The first time I got a tattoo, I was 18. It was on my foot and I got it on a teenage whim, for no particular reason other than I wanted one. Even though I no longer lived with my mom, I made sure it was something small and discreet enough that I could hide it from her forever. I felt that while she was not the owner, she was at least a majority stakeholder of my body, and so I assumed that she would never forgive me for permanently “damaging” it.
Since then, my relationship with tattoos has changed. They have helped me heal from the pain of sexual assault.
When I was raped almost a decade ago, I was convinced that my drink had been spiked. The idea that I had been drugged allowed me to free myself from blame in a society that very often blames the victim because they drank too much, or their clothes were too enticing. My drinks were very likely not spiked, and I wish I could recognize back then that, even if I was not drugged, what happened to me was inexcusable.
It makes me sad that I felt that the only thing that could make the sexual assault of my body “truly unacceptable” was if I had been drugged. It wasn’t enough that all I could remember of the encounter was me, in a car, crying and yelling “Stop!” while trying to push this man away from me. It wasn’t enough that, the morning after, my underwear was stained with blood and my body sore from the violation. None of these things were enough to keep me from blaming myself.
Why has it been so hard to accept that it wasn’t my fault? Because society tends to have empathy only for the victims they like — chaste women who were not “dressed like sluts,” who were not drunk, who were not putting themselves in “risky situations.” All the rest, they say, kinda had it coming.
The morning after I was raped, I went on a weekend trip with friends. I ignored the physical pain — the emotional pain was yet to come — packed my bag and went for it hard. I went on a three-day bender of drugs and alcohol. At some point, I found myself in a car, again, this time in the middle seat, and was vigorously kissing the two men on either side of me. That was my first sloppy attempt at regaining control over my sexuality, over my body. I found this behavior quite odd. Victims of sexual violence, I thought, are supposed to cry and be devastated and perhaps never want to touch a man again. But here I was, kissing not one but two men, not even 24 hours after I was sexually assaulted. I was probably trying to separate myself from the image of the sad, defeated victim who has been destroyed by the aggressor — not me, I thought. I am stronger than that.
The fact that I did not feel as though I fit this model of the sad, defeated victim made me question a lot of things in the following years: Had I really been sexually assaulted? Why was my reaction to party hard, take copious amounts of drugs and alcohol, and kiss random men? Did my friends believe me? Had my “slutty” behavior during that trip delegitimized my claims of sexual assault?
Society makes so many claims on women’s bodies and identities: Women should be skinny, white, hairless and with a cis vagina. Women should not be sexual, but it is okay to sexualize them. They should not wear “provocative” clothes, but also nothing too “prudish.” Women should not have abortions, but men are entitled to sex. It is socially acceptable to police women’s bodies, behaviors and attitudes. We live with these pressures, and most try hard to conform, even against our better judgment.
Once I started dealing with the trauma of sexual assault, some of those daily pressures on my body became acutely painful. When I fully acknowledged the violation of my body, it became an open wound, and each one of those societal expectations of my body added to the pain. Every time that anyone tried to enforce a claim on my body, it triggered an alarm in my brain, in my body, in my soul — an alarm that sounded just like those memories of me trapped in a car, trying to protect myself from a man who thought that my body was his for the taking. This medley of emotional distress resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Suddenly, all those intrusive behaviors and unwanted opinions, which I could have been able to resist or deal with at a different time, became fuel for my pain.
A few years ago, my mom offered to pay off my student debt if I took out all my piercings and promised never to get a tattoo again. Around the same time, I had a boss who insisted I keep doing a certain type of risky work with which I was not comfortable. And a few months after that, a man at an optician’s shop felt the urge to tell me, unsolicited, that the glasses I loved and planned on buying looked awful on me. None of these acts were remotely similar in outcome or intention to the sexual violence I experienced, but my brain mushed things together: Very different violations of my bodily autonomy each worked like a handful of salt in the open wound of a violated body.
About a year ago, I got my first big tattoo, and it was a deliberate, liberating act. By marking it with something I’d chosen — a menacing, angry-looking, green-eyed jaguar on my back — I was branding my body as mine, and I needed that. It felt similar to that time in the car kissing two men, except this time I was regaining control over my body in a healthier way. I needed to feel my body was for me to enjoy, for me to embellish, for me to dress and undress, for me to live in and make a home of.
I’ve added other tattoos since, but the jaguar on my back remains my favorite. I have come to feel the way the jaguar looks: magnificently strong. I am the fierce guardian of my well-being, and I protect myself with the rage that being raped unleashed in me.
I don’t see the jaguar every day. Most days I rush in and out of clothes in the mundane, mechanical way we all do. But sometimes, when I catch a glimpse in a mirror, I feel empowered all over again. I can almost feel the vibrations of its defensive roar. Its overprotective scowl reminds me that my body is not adrift or unguarded: I have claimed it and I have vowed to protect, respect and love it, above all.