My Body Back

Trigger warning – sexual violence

My Body Back Project was started by Pavan Amara as a space where survivors of sexual assault can speak and share experiences and thoughts about their body and sexuality after sexual violence. She tells us why the project is so important, and what needs to come next…

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My Body Back by Pavan Amara

Recently, I started a project I wish had existed when I needed it most. It didn’t, so I started it myself.

In March, I started My Body Back Project, a project that explores the way survivors of sexual violence feel about their bodies, sex, and sexual health. There’s no easy way to describe why I started it. Rape left me hating my body. It’s not fashionable to admit this in our society – because apparently women should ‘get over it’. But I didn’t get over it, and I don’t believe I ever will.

Years on, it no longer controls me, but it still has the power to disrupt everything. To this day, the way it left me feeling about my body can dictate the clothes I choose to wear, the relationships I have and don’t have, feeling desperately vulnerable when I walk through a room full of people if my clothes aren’t loose, and even if I go to the doctor. That’s not because I am weak, that is the truth.

I am not alone. Since starting the project hundreds of female survivors have written in about how they feel about their bodies and about sex after rape. One woman wrote she developed anorexia because she “wanted her body to disappear”; another woman wrote about self-harming genitally after being raped to “scrape away every bit of him”; another opted for a caesarean rather than a vaginal delivery when giving birth to her son – because she couldn’t bear the flashbacks that came with doctors and nurses touching her during labour.

Soon, the project will be beginning monthly workshops for survivors of sexual violence at Sh! Women’s Emporium, which is the UK’s first and only women’s sex shop. These will be for women to explore their sexuality again in a safe environment. We will be discussing masturbation, sex with a partner, and orgasm – things that can be terrifying after experiencing violence. But these workshops will be about supporting women who are ready to connect with their body and sexuality again.

Two weeks after starting the project, I began speaking to survivors about their experience of healthcare. I was overwhelmed at the response. A significant number of women spoke of experiencing flashbacks during labour and had experienced incredibly insensitive attitudes from staff when they told them this. Another woman was told she was “lucky” as a nurse examined her the day after she was raped – apparently the nurse had seen “far worse injuries on other women”. Another woman had a nurse shout she was “wasting staff time” when she burst into tears during a gynaecological exam. Nearly every woman I spoke to had her story to tell.

For all these reasons, the project is now campaigning for a compulsory module on working with survivors of sexual violence in all healthcare degrees. As these women’s stories reveal, there are too many doctors, nurses, and midwives who don’t have a clue about working with survivors sensitively. We’re in the early stages and I know it will be an uphill battle, but it needs to be done. Statistically, every hospital ward and GP practice in this country will work with dozens of survivors of sexual violence every day. According to the Ministry of Justice’s figures, 1 in 5 women has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. These figures do not include the women too scared to speak about it, or those sexually abused in childhood.

Later, I interviewed around 30 female survivors about their experiences of smear tests. I did this because I have never had the courage to have one. I have attempted to several times, and each time had to deal with terrifying flashbacks of rape. It may sound strange, but the thought of someone being in control of my body again was an impossible one. As I began speaking to other survivors, again, I discovered I was not alone. One woman told me she would “rather get cervical cancer than go for a smear test, because it’s like being raped again”; another said “the worry of a smear test and the flashbacks happening was worse than the worry of getting cervical cancer”; others said well-meaning phrases used by health professionals unintentionally echoed the words of their rapists. One woman was repeatedly told to “relax” while the nurse tried to insert the speculum during the smear test – something the rapist told her throughout the rape. She could not go ahead with the test, and has avoided them since.

Nearly all the women said they wanted cervical screening for their own peace of mind, but simply couldn’t go through with it given the time constraints of a conventional nurse’s appointment. Women spoke of an ideal place they could have screening that was specifically for survivors of sexual violence, where they would not have to explain their history, it would be explained by their presence. They spoke of wanting to control the environment they had their test in – being able to play soothing music in the background, wanting comforting pictures on the walls to focus on, being able to burn relaxing oils in the room. They wanted a room to ground themselves in before and after the test “because it was an emotional experience, not just a medical one.” One woman, who has not had a smear test in over two decades, said she would go ahead with it if she could book a series of appointments. One to insert the speculum halfway, another to insert it fully, and another for the test.

I am working with two fantastic nurses at the moment, and we want to set up a clinic like this for survivors of sexual violence, where their needs come first. We are now looking for a venue with smear testing equipment, which would allow us to use their facilities once a month. One monthly clinic won’t have the capacity to see many women, but we need to make this a reality. It may save a life, it may not, but it would give survivors what they need – the sensitivity, care, and peace of mind their bodies deserve.

And that is why I started My Body Back Project.