“Why do you paint naked women?”
This is a story about processing sexual trauma. Through sharing my journey, I hope others will feel encouraged to heal.
At the onset of quarantine, I started to paint portraits of nude women. Now, I often get the question “Why Do You Paint Naked Women?” For a while, I didn’t know the answer. I knew I was captivated by the female form. I knew other subjects felt less compelling. I knew, or at
least vaguely understood, there was a link between my art and my sexuality. It wasn’t until watching the controversial and shocking scene from Borat Subsequent Moviefilm that I felt the connection between painting nude women and a dark event from my past.
I’ve grown accustomed to sharing intimate parts of myself online through my writing on love and relationships, but I never planned to share this. This is a story I’ve only discussed with a select few people in my life. There are deeply personal aspects. There are parts I’m not proud of. I am sharing now because I believe we as humans are connected, understood, and restored when we find a relational home for our experiences; a safe space in others where painful memories can be shared and held. I seek this home for myself, and I hope readers who have undergone similar trauma may find a relational home in my writing.
Four years ago I was sexually assaulted by a masseuse.
Before that moment, I saw myself as empowered. I saw myself as indomitable. I thought I was the sort of woman who would never let someone take advantage of her. How naive and, frankly, offensive.
I thought I was empowered. And yet, during the assault, I was utterly paralyzed with fear and confusion. I’d received dozens of massages in the past where clear and objective lines were never crossed. Still, my reaction was to question myself. In a lapse of reason, my thoughts sought to excuse or explain his behavior: Is this normal?, Am I overreacting? and most horrifying, What if this is just a different style of massage? Would I offend him by asking him to stop? The situation escalated much too far and went on for far too long before I surfaced from paralysis to make an escape.
Immediately afterward, I called an ex-boyfriend with whom I was still close. I remember repeating over and over again, “Don’t worry, I’m fine. It’s OK.” I spoke these false declarations like a shield against the power an awful moment threatened to wield over me. Of course, my ex-boyfriend was worried, I was not fine, it was not OK, and it would define me in ways I continue to discover, painfully, over the following years.
In the year that followed, shame engulfed me and suffocated my voice. Shame that I didn’t check Yelp for reputability before walking into the massage parlor. Shame that I didn’t turn around when I noticed the only employee in the building was a man. Shame that I didn’t immediately cry out when a line was crossed. Shame that my escape didn’t take the form of “How dare you, you monster!” but instead, “I’m late to something, I have to go.” Shame that I paid the man who had just assaulted me before leaving. Worst of all, shame that I never reported him or the parlor. This last shame is the only shame I still live with. I’ve since tried to find the massage parlor with no success. It is either no longer or never was listed.
I am far from alone. A 2018 study on sexual harassment and assault reports 51% of women have experienced unwelcome sexual touching, and 27% have experienced sexual assault. In 2017, Massage Envy alone was the target of 180 womens’ accusations of groping and other sexual acts.
The first time I felt the assault’s unwelcome imprint on my body was the first time I had sex after it happened.
Six months passed. I moved back across the country to sunny Santa Barbara, California. Occasionally, flashes of the assault would intrude my mind, like a searing memory iron packing ten times the punch of my most embarrassing memories. But, aside from these seemingly random, unbidden flashbacks, I thought I was fully recovered.
Throughout the weeks leading up to this intimacy, I’d enjoyed the flirtation and building anticipation. When we finally did have sex, I dissociated. I’ve often heard people describe dissociative experiences as though they are floating above their bodies, watching themselves from the outside. I felt like my mind retreated into a dark, tiny room in my brain where I could witness my body’s experience as an apathetic observer. Internally I was completely numb, while externally, I had sex I not only consented to, but had been looking forward to for weeks. Despite the eagerness I had felt, I found myself unexpectedly, uncharacteristically cold.
In retrospect, the highest recovery hurdle was admitting I needed to recover. I thought, by insisting I was unaffected, I could refuse both the event and the sexual predator any power over me. In fact, it was precisely this act of denial that held me back from the first healing step: recognizing that I have a problem. Once I accepted my problem, I could convey my reality to my partner, which helped me stay engaged and connected in the moment.
The next time I felt the assault’s lurking presence was during an otherwise run-of-the-mill, family political debate. The disagreement escalated into an all-out screaming match complete with expletives and accusations I wish I could take back. It would take me years of reflection and trauma education to see that what felt like justified rage was actually an outsized reaction driven by the uncontrollable manifestation of trauma in my body.
Cut to October 24th, 2020. I’m in my San Francisco apartment watching Borat Subsequent Moviefilm with my roommates. I think Sacha Baron Cohen’s fearless comedic sensibility is both stressful and hilarious. With so much riding on the upcoming election, his satire and political exposition through the medium of improv comedy evoked an uncommon combination of adrenaline and delight.
Leading up to the controversial scene, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. As the scene begins, Borat’s 15-year-old daughter, Tutar (played by 24-year-old actress Maria Bakalova), flirts with prominent politician Rudy Giuliani during a journalistic interview. As the scene progressed my heart began to race. I sunk deeper into our couch. I pulled a pillow into my lap. My back started to sweat. Near the scene’s end, right before Borat rescues Tutar, I audibly gasped when Giuliani laid back on his bed and put his hand down his pants. I know this wasn’t the last scene in the movie, but I honestly couldn’t tell you what happened afterward because I don’t remember.
While I felt pinned to the cushion beneath me, one of my roommates got up with ease and switched off the television to get ready for bed. This was my first clue something was off. Noticing my distress, my roommates reassured me both actors had made public statements about their safety during and after filming the scene. Though well-meaning, these comments did little, if anything, to calm me down. None of us understood that, at that moment, my body was involuntarily reliving a traumatic experience from 2016.
I have completed courses focused on identifying traumatic responses. I have read several books about the physical effects of trauma (I strongly recommend Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score). I still didn’t see it in myself for nearly an hour. I’ve never been triggered by film or television content before. Previously, I’ve known characters were portrayed by actors supported by film crews to ensure their safety. Perhaps the awareness of the actual risk Bakalova faced while filming the revealing, improvised scene is what ultimately triggered me. This scene felt real to me because it was. It was real for Bakalova and for my body.
I tried to calm down by reading a book. It must have taken me 10 minutes to realize I’d been rereading the same page, completely incapable of focusing. When I closed the book, I realized I wasn’t operating from the logical part of my brain: the neocortex. I was in fight or flight mode, all systems firing in my limbic system. I remembered it’s nearly impossible to think your way out of this activated state; it’s better to move. I popped in headphones, selected the Pride and Prejudice movie soundtrack (a personal favorite), and started to pace around the living room. Finally, my eyes caught a painting I’d been working on the past few days, and I forced myself to pick up the brush. Within minutes, the tension in my head eased, muscles relaxed, and my heart finally slowed. Each stroke was a tiny reclamation of agency over my body.