Afterwards, the boy holds me to his chest. He rubs smooth circles into my back and gently kisses my forehead. He is okay with the fact that I never touch him first and have never let him kiss my lips except once; and when I stopped, there was no anger from him just all tenderness. It has not always been like this though: the softness, the gentle, a constant warm embrace of understanding and acceptance.
I have always been hyper-aware of my body and what could be done to it. How the massive mountains that encompassed my body in layers of fat were never lovingly caressed or touched, and if they were I was always terrified no matter how much my partner was enthralled in me that once naked, they would discover I was fat. I could never surrender to their touch because of the constant fear that they would discover the secret of my fatness, as if with clothing off my body was somehow different. Because of these insecurities, I never truly considered boundaries (in and out of sexual relationships) and the meaning of the word safe before I was diagnosed with PTSD from sexual trauma.
When I was 24, I was sexually assaulted. In the two years that followed, I couldn’t let anyone touch me intimately. I couldn’t fathom someone wanting to touch me after gaining 70 lbs during the process of coping with the trauma. Trusting people in all aspects of my life was almost impossible, so I turned to food to give me a sense of safety and control.
Somehow I had to find a way to accept my new body and the reality that sex was now different. Before I had a sexual interaction, I now had to give what I call “the talk” where I vaguely explain my diagnosis and my past sexual trauma. I had to be willing to be vulnerable in a territory that was terrifying to me. After all, who would want to have sex with someone who refused to let their partner kiss them on the lips because it was triggering? Or what about always having to be spooned first before any kind of sexual activity? I already felt like I had so much “otherness” when it came to my identity while dating as a biracial, queer, Bipolar, and fat person before the additional PTSD diagnosis. However, instead of distancing myself from this new identity, I had to learn to embrace and understand my new diagnosis.
Because of this I began to explore the concept of “radical softness” which was coined by the writer, artist, and musician Lora Mathis in 2015. Mathis explains radical softness as being “the idea that unapologetically sharing your emotions is a political move and a way to combat the societal idea that feelings are a sign of weakness.” Learning this concept was the affirmation I had been searching for while going through my healing process.
In the months after the rape I turned to this concept to help articulate my own my story, live my truth, and find the political power of being emotionally vulnerable when it came to taking back ownership of my body. Although my body and soul at times felt damaged, Mathis’s concept of radical softness helped me see that my feelings surrounding the assault—however complicated were valid and that there was an owning of my power when it came to being raw about my emotions. Whether it came from being completely honest for the first time in my therapists office, or seeking support from loved ones and closed friends, radical softness was the concept I needed to give me strength as I navigated life after the assault.
I have tried to incorporate this concept into every aspect of my life. To my surprise, my potential partners were kind and ultimately validated my experiences. My comfort has been of utmost importance.
For once in my life I could openly talk about consent and boundaries before sexual activity. This talk has opened my experience in a way that I never would have thought possible before and especially after the assault. How much I embraced “being soft” and not seeing my emotions as a weakness made me wonder why I had never approached this topic before. Maybe it was because I was young and naïve; or maybe it was that because of the assault I had to create my own boundaries to make sex safe and enjoyable again.
As a WOC who has always been terrified of being labeled with the “Angry Black Woman” trope, I have always been passive about addressing what I want and need in all aspects of my life. This was especially true regarding sex. Through therapy I became more and more aware of how limiting this way of thinking was on all my interpersonal interactions. I quickly learned that if I was going to be a sexual being again, I had to be more open and direct with my communication about sex. I had to, for once, be willing to be radically soft and vulnerable; but I also have to be ready to say “no” even to the little things that I would have previously kept quiet about in fear of being seen as aggressive.
Practicing radical softness gave me the ability to be emotionally open. I found the power to be vulnerable to those I deemed deserved it where I once found shame in my assault. I reclaimed my body and mind back by accepting the power to be radically soft.