8 February 2024

Bodily autonomy: a lifelong, winding path

Content note: please note that this article contains references (non-graphic) to sexual assault, queer bullying, and grooming.

I’ve known I was queer since I was five years old, although I didn’t have the language for it then. I remember fantasising about two other kids in my pre-primary class simultaneously: Joshua and Melissa. It was always completely normal in my household. My parents raised me and my two siblings with a few sage mantras. The first was: it doesn’t matter what the gender of your partners are, as long as you love and don’t hurt each other, we’re happy for you. Another was ostensibly around our future careers, my parents trying to make sure we didn’t feel pressure to live up to their high professional achievements. They’d say: It doesn’t matter if you’re a teacher or a hairdresser or a sex worker, just don’t be a lawyer.

You’ll be happy to know that none of us are lawyers. But the message that really sunk in with me was about bodily autonomy. How I spend my time and who I spend it with is entirely up to me. I get the final say about what I choose to do with my life and my body. In theory, at least. Then I got to my teens, and peer pressure and bullying took priority headspace. I ricocheted towards relationships with boys to prove to the girls who were afraid to change in front of me in the locker room that I wasn’t really bi, and definitely not a lesbian. Look how many boys I’m dating! Suddenly, my body wasn’t my own. It was the field of wargame tactics, weaponised to gain this advantage and parry that attack. A tool of fitting in and tricking even myself. And it was easy to win. Adult men in their late teens and twenties would talk behind my back and sometimes boldly in front of my face, calling me ‘jailbait’ or putting me on ‘lay-by’.

By my early twenties, I knew better. I knew I shouldn’t be pleased with objectification by men, but it’s all I’d ever known. Being valued for what my body looked like, could do, and how it pleased others. I would go on dates and catch them scanning my body. I could almost see the scene playing out in their mind: lifting my shirt, lowering my underwear. It was shallow, but I’d feel my heart quicken with the self-satisfied thrill of being desired. Deep down, I knew I had intrinsic value beyond what was on the surface, beyond whatever it was these men imagined they could do with (or more to the point, to) me. But this way was easier. A quick satiation of self-worth.

Eventually, I got tired of performing for men. I began to demand pleasure. I listened to a Multiamory podcast episode called ‘Taking for Your Pleasure’ (extra points if you’d picked up that five-year-old Liz was fantasising about two people simultaneously) and it revolutionised the way I thought about sex. The episode spoke about ‘The Wheel of Consent’ which was coined by Betty Martin and helped me to conceptualise my body as something with agency again. Where giving and receiving of touch can be done by or for me. Seeking consent and negotiating scenes could be sexy. Physical acts suddenly weren’t one-dimensional, but expansive and nuanced dances where each step could be rehearsed and coordinated or a revelation in desire.

I had wonderful sexual partners of various genders throughout the following years. I travelled and moved interstate again and excelled in my career. And then I was sexually assaulted. No amount of knowledge about consent, no amount of ‘not now’s’ or laying there frozen, made a difference. Afterwards, I stood in the doorway, liminally suspended between the in and outside. He was there and not there. My heartbeat slowed to an almost stop. The white paint peeling at the edge of the door frame held my gaze while his mouth moved in words I couldn’t hear. When he leaned down to kiss me, my lips didn’t part. I painted over that spot every day for the next week and a half.

For a long time after that, the only pleasure I could find was in saying goodbye. I never confronted him about what happened, and if his attempt to kiss me afterwards was any indication, he probably didn’t think what he did was wrong. Informed, affirmative consent wasn’t taught to me growing up, and I’m sure it wasn’t taught to him either. That doesn’t absolve anyone of responsibility, but it’s been one of the only ways I could come to terms with the situation. That, and advocating loudly for comprehensive sex education in schools and beyond.

It took a few years for me to open up to those close to me about what happened. Some didn’t respond particularly well. But most did. The winding road to feeling safe in my body again was only possible through leaning on my community—the queers and polyamorous and neurodivergents who communicate and love the same as me. Who held space for all the things I needed to say and the aching silences that followed. Sometimes literally holding my shaking, sobbing body, and other times respecting my distance. Fiercely believing, believing, believing in me. Who didn’t try to fix it, fix me, but rather sat in tandem sadness, waiting until it lifted with time. Eventually, small pieces started to chip away at the stone I had become. I could feel and see and hear again. I believe there is hope for all sexual assault survivors that we’ll stop seeing their face in every shadow or feeling the need to make ourselves small. The other night, I walked to the creek in the pitch black, finally unafraid to go back to the place I ran into him on the trail a few weeks after it happened. It was a chilly night; the wind had kept most people inside. I felt safe in my solitude, alone with the damp earth and stones and gurgling creek. The gum leaves whispered their condolences and congratulations in a flurry that drew my eyes overhead. A flickering star reached millions of miles towards me, weaving through the thicket above, and I inhaled the night sky the size of my relief-sigh.

Written by our community blog member Liz Sutherland


How are we doing?

Rate us to let us know if Say It Out Loud is useful, or tell us how we can improve.


Choose your State

Localise Say It Out Loud by choosing your State. You can change this later in the main site navigation.