“Like any other life form, it just wants to survive,” Carl Fichtenbaum explained about the novel coronavirus. The infectious disease specialist and professor of clinical medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine admits that we’re still learning about the virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.
But one thing we do know is that the virus is not a killer. Rather, the body’s response is what’s deadly.
When the coronavirus infects, experts say the immune system tries to stop it from spreading by waging a scorched earth defense that inadvertently weakens vital organs. That “defense” is the killer.
This pandemic-creating virus may be new, but harm caused by the body’s desperation to survive is not. I know this because I’ve lived it.
As a sexual assault survivor and former sexual violence counselor, I have an intimate understanding of how the body can self-destruct in an effort to protect itself.
I was seventeen years old—the first time. The assault didn’t last long but the ensuing damage took years away from me. While others were making life-long friends and lasting memories during their freshman year of college, my free time was spent in baggy sweatshirts and bulky sweats, controlling everything I ate and pushing myself on the elliptical for hours at a time. Heart palpitations and occasionally collapsing couldn’t stop me. My body was coping. It was shedding any semblance of the female form in hopes that androgyny would ward off another assault.
My body was wrong. It also nearly killed me.
Like the immune system battling the novel coronavirus, my body tried to heal in an unhealthy way—which is typical for survivors of sexual violence. From substance abuse to post-traumatic stress to suicide, survivors’ bodies instinctively look to cope through means that are destructive to the physical form. Eating disorders too are common.
“After he was done, he said he picked me because he liked ‘thicker’ girls. I’m sure you can guess what I did after that,” said Bianca, a bubbly 24-year-old Colorado-native who battled anorexia for years after a family friend raped her when she was fourteen.
Looking back, Bianca feels her body betrayed her. But she also appreciates that it was part of her body’s coping process. “It’s like you’re on auto-pilot.”
Sexual violence changes you in a way that is destructive and often indescribable. A part of you dies. What’s left learns to merely exist as fragments of the soul you once were, trapped in a body that is yours no more.
Unlike this coronavirus, however, sexual assault is not novel. It’s also not an epidemic. It is endemic—a natural and enduring aspect of many individuals’ lives. In the U.S., an adult is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds, according to RAINN. That’s approximately 433,648 survivors each year who are fighting off self-destruction, simply trying to survive.
What’s also unique about sexual violence is that survivors need not be physically impacted for the harm to take hold. The threat of victimization alone is powerful enough to force the body into survival mode, to convince the host that she must adapt to survive.
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Lana, a 23-year-old native of Germany, says her first time being sexually harassed stays with her, impacting her daily life.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” she said. Lana was fifteen years old, waiting for her mother in a train station parking lot when a man suddenly exposed himself and sexually propositioned her. The five-foot-ten classically trained dancer fled, running across traffic, barely escaping being hit by cars. After that, Lana changed her appearance, hiding behind ill-fitting clothes. Her problems, however, persisted.
“If I dress like my brother, I get bullied… If I dress like a girl, I get harassed. What are you supposed to do?”
There is no answer for Lana. No magical fix will end sexual violence or guarantee survivors safety. But the body doesn’t know that—just as it doesn’t know not to ravage vital organs in the process of fighting COVID-19. Ultimately, it’s all about survival.
The new coronavirus has brought survival to the forefront of the conscience of many. Still, we do a disservice by not acknowledging those who were fighting to survive before the pandemic and will continue to fight after it passes.
As April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, this piece celebrates the bodies of women who have overcome sexual violence. These nameless and faceless figures have fought off self-destruction, embracing their physical essence and reclaiming their bodies as their own. Like any other life form, they just wanted to survive.
Given that, when I had the opportunity to do a thesis for my graduate degree in journalism this spring, I was moved to capture the images of women who had survived sexual violence and its cruel aftermath. The women I sat down with and subsequently photographed were as bold and unapologetic when sharing their stories with me as their respective assailants were in trying to take away their dignity.
We all have a story.
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