Boundaries: Trauma, Intimacy & Art Therapy

April 3, 2021

Reading Time: 6 minutes

There is no soft way to put it into words when you have been sexually abused as a child, how that defined your sexuality and messed up your perception of friendship and intimacy. You can only become aware of it, accept it, hate it, hate everyone, use people, feel guilty about it, start the pattern all over again, and then finally take your life back.

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I was seven when my twenty-year-old cousin, he made me think we were just playing a game. I don’t know if I trusted him—does the concept of trust exist until it has been broken? I just automatically did what he told me, which was not much. It took me few years to realize what he’d done to me; it wasn’t shocking, it was a slow trauma creeping up on me. I don’t think it was painful either. I don’t remember. When I understood, at the age of sixteen I think, I broke down and everything changed and my whole sexual life was defined by desperately craving love by pushing everyone away, if they treated me with respect.

After the first painful and humiliating realization, I promised to myself that I wouldn’t allow my life to be defined or limited by what happened. I had no control, I know, but I aggressively moved to the opposite side by gaining all the control back and I forgot how to let go. If I couldn’t let go, I could not reach climax with the men I slept with. I faked it for years. I could not make myself so vulnerable in front of anyone, I could not give them so much control over me. It already happened once, I would think, and I didn’t want to be violated again.

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I thought I had it all together, and as a friend of mine—a psychologist and an ex partner, maybe the only older guy I’ve ever had a committed relationship with so far—told me: I probably did get through the trauma itself in my brain, but that surely shaped my idea of intimacy and what I wanted from men. Lately I’ve noticed there is always the same pattern with me dating younger and younger men, because they have less experience, because I am more in control, and then I complain that they cannot make a decision, that they can’t take care of me the way I could take care of them. That was painful and scary to realize. What is left of me then? Did anyone I’ve been with so far matter or was it me looking for my cousin, telling me to play a game without then betraying me? How can someone betray you if they don’t know what betrayal is? The abuse and my fear of men confused me about my sexual orientation, too. I used to identify as bisexual and only now at the age of thirty I can say it to myself without feeling scared or guilty, because I know I love women (and all the other genders) based on a chemical and emotional, spontaneous and natural responses, and not because they have never harmed me unlike some men did. So many times I questioned myself and deprecated myself for what I felt, only because there was something unprocessed and—I know my friends tell me not to use this word—damaged; anyway, what has been damaged can be repaired, and using the words I feel like using gives me the freedom I didn’t have at the moment of abuse.

I am really fluid now, on a pansexual spectrum maybe, and this is the last chapter in which my gender matters. I just came out as non-binary neutral, not because I want to get rid of who I am, but because I am everything. I look back and everything makes sense: since I was five, or four, or when I was born, when I didn’t even have defined genitals in my mother’s womb—no one can take that away, no one can give that to me. I can only claim it when I’m ready, and I am. Oh I am so ready to be myself.

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The photos you see in this series are of my band mates Harry, Charlie, and James; these three people are respectful and loving human beings and were also the most terrifying-to-me creatures as I never let their predecessors get so close without getting somehow sexual. I always thought that if there’s intimacy, there is sexual tension, and maybe there is but it doesn’t have to take over my life, it doesn’t have to ruin a friendship. I still need to be careful in saying this because I am good at jumping from one end to the other; so sometimes a friendship can turn into romanticism, and that’s beautiful. I should just stop being a victim of that pattern because of what I learned at the age of seven, and I should make my considerations in a purer way, if I can. I may still fail, with gusto, but fearing that shall not stop me.

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I wanted to photograph men I trusted. I wanted to photograph friends, and I wanted to portray them as I see them, which isn’t too different from how I see women through my lens. I have a really intimate approach and I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world. It’s a safe way to explore myself and get to know someone and it works. I wanted to shoot men the way I shoot women—softly, respectfully, sensually—and if I can get so close to women without ending up having sex with them, I can do the same with men. The amount of information I gained from this shoot, which transpired in the range of two hours and in a separate room for each subject, is a lot and it’s warming my heart, because I can see that while men too can be fragile and vulnerable, they will still trust you if you open up. Not everyone is here to use me. Now I know. And I owe everything to photography and music, it’s not the first time I’ve cured myself through these elements. I love my band mates to pieces and part of that love comes from unknown spots of my broken heart, but most of it is a conscious decision and a lot of work in my bleeped-up brain. Gender really doesn’t matter and it’s thanks to that discovery that they now get the purest version of me. I will be eternally grateful for the existence of these three people in my life.

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I know one thing above everything. There’s still a lot of work I need to do and get done, but I have advice I’d give to any victim or survivor of abuse: don’t let anyone, not even a therapist, tell you who you are or what you should do because only you know! If you don’t know, you’ll figure it out. You’re already in the process, you are reading this because something is touched, and you are not alone. Shame is not yours to manage because there is nothing to be ashamed of. You can only accept your pain until it devours you to death, at which point you can be reborn. Surround yourself with real friends, not the ones who know everything about you yet still want to be your friends—the ones who only know so much but the more they discover, the more they love you.

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