How Pole Dancing Helped Me Reclaim My Sexuality After Sexual Assault

Posted on 09 April 2018

 

Trigger Warning: the following content contains reference to rape and sexual assault and may not be suitable for all audiences.

By Emerson White

“I’m worthless.”  Those were the words I told my husband, (at-the-time boyfriend) after I was raped.  It was the unfiltered truth as I saw it hours after a coworker drugged and assaulted me multiple times in his home.  Some of it I couldn’t remember, and some of it happened the morning after, when I woke in a drugged stupor, aware enough to understand what was happening, but still too out of it to really put any force behind my “no,” much less fight back.  I hated myself for not doing more, for not preventing it from happening, for the simple fact that this person had been inside my body when I didn’t want him there.  He did things to me that I simply couldn’t remember, things he made sure to tell me about after the fact, things I never would have agreed to had I not been unconscious.

Rape isn’t just something that happens in the moment.  It’s a fire that smolders long after the initial blistering pain of the act dies away.  Those glowing embers burn away certain good parts of you: the confidence, the sense of self, the feelings of worth and beauty, leaving bitter ashes of doubt, worthlessness, shame, and guilt behind.  

At nineteen, before the rape, I loved being in social settings.  I went to parties, loved dancing, and had a large group of friends, both male and female.  

At nineteen, after the rape, I began to have panic attacks at the thought of being around men.  It started with the thought of going to work.  I had to see my rapist every day.  I had begun to hear rumors about me, even before my assault, that only got worse after.  One morning, I lay in bed next to my husband (then-boyfriend,) my knees curled tightly up to my chest as I tried to quell the tight, twisting feeling in my stomach. I couldn’t bring myself to get up and go back.

“I’ll take care of your car payment for you,” my other half said.  “We can break the lease on your apartment and you can move in with me.  Just quit.  You shouldn’t have to be around that guy anymore.”

At nineteen, after the rape, I carefully and completely eliminated contact with previous male friends.  In fact, my entire circle of friends narrowed to a select few.  Any physical contact with men other than my dad or boyfriend made my palms sticky and my heart race.

At nineteen, before the rape, I was a vibrant young woman who reveled in her newfound sexuality.  I was a late bloomer.  Nobody in high school thought I was “sexy.” I was “cute,” or “pretty,” in a girl-next-door kind of way.  I graduated high school and my body developed subtle curves and everything changed.  I loved the feeling that came with being attractive to the opposite sex.  It was new and addictive territory.  I dressed to accentuate my body type, wearing cute skirts and snug shirts.

At nineteen, after the rape, I began subtly changing the way I dressed.  I did everything I could to avoid being associated with “sexiness.”  I stopped wearing short skirts and crop tops.  I began wearing tunic tops.  

I truly felt like my reactions were crazy.  It took me a long time to really accept that what I was going through was both real and legitimate, so I didn’t talk about what I was going through for years, instead internalizing it and doing my best to pretend everything was fine.  But everything was not fine; I had lost a huge part of myself, despite living in denial and convincing myself otherwise.  Being assaulted had damaged my ability to embrace my sexuality, creating a disconnect between me and this very important part of me that lasted for years.   

A few short months before twenty-nine, after the rape, I almost died.  It set off a chain of events that led to major life changes, but most importantly, I began to be more and more dissatisfied with this lingering, whispering voice inside of me that whispered that sexiness was “asking for it.”  I wanted to change.  Life was too short to live in the shadow of shame.  I wanted to own my bedroom time with my husband, without feeling anxiety that I was broken somehow.  I wanted to look in the mirror without worrying that I was showing too much leg or that someone would think I deserved to be assaulted, or didn’t do enough to prevent it.  I wanted to feel comfortable working out again.  I didn’t even go to the gym, because I was afraid of the men there, afraid of being approached, afraid to walk out of my house alone.

I decided I wanted to try something that had made me uncomfortable since being raped, but that before the rape I had contemplated attempting.  I told my husband I wanted to take a pole dance fitness class.  I was ready to challenge myself, and to find my sense of sexuality and sensuality again.  

I honestly don’t know what I expected I would gain from the experience.  Part of me was convinced I would hate it and be horrible at it, that I would be incapable of connecting with the people there, and that they would certainly see and be repelled by the broken, jagged edges of me, edges that made me socially awkward, quiet, a little anxious, and a bit obsessive compulsive about certain things.  But another part of me quietly whispered that maybe this would set me free.  Perhaps the best way to conquer my demons was to face them head-on.  I wanted to feel comfortable in my own skin again.  I looked at this class as a type of self-therapy.  I had accepted over the years that yes, what happened to me was rape, that the assault wasn’t my fault, that I would always have and need to understand my triggers, that they would be something I would have to cope with for the rest of my life. However, maybe this could restore something that had been missing from my sense of self for over ten years.  I walked through the doors of that pole fitness studio that first time determined to find a way back to the part of me I lost before the rape.

I’ve been taking pole fitness for a little over half a year now.  I go to several classes a week.  I can’t say that it’s been easy, but little by little I’ve been restoring the part of me that my rapist hacked away all those years ago.  Recently I took a freestyle class at my pole fitness studio, and one of the comments I got when I danced to an exotic number was that it was awesome to see the moment when I got out of my own head and my natural sass and sensuality came through.  I fought the urge to cry.  I had never heard the battle within me summarized so accurately by a near-stranger.

The unexpected bonus has been the number of friends I’ve made, women who were more than willing to listen as I poured out my heart to them late at night after our last class of the evening when I felt emotionally brittle, women who promised I was safe with them, that they understood, that in some cases they had even been through something similar.  They became my sisters-in-arms, these women who lifted me up and told me I wasn’t alone on this journey of self-healing and discovery.

My life may be broken into two categories: the me before my assault, and the me after, but pole dancing is helping me forge a connection between the two.  I’ve accepted that I will never be the same, but I refuse to categorize my sexuality in the “before the rape” column any longer.  I have dug that part of me out from under the ashes of my assault, and am resurrecting it like a phoenix in all its majestic glory - somewhat bruised and battered, but ready to soar.  Pole fitness has helped me tap into my sexuality in a way that nothing has in all the years post-assault, and that’s something I intend to cling to with both hands... or knees... or thighs.  It all depends on the pole combo I’m doing.

 

Emerson is a mother, wife, and pole dance fitness addict.  In her spare time she sings, writes, and embraces life.

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