That Time My Therapist Told Me I Wasn’t Raped — And Other Ways People Dismissed My Body


I can’t remember when it started. I remember looking up at my mother, perhaps age 4, and she was trying to get me to eat a cookie, saying I wouldn’t get fat, that it was OK. I remember being terrified, even smugly looking at the cookie, subconsciously knowing that if I said no, I’d be proud of myself. That feeling, that delicious feeling of saying no to food, stayed with me my entire life—that thrill of emptiness, even loneliness in denying myself.

All of the women in my family were criticized for how they looked — only praised when their bodies were small and thin. I grew up understanding that thin meant attractive, that thin meant accepted, that thin meant you wouldn’t be alone. After years of elementary and middle school bullying (I was too quiet, too shy, too weird, my nose was too big, my hair was cut too short, my clothes were strange, etc), I began high school wanting to be left alone. I didn’t need to be popular, or even universally liked, but I wanted to be invisible enough that I wasn’t a target. Being thin was a way to erase myself. For years, I felt like the outsider; for years, I didn’t have a real group of friends. I need to find a way to control something, to find a way to be liked, find a way to have some power over myself.

Granted, I was always a small kid, so my desire was to stay small — or become even smaller. This desire became worse when I started dating; in my head, people would like me more, find me interesting or worthy of being noticed. My high school boyfriend never encouraged me to be thin, or thinner, but my weight was always noticed, as if being thin was a virtue. I wanted to keep that virtue. By the end of high school, I was 95 pounds. My mother confronted me about it once, saying she noticed I was too thin, that my parents were concerned. I’ve always remembered that. I knew she was right — that I was obsessed with how I looked, what I ate, looking up calorie counts, not letting myself eat as much as I wanted, always feeling hungry. I always felt hungry.

It didn’t change when I went to college. While I gained weight because I had less choice over what to eat, and because I also started to stress eat, I still obsessed. If anything, I guilted myself more, eating every meal with an ultra-awareness of how I’d regret it later. I often did. I figured modeled for art classes at my school (I went to art school), which started to help me understand that bodies are art, all shapes are beautiful; the ways our bodies create negative space around it is fascinating, mystical. Space became spiritual for me—what we put into it, how we shape ourselves in it and move.

Then, I was assaulted. The first time, I was forced to give a blow job on my birthday. The second time, I was asleep. The third time, I was awake; I was slapped. I said no. It didn’t matter. There were other times, too, before, where I felt uncomfortable by how men spoke to me, touched me — even family friends fawning over me as a child and then as I hit puberty, as if my body was theirs to touch and fondle and comment on.

The irony of me being able to say no to food, but freeze when men would touch my body in ways I didn’t want, was never lost on me. Women and femmes are structured to say no to food (body shaming is real), but not to unwanted sex or sexual advances. A lesson I’ve learned the hard way: We place blame on women and femmes when for what we consider “faults” and “weaknesses,” for what are “undesirable” outcomes, whether it’s not being thin or conventionally attractive enough, or for being abused — but never on the abusers themselves. Because women and femmes “should know better,” should be faultless.

After that, my body obsession, and dislike and utter discomfort (even disgust), blossomed into something uglier than ever. During this time, I had chronic UTI’s after, and it’s no surprise. I was traumatized and violated — it was hard for me to see my body as something I could derive pleasure from. My gynecologist at the time, however, didn’t ask any questions about how I was having sex or why this could be a symptom of a deeper problem, and merely just prescribed me antibiotics to take every time I had sex. I’m now immune to certain antibiotics.

I can’t blame my doctor for not knowing but I also never had the language to try to explain what was happening to me. Perhaps my doctor didn’t have the language to understand either. There aren’t enough resources for women and femmes to understand their bodies; in my case, I was just given meds without any real discussion. Was it any surprise, then, that I could barely be comfortable with myself? Like many other survivors, I avoided self-pleasure because my own body didn’t feel like my own. I often found myself wondering, are bodies ever really our own?

I found myself in relationships that were possessive and toxic, with boyfriends sometimes talking me into sex or paranoid about every man I talked to. I began to normalize this behavior, to the point that when I dated people who didn’t abuse me or manipulate me, I almost didn’t know what to do or how to react. I felt unworthy. I didn’t know how to have sex with people who didn’t mistreat me.

Over the years, I went to therapy on and off — some helped more than others. One therapist wanted to talk about my family more, even though I insisted that I wanted to focus on my assaults and romantic/sexual relationships. Another therapist told me I wasn’t raped because my abusers were people I dated, and apparently, people you date can’t abuse you. I promptly stopped seeing that therapist, but I’ll never forget bursting into tears in her office. Therapy, I realized, was much like dating. And sometimes, like with dating, I had to learn how to leave toxic situations. I had to learn trust myself and my gut — I had to learn not all therapists create safe spaces, even when they should.

Even then, I politely left; I was incapable of being angry. It must have been my fault. Maybe she was right, a small voice whispered in the back of my head. While I know she isn’t right, so many people still have shamed me for being manipulated or fooled by men — or allowing it to happen, as if their abuse is my fault. It’s easier to blame the easy target when you know they won’t really fight back. Anger still makes me uncomfortable. I sometimes still blame myself. I still blame myself for the times I didn’t say no or say no enough or advocate for myself.

I’ve come a long way since then; I’ve come out as nonbinary and queer. This in itself has allowed me to take ownership of my body again, even when people misgender me or leave me out or appropriate or tokenize me or disbelieve me. In many ways, social media has allowed me to find community and find ways to find my identity, and has allowed me to find forgiveness; in other ways, it’s erupted that same need to control my body, in that social media is a form of control. Social media in itself is a body. Like with food, I try to balance it, and have a healthy relationship, a power dynamic that is more symbiotic than toxic. That balance is hard. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t really have any answers.

But I do try to be kind to myself, forgive myself when I can, be empathetic and mindful, and learn from my experiences. Sometimes, that’s the only answer, the only neat ending we get.


Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014),The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (Operating System, 2017), Sexting Ghosts (Unknown Press, 2018), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016), and the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes Poetry and the managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, BUST, Spork Press, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente