Vessel

A little while back, I learned my identity was stolen.

Not in the sense of someone taking out credit cards in my name, but in the sense of taking my pictures and posing as me. They bypassed my finances and went straight to the very image.

For months, this person ransacked my social media accounts, taking pictures and uploading them as his own. On some sites he didn’t use my name — on others, he did.

(And — trust me on this one — you don’t want to know how we learned the person in question was a “he”.)

We never figured out who “he” was. The account on at least one of the websites was taken down, but there was little else that could be done. The real world has yet to catch up in the world of cybercrimes, and is still stubbornly blasé about any crimes against women. Combine the two and the best you can get is a halfhearted shrug. I combed through my friends list, deleting people I didn’t personally know, went through a spell where I didn’t really post that many pictures, but then life went on.

“I’m shocked you’re still online,” said one guy friend. “I would’ve deleted everything by now.”

He wouldn’t be the only one to say that. The few who knew about the situation made similar comments. But it was only the guys who said that. The women who knew were outraged and disgusted, but never once talked about becoming an online hermit in response.

It was only my husband who put in the necessary addendum after the, “I would’ve gone offline” comment: “…But I guess this is something, as a woman, you’re used to by now.”

Yes, I had felt reviled and furious and violated — but every emotion was already an old friend to me. Old friends that, in light of this experience, shrugged their shoulders in a fatalistic fashion . And in that shrug, I continued on, almost like nothing had happened.

I first used my professions as an excuse — I model, I write, and I’m a fitness instructor, all gigs that require a lot of public engagement. But the reality was, I was used to this — of life going on, of moving forward like nothing had happened. Of being disgusted and upset and then shrugging my shoulders in defeat.

Because, really, was this really any different than anything else that has happened in my life?

Was this any different than the guy friends who thought nothing of telling me that they jacked off to my photos?

Was this any different than the guy friends who thought nothing of telling me that they jacked off to the thought of me, long before pictures could be posted online?

Was this any different than the guys who screamed, “Nice tits!” or “I want to fuck you in the ass!” from their cars — and was this any different than both men and women advising me to take those catcalls as a compliment?

Was this any different than being told that I should consider myself lucky to be pretty enough to be jacked off to and harassed in the first place?

Was this any different than being 12 years old and pinned down by my brother’s friend on the bed of his parents’ camper while he told me quite explicitly what he wanted to do with me?

Was this any different than the guy friend who never learned to take no for an answer, who swooped in when I was too drunk to respond, let alone push him off, and who swept away with little more than the scoldings from our mutual friends?

Was this any different than the conversations I’d later have with my friends, to learn what they had been through, and to see my own situation as tame? To decide what had happened to me was so not big a deal that I kept it repressed until a similar situation made the news and sent me into a post-traumatic spiral?

Was this any different than the knowledge that I, alongside my friends, were nothing more than statistics — and that we would’ve faced a far more ruthless investigation than our perpetrators had we ever actually said anything?

Was this any different than when I was 19 and got my ass blatantly grabbed by an older man as I walked by — a man who looked me dead in the eyes when I turned around, aggressively unapologetic of his action — and I immediately thought to myself, “Well, that’s what I get for wearing such a revealing top.” A message so ingrained in my psyche that I assumed a shirt that exposed my back somehow entitled others to grab at me — and that it would be another 3 or 4 years before I realized the bullshit of such a sentiment?

Was this any different than the family member who tried to embrace me like an old girlfriend, drunkenly bemoaning how he had to remind himself that I’m of blood relation? A man who kept coming up to me throughout the night, who started playing with my hair and suddenly I understood why survivors of sexual assault chop off their hair if their predator had made note of it?

Was this any different than throwing my hair in a tight bun that night and stationing myself next to my husband, refusing to move for the rest of the evening, the message burning deep into my skin that not even my goddamn hair was my own?

Was this any different than when I had to deal with sleazy photographers as a model — or the fact that I consider myself lucky to have only been in that situation a few times, and to have made it out relatively unscathed, with only some inappropriate comments or hugs that were unprofessional. Was this any different than being in a profession where my body is consistently not my own, to know that I could’ve been one of the countless models who faced more than a cross-the-line comment or inappropriate hug, and who knew that they would’ve been met with a, “well what did you expect in this profession,” if they ever said anything?

Was this any different than women whose cloud accounts, computers, phones had been hacked, whose private pictures were distributed — pictures that, had they been of their children, people would’ve cried foul of the hackers — but since they were sexual in nature, it was her fault to have them in the first place?

Was this any different than knowing that there are no real repercussions if someone does something to remind women that they do not get to control their personal lives? That, had it been credit card information, no one would be telling these women that they brought it on themselves?

Was this any different than the knowledge that, somehow, our credit card information is more our own than our bodies?

Was this any different than being told boys will be boys, that society will hold their misbehaviors as inevitable fact, and that it is on us to shift, morph, change?

Was this any different than the onslaught of the subtle and explicit messages we receive, letting girls and women know that their bodies are not theirs to own, theirs to govern? That everything about them is open to criticism and judgement — that a woman must be on guard at all times but never once appear like she’s making herself out to be the victim?

Was this any different than growing up in a supposedly modern society that sends the message that you are not an autonomous & worthwhile human but an item to be looked at and touched and scrutinized and have others feel entitled to?

Was this any different than knowing that the world sees you as a vessel — for sexual gratification, for babies, for ego stroking, but never, ever, as something we can truly take ownership of, something that we could fill up on our own terms?

A few months after the identity situation, as I was taking the train to the airport for a morning flight, I watched as the man a few seats across from me blatantly took a picture of me. So blatant that I watched the flash go off, his phone so angled as to not even conceal what he was doing. He took the picture, give me a once over, and went back to his newspaper, as if this was the most common, accepted thing to do.

I sat fuming, thinking of all the things I wanted to say. I thought of standing up and walking over to him. I thought of snatching his phone away, of spewing all the nasty, vitriolic things such a person deserves to hear. I thought of all the stories I’ve heard of women doing exactly that, standing up to men who feel entitled to a stranger’s body. And yet when the train arrived at his station, I was silent. He got off and I was left wondering when, if ever, my body would truly be my own.

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