Learning to Reclaim My Body

What are you doing?

My brain is foggy, I think my eyes are closed. Yes, they’re closed. He slides his hand down, under my shirt, under my bra.

He thinks I’m sleeping.

But I’m not. I remember: all these thoughts come back to me, much later, having lived for so long in some kind of repressed memory prison. I know there are plenty that I will never remember. Maybe I lack the courage to face, or can’t bring myself to dwell on the past. It’s something I’ve never been good at. I tend to look forward.

There’s zero doubt in my mind that all my girlfriends have the same stories I do. Even if they’ve never shared them – I share everything with them, and I never said anything about my own experiences.

It took me ten years to realize what happened was wrong: the less obvious ones, the way I was able to let my internalized misogyny justify their actions. In a society like this, it’s been normalized for so long – it’s not normal.

See, my body should belong to me. But most of the time, it doesn’t. It belongs to cat-callers, oglers, men who see something they like and feel entitled to touch. I’m not a piece of art to admire, or deconstruct. Art has never lived in fear, walked faster at night, tried to placate its way out of a dangerous situation.

I try not to think about it on a daily basis. All the incidents, things that have happened, things I regret that are not (were never) my fault. I lock it up with the past, I lean into the future. Maybe it’s not healthy. I don’t mean to say, I bottle things up – I don’t. But I can’t live in the get-out / stop-looking / don’t-touch of it all.

This is my only confession. I’ve never told anyone, never named it “assault” – never felt ready. Maybe it hurts, maybe I’m afraid at what’s possible, who’s capable: that so many were friends, good friends. I guess “friends” – sometimes you only recognize what was broken when looking back. At the time, I acted like nothing had happened. But #MeToo is not a catchphrase, it’s not a trend. It’s a cry for help from this bleeding, broken system. Our relationship with each other needs to heal. It’s not enough to teach consent, respect, if we can’t feel. Compassion, empathy, standing together.

I believe people are good. I’ve always come from a place of trust: that’s my natural setting. I think the world is fundamentally good – flawed, but good. Maybe this is why I never thought twice about my surroundings, about being the only woman in a group of guys, about being alone with someone. I’d often felt more comfortable than I did around other women. I never worried, never felt unsafe, thought there was an implicit trust in the bond of friendship.

This is my only confession. I’ve never told anyone, never named it “assault” – never felt ready. Maybe it hurts, maybe I’m afraid at what’s possible, who’s capable: that so many were friends, good friends.

There’s zero doubt in my mind that all my girlfriends have the same stories I do. Even if they’ve never shared them – I share everything with them, and I never said anything about my own experiences. So with all the stories we’ve been hearing in the news, on social media, about sexual harassment, assault, toxic masculinity – we have to know it’s the tip of the iceberg. There are many women who will never feel comfortable enough to tell their stories.

Maybe because it’s hard to admit: good people can be monsters, too.

This is partly why it took me so long to recognize what had happened.

I never knew. We often grow up to fear the stranger, the serial rapist, the killer-on-the-loose. I’ve had my fair share of stranger danger – but was never taught how those closest to us can hurt us the same way. Or maybe worse.

It’s difficult to acknowledge that harm can present itself in shiny paper, that you can mistake foe for ally.

It’s late one night, and we’ve all been drinking. We’re at someone’s house and we’re tired from the party. Everyone is passing out, I’m on the couch with two of my friends. Falling asleep. No one else is awake. We are all scattered, dozing. He thinks I’m sleeping. He gropes me. I freeze. Pretend to be asleep. I don’t understand. I’m confused and don’t know what to do. In the morning, we all leave. But not before he hugs me goodbye.

One of the most innocuous examples. But why? Why do you feel entitled to touch someone else’s body? It doesn’t belong to you. You completely remove their autonomy, their choice, their self-governing, when you violate their space and touch without consent. It wouldn’t seem like an impossible concept to grasp – in fact, could there be anything more common-sense?

But there is a fundamental lack of understanding that needs to be addressed. These are not always the creepy, stalker-y, or lewd behaviours of someone you’d intuitively stay well clear of. They can be people you’ve known for years, that you get along famously with, that you laugh with, and agree with, and maybe even love.

Sometimes it takes the form of crude, obvious comments – looking back, I can’t believe the things I failed to see. One of them saying things like:

You would like it.

But others were a complete dichotomy, a study in contrast. It’s hard to imagine something more insidious, than when it’s housed in a caring, warm, respectful, feminist human. Someone who can be so aware of boundaries, of consent, of listening to others. And yet… and yet.

It’s hard to say why they all felt entitled to my body. I won’t pretend to have any answers here. I’m only here to say it’s my body.

My body.

I don’t know why, to them, no meant yes. Why, in our society, this is normalized, has been normalized for so long. Why I thought “everything is fine” as the world around me burned.

Believe, always believe survivors, NO MATTER WHAT.

But I know what to do now.

It’s time to reclaim my body.

What we do now is fight, for ourselves, for others. Stand tall. Be who you are, and live in your truth. Listen to stories that have never been told. Believe, always believe survivors, NO MATTER WHAT. Speak out, if you can, and speak out on behalf of those who can’t or aren’t ready to tell their own stories.

Our bodies are our own.

-Jesse Holth

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Jesse Holth is a freelance writer and editor based in the Pacific
Northwest. Her writing has been featured in over half a dozen
international publications, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming
in Marathon Literary Review, Canada Quarterly, Mantra Review, Barzakh
Magazine, and others. She is currently working on two full-length
collections.