Photographs & Text by Kate Ryan
After she was raped, this photographer asked 29 other survivors about their stories.
The trauma of sexual violence is not something we fix. It is something we manage daily. It takes work. And that work is as messy and complicated as the individuals who live it.
I aimed to get at that complexity with “Signed, X,” a collection of photographs and interviews with long-term survivors of sexual assault. This project began as a series of questions: What triggers you years after sexual violence? How do you ground yourself in those moments? Where do you carry stress? Where do you find hope? These are the questions I began asking survivors last October.
They are also the questions I wanted someone to ask me long after I was raped in college.
I wanted someone to ask about my panic attacks, my inability to focus, my fixation with exercise or the reason I drank before sleeping with a new partner. I told everyone I was doing fine, so they stopped asking questions. That was profoundly isolating.
In the media, we often fixate on the act of sexual violence itself and some sort of conclusion — a success story or tragic end for the victim. But in between those moments live survivorship and trauma. In between are years of addiction and recovery, eating disorders, therapy, self-love, self-hate, court dates, yoga, and the question “How will I teach my child to navigate this world?”
Twenty-nine survivors living in that “in between” have opened their homes and shared their stories and their bodies with me, and now with you. Their conversations have been arranged to take the form of letters to you, the reader. My story is there too.
Our pictures and words can be found at signedxproject.com. A new story will be added each week. “Signed, X” will grow in response to the ever-growing number of survivors. This is the beginning.
Intimacy was very difficult.
It took a lot of mind over body.
I had to keep repeating, “This is Peter. This is Peter. This is Peter.”
I have to take sleeping pills, because I would have constant nightmares.
I have PTSD, acute anxiety and major depressive mood disorder.
He helped me to get treatment for my symptoms which has been the best thing ever.
He said, “What happened to you is not your fault. It just makes you even more lovable because you’ve been hurt. Now someone has to help you heal.”
And he’s been doing that for 11 years.
Candace, 42, is an English teacher, and a dedicated gardener and artist. She is a wife and a mother of two.
And thinking about it now, he had to have figured out where I was sleeping.
This makes me sick, this part.
He had to have come in the room, seen me asleep, gotten into bed with me, unbuckled my pants.
How do you do that to someone who is sleeping and passed out?
I don’t understand that.
I never told anyone about it.
I was just starting to get into a relationship with a guy who became my boyfriend for six years.
And I never told him about it.
He does not know about this.
I think that’s one of the very few things I kept to myself in that relationship.
Because I was so ashamed.
This is K’s first time speaking out. She recently earned her master’s degree in journalism and works as an international reporter. Now 27, she is a lifelong runner and loves to dance.
I ended up telling a few people in our mutual circle of friends, and nothing changed about their relationship to him.
And it didn’t seem to matter that this person that was in both of our lives had done this.
It’s just so textbook, the permission that men get from their social community.
There are no social consequences to raping a friend.
So I totally took a step back from that circle of people for the rest of that year.
My typical coping mechanism has been withdrawing.
I don’t want to talk to anyone.
I don’t want to get out of bed.
It’s like taking a vacation from what’s happening.
But it’s a kind of vacation where you feel like you have to take a vacation after the vacation.
Because it doesn’t help me feel better.
Z defended her dissertation and earned her doctorate. Now 30, she works on behalf of women around the world, and she is an avid reader.
I was drinking since I was about 12, 11?
And I didn’t stop drinking until I was about 22.
I was in the hospital maybe every other week.
It was kind of like drinking whatever I can get my hands on so if it was beer, liquor, mixed drinks, whatever.
I would just kind of drink my pain away.
I hit a breaking point.
I don’t know if I was poisoned, if someone put something in my drink, I don’t know.
I just know I woke up in the hospital, and they pumped my stomach.
I had charcoal all over my face.
I didn’t remember where I was, what happened, how I’d got there, nothing.
Maria, now 41, returned to school and earned her college degree. She is a writer and a mother of four and lives with her family in Manhattan.
When I would tell people what happened, I would always follow it up with, “But I’m fine. I’m ok.”
And then in October of last year, everything changed.
I think everything was catching up to me.
I’ve been officially diagnosed with PTSD.
I have memory loss, extreme mood swings, insomnia. I just started getting heart palpitations last Thursday.
I had an EKG done, because I thought that I was having a heart attack.
I’m prescribed Ambien.
I’m prescribed Xanax.
I get acupuncture.
I have acupressure beads.
I have a grounding stone.
The last six months of my life have been ——ing hell.
Today, Melissa is in one-on-one and group therapy, which she said was the hardest thing she has ever done. Now 29, Melissa is writing a novel.
He was going to get 30 years’ probation and have to be a registered sex offender.
I got to go back again to court and read my second victim’s impact statement.
I said, “You may think that you’ve won. Maybe in your eyes you have. But you’re still going to be handcuffed to the probation system for the next 30 years. And does it make me feel any better? No. Because I know that you will be back here again. And unfortunately you are going to have done this to somebody else.”
Am I angry? You bet.
It took me a long time to forgive.
Jane works in public advocacy for assault survivors in Rhode Island. She also advises judges and lawyers on ways to make the judicial process kinder to victims. Jane, 62, is a self-described “tough Irish broad.”
I’m a spiritual person.
I pray when I feel compelled to.
It’s like, “God, listen. I am here. I just need some strength.”
It’s very conversational, like I’m just talking to my friend in the sky.
That definitely helps.
I also like to travel.
And I purposefully go away by myself so I can be lost in myself and whatever’s going on in my life that I’m able to escape.
If it’s for 4-5-6 days, whatever.
I bring a good book, my notebook, my journal.
And I’m just free.
Free of the problems for a little bit.
Jo, 28, is a teacher in Harlem who loves math and traveling around the world. She wants to talk to young women about her story, to encourage them to speak up.
I was in a rehearsal room where we were talking about sexual assault.
And at one point someone said, “If you’ve ever been assaulted raise your hand.”
And every single woman put their hand up.
And I think that was one of the first times I ever owned what happened to me. And the men in the room were shocked.
Like more shocked than they had any business being.
I’m very uninterested in stigma.
I’m very uninterested in not talking about things.
Because it doesn’t help anyone.
If you can’t articulate something, you can’t recover from it I’ve found.
A, 28, is an artist and an advocate for the women around her. She married her husband this winter, and they live together in Harlem.
It’s hard to explain to men that there is no vocabulary equivalent for the words that are used to degrade women, to degrade women’s bodies.
Even words that we use to put down men, they don’t really put them down.
Like calling someone an asshole or a jerk or a dick.
It’s not positive, it’s negative.
But it doesn’t make them small.
It makes them almost looming.
I can’t explain that to a man who has never known what it means to be demeaned.
I’m angrier than I used to be.
Kate, 28, is a photographer and a human rights reporter. She loves running and yoga and lives with her partner in Manhattan.
I stopped going to school.
I was doing drugs.
I hung out with the wrong crowd.
I started cutting myself.
I was morbidly obese.
I was like 300 pounds at the time when I was 14.
I feel like there was so much judgment from everybody.
Like, “Oh my god. She’s a high school truant. What’s wrong with her? Why can’t she just get her life together?”
I really wish they could have been like, “Are you ok? This isn’t like you.”
I think people forgot who I was or they didn’t really know who I was.
People, like family — people that I loved — thought that that’s who I was.
Jenn, 28, has two master’s degrees. She works for a nonprofit in New York City, and she is building her own organization, a center for survivors that incorporates yoga and art therapy.
There was this moment where I stopped going to parties to have fun and I started going to police inappropriate behavior.
I felt kind of armed and ready and very defensive, taking care of my friends.
It’s almost like you’re the designated driver, even if you’re not driving.
Because sexual assault and sexual harassment happens so quickly.
I was like, “This is something I can do all the time. This is advocacy and purpose-driven work that I can do.”
Sevonna, 25, is a new mother. She is a proud advocate for survivors of sexual violence, particularly women of color. She is a yogi and a doula.