EXCLUSIVE: Photos by Andi McLeish for WANT by Julie Peters


The photographer Andi McLeish created these images for me for each chapter of my new book WANT: 8 Steps to Recovering Desire, Passion, and Pleasure After Sexual Assault (Mango 2019). Order now: https://amzn.to/2UTKAO5 (and then write me an Amazon review, pretty please!)

STEP ONE: SURVIVE

So survive we must. However long it takes, we need to create a container of safety before we can start dealing with the devastation of sexual assault. We need to see that whatever we had to do to survive at the time was what we had to do, and we survived, goddammit. It doesn’t matter if we smoked ten thousand cigarettes or dated all the wrong people or pushed away everyone we cared about or drank ourselves to the bottom of the ocean. Our desire, our power, our creativity, our ability to love, connect, fuck, and feel don’t completely die unless we completely die. Whatever happened, if we’re still alive, we can heal.

 

STEP TWO: FEEL

Every day it’s like this. I lie on my back and try to feel my belly, nothing happens, but then as soon as I get up to make some coffee or take a shower and get on with my life, I start to cry. I don’t even know what I’m crying about, the tears just spring up all of a sudden and spill out. It’s a very strange experience, but it’s also the small seed of a big change. As I’m incrementally relaxing the tension I am holding in my gut, grief, fear, and anger are unlocking, coming up to the surface and melting all over my face in a mess of unbidden tears.

 

STEP THREE: RAGE

My anger isn’t always easy to deal with, but it is my key to intimacy. It helps me clarify what I feel and pushes me to communicate. It will not allow me to fall into a relationship and lose myself. It reminds me that I can do this alone if I need to. My rage is a powerful aspect of my healing from what happened in the past, and it is a good friend that keeps me connected in the present. It is a living animal cuddled at my feet, ready to jump up and guard me when things get out of hand. My anger has my back—as long as I continue to allow myself to feel it.

STEP FOUR: FORGIVE

Forgiveness is, in a sense, about taking our power back. When someone has made us feel powerless, we have to consider the zones in our lives where we do have a voice, even if it’s not anywhere near the perpetrator’s orbit. We may not have been trained to think of social connection and compassion as particularly powerful, but they are. Being able to see ourselves and each other as whole but flawed humans with the capacity to change isn’t always easy, but it sure is hopeful.

order now: https://amzn.to/2UTKAO5

 

STEP FIVE: PLEASURE

Feeling pleasure isn’t just a little thing we should try to make more time for in our busy lives because it’s fun. It’s a radical act of resistance against a history of suppression and pain. Taking pleasure, whether by enjoying great sex, going to see the Superdogs, or simply having a hot cup of tea on a cool day, is an act of self-determination and choice. Our pleasure is a tool of resistance against our own oppression and suppression. Our pleasure matters.

 

STEP SIX: EAT

In a society that is quite sexually threatening a lot of the time, food has played a sometimes helpful and sometimes harmful part in helping me feel safer and more in control in my own body. In my recovery from sexual assault and anorexia, I’ve learned that I can practice safety, consent, pleasure, and desire within my relationship with food. Food is relationship, at a very fundamental level, and most especially represents my relationship with my own self.

 

STEP SEVEN: SEX

We’ve learned to understand sex as an expression of power-over in this culture, and that’s certainly what it is in a context of assault. We do it to express domination over someone or to trade for something else, like security or validation. Being willing to experience sex as an expression of tenderness, pleasure, and intimacy requires that everyone involved feel powerful enough within themselves that they don’t need to steal that power from anyone else.

 

STEP EIGHT: LOVE 

I believe that it is the survivors who are most capable of finding the courage to empower themselves and show up to their relationships with the uncompromising commitment of true love. We have had to go through a lot of shit to recover from what happened to us, and along the way we had to collect enough bravery to face ourselves. We are figuring out how to trust our instincts, how to connect with our bodies, how to read people, how to tell if someone is trying to use or manipulate us, and how to bounce back when that happens anyway. We have had to learn to care for ourselves with a kindness we may never have known as children, and accepting this kindness from others can feel deeply uncomfortable, at least at first. It’s messy and it’s difficult and we never really stop learning these lessons, but these are the skills that make us capable of loving fiercely and truly, with a commitment to seeing each other as equals. This is a kind love that can help us heal and, when we can offer it to others, might help them heal, too. This is the kind of love that might just change the world.

order now: https://amzn.to/2UTKAO5

Writer, yoga teacher, studio owner. @juliejcp