckles I got a couple of tattoos. I altered how my body looks, forever. It’s personalized now, mine, only I am allowed to change it. I added art and I reclaimed it. But it still felt dirty.
At some point I realized I was open to putting myself in a sexual situation again. That I was actually capable of feeling pleasure again. That I wanted it.
his name starts with M
Eight months after I was raped a man came into my life. Like, a take-your-breath-away, mind-blowingly good-looking man. Everyone compares him to David Beckham. He wouldn’t agree, but only because he can’t see himself the way other people do. He’s like me in that way.
I think that’s what drew me to him. He was wounded too. He could understand. He wouldn’t expect me to be something I wasn’t.
I’d eyed him from afar, idly, for about a year. One night in June at the restaurant he manages, he gave me a slice of cheesecake for free and scrawled his number onto a napkin.
For the next several weeks we flirted. I’d show up at the restaurant, he’d squeeze me tight, dance with me, show me off. Touch me protectively and give me forehead kisses, which endowed on me some vapid sense of security, as forehead kisses tend to do. One day I came to visit him during my lunch hour at work. One night we had a heated makeout in one of the restaurant’s restrooms.
He had a gentler voice than you’d imagine by looking at him. Dark, deep eyes, lean frame, smoked cigarettes, wore lots of chunky silver rings on his fingers, tall, smelled like trees after the rain and whatever product he used to style his hair, and definitively boasted the most infectious and beautiful smile I’ve ever seen.
he’d be the first person to see my body since it had been tarnished
We had sex one August night in my warm apartment. I was ashamed, afterwards, of my body, and hustled to put on the long tshirt I’d been wearing before. He stopped me, told me to “relax” and we lay on my bed, sweaty, his heavily-tattooed right arm slung casually behind my neck. He leaned over and kissed my stomach softly. We dressed, went out, barefoot, to the front steps of the building where he smoked and we talked, voices skimming over the mugginess, flitting between the fireflies, about our families and our nicknames and our least favourite television shows.
He dozed off on my bed later, laying on his right side, limbs tangled up in mine, as we watched a movie. I remember looking at his face, tan, symmetrical, relaxed, immobile, facing me. His wavy caramel hair pressed into my pillow, toned chest rising and falling with his breathing. I was holding his right hand with my right and stroking his arm with my left, tracing the tattooed crow, the snake, the skull. His dark lashes were surprisingly long against his cheeks and I felt an unexpected pang of affection.
As he left he told me that
“tomorrow night you’ll have to come to my place instead; I have air conditioning.”
He kissed me goodbye.
“See you soon,” he said.
he’d been the first person to see my body since it had been tarnished it wasn’t beautiful to him I think it was a machine
And then he disappeared, popping up on my phone two weeks later, as I was on the bus to work, to say that he was over it, had moved on.
I think rejection hits you harder
but passes twice as fast
when you’ve suffered physical abuse at the hands of a man.
That was the very beginning of August.
It’s February now.
I haven’t been with anyone since.
Man, do I hate typing that. Like I’m embarrassed to say that. But I’m not good at meeting people at clubs or bars, and I haven’t really been able to use dating apps, because I can’t trust random strangers online – hell, my rapist was someone I’d known for years – and maybe I’m holding myself back, I don’t know. But I have tried. There are men in my life with whom I have (or have had) visceral physical connections. And so I’ve explored some avenues. None of them have panned out.
And I keep thinking back to that one guy, who used me not because he couldn’t do better, not because I was sexy to him, but because he wanted to feel a little bit less alone for a sec.
I know I’m supposed to be confident all on my own. I know. I’m supposed to tell myself all the time that I’m beautiful. And I do try. But there’s always that one day a week that I can’t do it for myself, that I need that validation from somebody else because yeah, maybe society tells us we need it, but also because I’m damn tired of having to do all the work alone, because at least if someone else says it it’s real and not just something I’m telling myself and trying to believe.
For a while I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror. I’d work out and eat well and still hate what I saw. When I put on makeup and nice clothes I felt like a kid playing dressup.
she looks ridiculous who does she think she’s fooling everyone can see through that
I could feel the self-loathing and I’d try to push it down and then my mind would go all wow, fuck, Sophie, maybe if you wanted yourself a little bit more, someone else would want you too.
I don’t know.
am I paying for something I did wrong? don’t I deserve something good? don’t I deserve a really fucking magical kiss?
Here’s the thing, guys. It’s gonna be incredibly hard to get back in the game after you go through anything like this. That’s normal. It’s natural not to understand, to scream, to cry about the unfairness of it all. It’s not going to be fixed with meds or with a therapist or with just ‘time.’ It will be frustrating and confusing and you will feel amazing one week and terrible the next because it is not linear and it will keep living with you somehow, in some way. It doesn’t get easier – we just get stronger.
At some point, however long it takes for you, you’re gonna maybe be ready to try again and things just might not go your way, and keep not going your way, and you can’t figure out why, and that might devastate you. Because no matter in what vein the rejection lives (romantic, sexual, professional, friendly) it will seem, to you, like proof that you don’t deserve good things. It doesn’t feel like what it is – a blip, or a necessary evil, or rite of passage. It’s another weight shoved into the gaping gash in your chest. It’s someone hitting you when you’re down, when you’ve been down for what feels like years. It’s someone taking a chainsaw to your legs when you’re just learning to walk.
Each one depletes you just a tiny bit more and you are probably going to feel like the loneliest person on the planet and I need you to know I’m there too, in that place, and I don’t understand it either. I have to tell myself it gets better, but I truly think it does. It just takes a long fucking time.
I know I need to keep looking for ways out.
You can tell me the men, the friends, the companies who’ve let me down are stupid, childish, whatever, but I can’t shake the feeling that somehow they knew that I’m damaged, used, fucked up. That that fact repulsed them.
I want to be enough for somebody else – I’m aching to feel that kind of gratification – but I want to be enough for me, first, and I haven’t been able to figure out how to get there.
I know I’m young, and I’m in my physical prime, and I want to feel good about that.
Everyone says I’m “seeming so much better,” but I can feel this helplessness rising up in me, this knowledge that I don’t have it all figured out yet, that I’m still so weak and flawed.
how do I make myself fully better, how do I make my body match my mind how do I fill this empty space in me where there should be positivity about myself
I don’t want to eat my feelings. I don’t want to drown myself in alcohol. I don’t want to try drugs. I know self-destructive behaviour is something a lot, a lot, a lot of people in my position do.
But I was always kind of fascinated with photography, with models. To yield that kind of control over the camera, so that it fawns over you, so that it highlights your cheekbones and your eyes and tells you how pretty you are without saying a word.
I’ve had several people over the past year or so ask me if I’d let them take my pictures. I’ve never felt fully comfortable with it.
Until recently, when a friend of mine, who takes photos in his free time, asked me if I’d like to shoot. I’d seen his stuff (it was odd, sexy, artistic) and I was curious. I knew the shoot would happen on my own terms and I wondered how I’d look from an objective lens – from not me, not men, but from this camera.
It was a rainy Monday afternoon. I was nervous, but only because I thought I’d look awkward trying to pose when I’d never modeled before. The photographer picked out a few outfits for me, out of my own clothing – white shirts, black pants – and we did several shots. On stairs, sitting on the floor, in an empty bathtub.
Then he asked me, tentatively.
“Do you mind taking off the white shirt? If you don’t want to, you don’t need to at all. What are your boundaries?”
So we talked them through. I felt comfortable without the shirt, I said, but not doing any nudity. My black bralette felt just like wearing a bikini top. I was feeling self-conscious about my arms, because I always do, but beyond that, I felt completely at ease.
And, as we kept the shoot going, for the first time in what seemed like forever, I found myself feeling strong.
Like I didn’t have to be afraid of being alone with another human. Like I didn’t have to worry about giving someone ‘the wrong impression.’ I could be there, wearing a bra, and we were just making art together. I almost wanted to cry with relief. I was here, semi-exposed, with someone I trusted, in this environment of mutual respect and understanding, hearing validating encouragement and feeling brave (arms and all).
It made me realize I had power over this camera, over this shot, over my own representation. It made me realize I have power inside me. That I can do things. That I don’t need to crawl into my self-made cocoon of sadness and feel sorry for myself every day.
The rest of that day was a dream. I felt giddy. I’d done something, in a controlled, safe environment that had scared me but not harmed me – a photoshoot, my first. My communication with the photographer had been entirely two-sided and I know he wouldn’t have minded had I preferred to keep that white shirt on. But I felt so freaking good.
And the photos came out great. Most were of me in the white shirt. I looked badass, and strong, and my bone structure was on point. There were a few of me in the bralette, which I mentally prepped myself for – what would my body look like? Was I making stupid faces?
And then there was one. My arms are up on a pullup bar, and I am looking left, to the photographer, my body angled slightly away from him. It’s sexy, no doubt about it. Sultry. My psychiatrist told me, when I showed it to her, that it looked to her like an “edgy boudoir shot.” She also told me she thought I looked beautiful.
And guys, I can’t remember the last time I saw a photo of me that took my own breath away. This one did that and more. I was so immensely proud of how it had turned out, of how with no touchups, rife with imperfections, my body and my face and my whole self could still be stunning. It made me forget all the rejection-born self-loathing. It made me forget all the showers I had to take after my rape. For so long my body had just felt like a thing that was connected to me – it didn’t feel like it gave me life, or that it was capable of miracles, or that it could bring me pleasure. It was just a thing. And after that photo, my body felt, finally, like it had caught up with the changes in my mind and soul. Like it had reinvented itself and come out on my terms and under my rules. Like it was mine again.
It’s hard to even fully explain why it made me feel as good about myself as it did. My psychiatrist thinks it’s because it’s the first time since the rape I’ve really had an opportunity to own my sexuality and be proud of it.
I’ve been chronicling my process and progress on my Instagram page and on a whim, I decided to post that photo. I knew it toed the line, and was a little more intense than what I usually posted, but it was angled, and it was just the top half of my torso, and my face was normal and relaxed, and you know what, it’s my account, and it’s my body.
It was me reminding myself, and the world (i.e. my carefully-selected followers on my private profile on a social network with which I’m very familiar) that you can look, but you can’t touch. That my wearing what I choose to wear is not an advertisement; that what I wear is not an invitation for you or for anyone. To insinuate that it is is to victim-blame.
My body is mine, and only mine, and I can do with it what I damn well please. Especially if what I damn well please is a safe and empowering way to reclaim my agency.
I ended up deleting the photo because I was made to feel guilt and shame about it – how ironic, that the photo that dispelled those emotions from my mind was the one that ushered them back in – but I think I’ll put it up again.
And I’m sharing it here now. Because yes, like the other things I’ve shared, I could keep it to myself, but I think it’s important for hurting women out there to know that they are still beautiful and that they deserve to celebrate the things that make them feel good. Because it’s so incredibly hard to feel good after what we’ve gone through. Because this photo is not about sex. It’s not about promiscuity. It’s about me. It’s about learning how to love myself again.
If feeling sexy empowers you after rape, own that. If it doesn’t, own that too. How you choose to make yourself feel safe, and to heal yourself, is entirely your prerogative. I am very grateful for the people who look out for my health and wellbeing. But I am my own woman, and need everyone to know that I need their patience and their listening ear sooner than I ever need their judgment – especially since a lot of what I do and who I am is a result of this experience, which, like I said, is something we’re both going through for the first time together.
After getting my head back on the right track what I’ve needed more than anything was to feel desirable again. Was to be able to see myself as a sexually-viable woman again, to stop thinking of myself as a fucked-up girl who was ruined at age 22 and whose self-loathing threatened every day to overwhelm her. To make my own decisions about my life and to retrieve that bit of my soul that was missing, that part that wanted to believe that I wouldn’t be just young and lonely forever. To believe, to know, that someday somebody would want me again – because I could want myself again.
And this photo, it was stunning and it was sultry and it was poetic and it was magic. It did all of those things for me. Thanks to a photoshoot I did 451 days after I was raped, I’m one massive, positive step closer to knowing who I am now. To finding the new me. And I won’t be ashamed of that.