WOMEN

How One Sexual Assault Survivor Is Helping Others Take Back Their Bodies

"Rape is never her fault, so why should she pay?"

Olivia was a preteen when her mother died of ovarian cancer. One year later, she was raped. 

When Olivia reached her 20s, her doctor began encouraging her to have regular cervical smear tests. But Olivia found pap smears invasive and traumatizing -- they reminded her of being raped. 

"I couldn’t have [the test]," Olivia, now in her 30s, told The Huffington Post under the condition that her real name would not be used due to privacy concerns. "It’s not because I didn’t try. I tried really hard for a whole decade to have one and I gave up."

Olivia attended seven different clinics in three UK cities in an attempt to get a pap smear done, but the experiences were too traumatizing. 

"I felt like a failure and I blamed myself," she said. "I thought if I hadn’t let myself be raped, I would be normal, and I would be able to do it."

Things changed when Olivia heard about a new London clinic run by an organization called My Body Back. My Body Back offers support and resources to survivors of sexual and domestic violence, helping them take back control of their bodies. And, as of this month, they run a special weekly clinic where sexual assault survivors can get cervical screenings.  

On a recent Thursday, Olivia attended the clinic at London's St. Bartholomew's Hospital, where a young woman named Pavan Amara helped her successfully undergo a cervical smear test for the first time. 

"I was afraid of being invaded or that it would all be out of my control again, but I wasn’t, and for that I am grateful," Olivia told HuffPost. "I think this is the first time I have ever walked out of a hospital crying with happiness rather than hating myself."

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Amara, a 28-year-old student nurse, started My Body Back in August 2014 after realizing that the traumatic impact her own rape had on her daily life was far from unusual. 

"My body image was really affected, my sex life was affected, and my health care was affected too," Amara told The Huffington Post. "I used to find it difficult to go to the doctor, because it reminded me of the forensic testing I'd been through." 

 While Amara received good emotional support from organizations like North London Rape Crisis, she felt that many aspects of her trauma went unaddressed. 

Pavan Amara, founder of My Body Back
Pavan Amara, founder of My Body Back

 

Amara began speaking to other women in a rape crisis support group she was attending, and reached out to other sexual assault survivors on Twitter and Facebook. After speaking to over 30 different women about what services they desperately needed, Amara realized that survivors' physical health was suffering due to how triggering STI testing and cervical smears could be. 

"The services weren't designed to fit the needs of women who had experienced violence," Amara told HuffPost. "Many survivors didn't want anyone touching them again after being raped, or didn't want another stranger [in control of] them."

Survivors wanted to be able to tell health care staff what phrases would be triggering, what information they wanted to hear or not hear about the testing process, share body positions they wanted to avoid, and control things like where the clinician stood in relation to their body. They longed for a safe, supportive environment where their traumatic history would be recognized and understood, rather than brushed off as an inconvenience. 
 

Amara and the team at My Body Back worked to create a clinic specifically for women who had experienced sexual violence, where patients would be completely in control. 

Their cervical screening clinic, which opened this month, is run by female staff who have been trained to work with sexual assault survivors. The clinic's services are open to all women and trans men in the United Kingdom, and there is no clinician referral necessary. Testing is covered by the UK's National Health Service. 

Prior to their appointment with a physician, patients are given the option of meeting with a Sexual Violence Health Advocate (SVHA) to discuss their triggers and how they would like their appointment to proceed. The SVHA also offers coping strategies such as grounding techniques and breathing exercises.  

Amara is now working to develop an STI self-testing service, where women can collect the required swabs or urine samples themselves before submitting them for testing. In the future, My Body Back hopes to provide contraceptive care for sexual assault survivors as well. 

"For survivors, health care is an emotional experience, not just a physical experience," Amara told HuffPost.  

My Body Back also runs a quarterly workshop series, Cafe V, which helps women learn to enjoy their bodies again after sexual assault. The sessions are useful for survivors like 34-year-old Ruby, who struggled with her sexuality after being raped. 

"I used to be confident in bed but after the rape, sex became an obligation," Ruby, who asked that her last name not be used, told The Huffington Post. "I experienced crippling flashbacks and was often so tense I'd vomit afterwards. I refused to let partners see me naked and would hide my body in baggy clothes because I blamed myself for what happened."

After beginning a new relationship, Ruby started attending workshops at Cafe V for support on how to navigate telling her partner about her rape, and other questions she had about sex after assault. 

"We talked all these things out during Cafe V so I felt more in control of my sexual experiences," Ruby told HuffPost. 

Amara told HuffPost that the services My Body Back provides are those she wishes she'd had in the aftermath of her own assault. She hopes that the organization will continue to empower survivors to live healthy, full lives.  

"It's really important that women feel like they own their body, have the right to enjoy it, and don't feel guilt," Amara said. "Rape is never her fault, so why should she pay?"

 

Learn more about My Body Back here

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