Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Radiant Orchid, the Violated Vagina, and Blooming Once More

By now, anyone interested in fashion or design knows that Pantone's colour of 2014 is Radiant Orchid. It's an unimportant little fact has lead to some fun fashion choices. That's all, right?

Well, not for me. For me, it sparked a rumination on the long term emotional effects of sexual abuse, and the ways that it forever changes a woman's relationship with her body

To put it plainly, it made me think about how being sex trafficked and sexually abused throughout my childhood and teens made me feel about my vagina. Not very many people write and talk about how rape makes women and girls feel about their vaginas. We should.

How did I get from the fun little fact that radiant orchid is the colour of the year, to rape and vaginas? Read on. It will make sense. I promise.

Here, in part, is Pantone's fanfare announcement of their chosen colour for 2014: "Radiant Orchid blooms with confidence and magical warmth that intrigues the eye and sparks the imagination. It is an ... embracing purple -- one that draws you in with its beguiling charm. A captivating harmony of fuchsia, purple and pink undertones, Radiant Orchid emanates great joy, love and health."

Are they talking about a colour? Or a flower? Or...

Happy, welcoming, "embracing purple" vaginas have "magical warmth" and "draw you in with [their] beguiling charm." When treated well, they "emanate great joy [and] love." Don't they?

And, seriously, have you ever really looked at an orchid, or an iris, or at a lot of other flowers for that matter? Have you?

Georgia O'Keefe certainly did when she famously painted them ...

... repeatedly and lovingly.

We can twitter and blush and say, "Oh, don't ruin flowers by looking at them that way! They can be pretty anyway." Or, we can say, "Damned straight they look like vaginas. Aren't they beautiful? Aren't I beautiful?"

There's nothing wrong with glorifying the beauty of women's "flowers." Why shouldn't we? We've got phallic symbols everywhere in our world. Why not a few vulvic ones? 

The Art Nouveau period, with its flowing lines inspired by nature, was particularly keen on its vulvic flower images.

I can't really believe that the makers of the silver bowl and vases above did not know exactly what these irises looked like. This doesn't detract from their beauty. It enhances it.

This imagery repeats itself over and over again throughout the Art Nouveau period, especially in jewelry, but such imagery is not exclusive to that period. This ring, which looks to me like a particularly happy "flower," is more recent.

These happy flowers are from a recent line by Cartier.

Artists and designers are not idiots. They know what they're portraying. 

Commercial artists, like Mucha, above, have long utilized the appeal of the female body to sell everything from tobacco to cars. We know this to be true. The unspoken promise was always: buy our product and you'll get ... laid.

While they couldn't actually portray completely naked women, welcoming vaginas on full display, they could subliminally (though not all that subliminally) suggest nudity and female genitalia. 

This is all kind of cute and fun and tee-hee in retrospect.

But it's not as cute and amusing when we see that it's still going on today.

Calvin Klein's current model for this perfume is eighteen. She's been modeling for four years.

It's a very fraught issue. Yes, it's good and even important to see vaginas as beautiful. But it's not good to commodify them. It's even worse to commodify the vaginas of the very young.

So far, I've been talking about the metaphorical commodification of the vagina: vulvic images of flowers and the subliminal promise of sex used to sell products.

Yet we all know that real women and girls are sold. We all know that real people will pay to enter and violate real vaginas.

Me, at about nine or ten.
Which brings me to my own story. Starting when I was about ten, Smother started pimping me. (Actually, this is just the age I was when I started noticing money being exchanged, but she'd been passing me around to her friends since I was three or younger.) Over and over again, she let men (and sometimes women) rape me and she took money for it.

It is a measure of how badly abused I was that, when the above photo was taken, I thought I looked sexy with my new hair cut and elastic-topped dress covered in little pink roses. Not cute. Not pretty. Sexy.

I can tell you that vaginas are beautiful like flowers but I cannot see my own like that. At best, I see it as tainted, defiled, and sick.

At worst, I see it as dead.

William Blake's own illustration for The Sick Rose
When I was eighteen, I reread William Blake's poem The Sick Rose:

O Rose though are sick
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy
And his dark secret love
Does they life destroy.

To me, the meaning of the poem was unquestionable. I was Rose, my "bed of crimson joy" was my vagina, the worm was a rapist's penis, and my life was destroyed.

I didn't even question it. My life had been destroyed. It was a simple irrefutable fact.

Normal women and girls who had not been raped were clean, healthy, and beautiful, but I was not. They deserved and expected to have lovely things happen to them. I did not.

Far from my body being my own and my vagina being like a beautiful flower, my vagina was a garbage can for depraved men's slimy, seedy emissions. 

I was used, filthy, impure, forever defiled and disgusting.

The fact that I had not chosen to be a garbage can changed nothing. I was one and would forever be one

Far from being a beautiful, delicate flower, my vagina was a receptacle for all that is disgusting and vile.

I was dirty. I would always be dirty. No-one could ever see me as clean.

No-one could ever love me. Nor should they.

Me, around ten or eleven, feeling all grown up in what I thought was a sophisticated outfit.
In fact, my body actually was physically altered by all those violent rapes. My back was permanently injured and I am now disabled by chronic pain. My vagina was sliced with a razor, permanently separating my inner labia from my clitoris. It was repeatedly pried apart by men hasty to violate it; its top and bottom split. It mostly healed, but never completely.

In the photo above, you see me already suffering from back pain, in the midst of months of itching, scabbing, and pain as my outer vulva repeatedly healed and re-split, healed and re-split. I still have a scar, and my perineum still frequently tears and bleeds; it's like having a constant paper cut down there.

Equally bad, though, was the emotional feeling of being filled up with men's seed. This feeling never went away.

I was disgusted in sex education classes when I saw those microscopic sperm, blindly, violently, and insistently wriggling and squirming, not just for entry into the vagina, but for entry into the egg as well. The sperm did not care if the sex was consensual or the vagina that of a girl or a woman. It just pushed and insisted and twisted and invaded.

That's what happened to me.

Seeing it in class made me feel nauseated and outraged. What a hideous trick of nature that I was made this way and men were made that way. Why would God make me like a delicate flower, so easy to violate, so easy to hurt, so vulnerable, and make men like battering rams, so strong and impervious to my pain? Why could I not keep them out? 

I never felt that the sperm in me went away. I still don't feel that way. I feel that, to this day, my body is completely full of filth and decay. I feel like it runs poisonous through my veins. 

Sometimes I even feel that, if I open my mouth, black slime and ooze will escape from it, showing the world what I really am.

Far from my vagina being a lovely flower, I feel that it is full of the stagnant rot of others' depravity.

I didn't choose it, but that doesn't change the fact that I was and am defiled -- forever.

The primacy and value placed on female virginity doesn't help my feelings of defilement at all. In Western culture, white represents virginity and the words "virginity" and "purity" are used interchangeably when people speak of the meaning behind the white wedding dress. 

There are many cultures in which people still insist that a raped woman or girl is shamed, dirty, and impure. They are shunned and unmarriageable. I am horrified that anyone could say this when, clearly, the shame, dirt, and impurity belongs to the rapists, not their victims.

Yet, when I think about myself and my own body, this shaming of the victim seems totally logical to me. How could any lover think I'm clean when clearly I'm not?

And, you know, I am by no means the only person who was thus violated as a child.  

I remember a teenage prostitute telling me about a trick she'd turned. "He asked me to put my hair in pigtails and wear a schoolgirl skirt and call him daddy," she told me. "Whatever," she said, shrugging. "I figure this way maybe he'll stay away from his own daughter. And at least I'm getting paid for it now." 


Like me, she had been sexually abused as as child, and she felt that she was already ruined, already filthy and unworthy of respect. She believed that, at least now, she had some power because she could demand money to be violated. This man's little girl, though, was still clean, or so she hoped, and the teenager hoped to help protect the little girl's purity by fulfilling this man's schoolgirl fantasy. After all, her logic went, he can't defile me because I'm already defiled.

Plenty of men feel this way too. It never occurs to them that what they're doing is rape, but it is, legally and morally. They wouldn't dream of raping their own daughters but they happily go to extremely underage prostitutes -- sex slaves -- thinking, "Well, she's already dirty, so I'm not doing anything wrong."

There may be female prostitutes who were not sexually abused as children, but I've never met one.

How I wish, if my vagina had to be like a flower, it could have been a dangerous one like the Venus flytrap, carnivorous, able to fight back, animated.

Later in life, I heard of the Vagina Dentata, the vagina with teeth, and wished I could have one. I would have been safe. I would have had power.

Even if there were some way I could come to see that I was not made dirty by what had happened to me, I had another problem that made it virtually impossible for me to cherish my vagina.

My primary sexual abuser -- the one who sexually abused me nearly every single morning for years -- was a close female relative. She made me perform "oral sex" on her often. That's why I now call her Smother.

She called it love.

Her vagina was, to me, a thing of terror.

It was horrible, hot, oozing, steaming, suffocating. 

And I had the same anatomy. 

How could anything good come of my own adult female sexuality when sexual desire was obviously something that led adults to hideous acts of selfish cruelty and degradation? Impossible.

Eventually, in my 30s, after years of trying to be okay with my own sexuality, celibacy seemed the only option. It was the only way I could see to escape my feelings of disgust and self-loathing.

I was single for twelve years.

Celibacy was also the only way for me to avoid even acknowledging the deeper feelings beneath the disgust. It was the only way to avoid my fear of intimacy and vulnerability, and the feeling that I was fundamentally tainted and therefore unlovable.

Okay, I thought to myself, I have a great education, a successful career, wonderful friends, good health, a vibrant intellectual life. So I don't have love. I guess that's the one great tragedy of my childhood that I can't repair. (Remember, this is when I was still able-bodied, before my back gave out.) 

I accepted it. I'd be single forever. I was an introvert. I was okay. It was okay.

But somewhere along the line, after I became disabled, I stopped accepting it. I did deserve love. I even deserved a vibrant, healthy, loving sex life. 

But it was going to take a lot of work and require a lot of vulnerability. I was going to have to learn to love my body. I was going to have to learn to be vulnerable. I was going to have to learn what love really is, not what Smother had told me it was.

I began doing the healing work on my own, without much hope, but with the will for change.

Then, two years ago, I met Beau, a kind, gentle man for whom sex is inseparable from gentle and genuine love. I was terrified. Sometimes I still am. 

Before we became lovers, I told him everything about my childhood. He cried. He was horrified. But he never ever thought of me as unclean.

Beau has helped me to be glad I have my very own flower, because, when I'm with him, it can be a source of great pleasure, playfulness, sweetness, and beauty. 

But, even with this kind, attentive lover, my feelings of shame and disgust often return. How can he possibly love me when I'm so dirty? How can I enjoy the very acts that so defiled me when I was a child? What's wrong with me? How can I degrade myself like that? How can I see my body's sexual satisfaction as good when Smother's was so selfish and evil?

I'm working on it. I try to explain to myself that rape and making love are two very different things, like the difference between being force fed poison, and eating a sumptuous feast. I try to explain to myself that pedophilia is sick and evil, but adult sexual desire is healthy and good.

I try to explain to myself that my vagina is no more vile and disgusting because someone once used her own vagina to suffocate me, than Beau's penis is cruel and selfish because pedophiles once used their penises as battering rams on me. Just as a penis can deliver great horror or great pleasure, so too can a vagina. 

Beau and I have banished words like "dirty" and "naughty" from our sexual vocabulary. It helps -- a bit.

Beau says my flower is beautiful, clean, pure, and, above all, special. Beau says being invited to enter and welcomed in is an honour never to be taken for granted. He says he doesn't think of himself as entering me as much as he thinks of me as embracing him.

The language we use for sex is really important.


I'm coming to feel that I am blooming, in many ways for the first time in my life. I still don't feel like an open, happy iris, totally comfortable in my desires.

Maybe my flower and my ability to love are like delicate alpine flowers.

They grow in adversity where flowers have no business growing, let alone flourishing, but grow and flourish they do.

At ten, I believed it was already too late for me. At forty-two, I realized that I was wrong.


It's never too late.

(If you too were sexually abused as a child, you might want to read my post, Healing from Sexual Abuse: 26 Things that Work for Me.)


  1. You're not dirty, Charlotte! You were tortured, just as surely as a hostage or a prisoner of war, because you were powerless to object and your very life hinged on your compliance. Rape is about power; abuse about dominance. Sex is healthy, natural, and normal regardless of whether your body (or body parts) is ideal or unspoiled. I'm glad that you met such a wonderful man that sees you for the beauty you are and treats you with the tenderness you so richly deserve.


  2. My heart goes out to you. With delicacy and tenderness.

    1. Thanks, Anne. "Tenderness" is a very important word in my new vocabulary of love.

      I've been getting a lot private feedback from survivors who say that this piece really resonates with them. That's a big part of why I wrote it. People write a lot about sexual abuse but they're vague about this particular topic. I thought it was time to be direct.

  3. My rage and fury at the animals that brutalized you is matched only by my respect for your strength and courage. Go Team Beau; it's obvious why he loves you. You are not dirty outside or inside, but beautiful and a one of a kind.

    1. When I first started writing about this topic and readers reacted with rage, I was shocked. I'm slowly getting it: I'm worth that rage. It's one of the best lessons I'm learning from my readers. Beau's a big fan of your comment too; I like that you say it's obvious why he loves me because I do forget that I'm worth that as well.

      And, as an English teacher, I must say that your first sentence demonstrates lovely skill with rhetoric.

    2. I love language more than jewelry- and that's saying a LOT!

    3. So do I! It's saying a lot for me too. I very much consider writing an art form. Honestly, the current vogue for obfuscating prose in academia was a major factor in my decision not to pursue a PhD.

    4. Failing to think of a witty rejoiner... It's an awful norm; it sabotages communication and the stated purpose of increasing the body of knowledge and crosses from irony into hypocrisy. Go you for getting off the merry-go-round!

  4. I can't begin to imagine your childhood, or the monsters who could behave that way to a child. But your honesty and bravery in facing your past is just amazing! I imagine those years of celibacy were the right thing to begin to clear your head, and then the right man came along! Your past is horrifying, but the way you are facing it and are aware of your triggers, your future sounds very promising.

  5. Thank you so much for writing this and for your honesty. It made me cry because i can relate to it so much. What terrible people your abusers were. I am so glad that you are now able to take back control of your life and that you have found a man that can bring such happiness into your life.
    When you said :
    "I never felt that the sperm in me went away. I still don't feel that way. I feel that, to this day, my body is completely full of filth and decay. I feel like it runs poisonous through my veins.

    Sometimes I even feel that, if I open my mouth, black slime and ooze will escape from it, showing the world what I really am."

    i feel exactly like this. Like my insides are just rotting and sludge and filth pour through my veins. Some times i feel like no one else has ever felt that way especially when i tell people i feel that way and they say "don't feel that way" Its not so easy just not to feel a certain way. if it was i would have stopped. I don't want to feel dirty and disgusting.

    "It never occurs to them that what they're doing is rape, but it is, legally and morally. They wouldn't dream of raping their own daughters but they happily go to extremely underage prostitutes -- sex slaves -- thinking, "Well, she's already dirty, so I'm not doing anything wrong."

    There may be female prostitutes who were not sexually abused as children, but I've never met one."

    I sometimes wondered that to when men would pay my father for me. How could you just go along with it? How could you not stop it? But they thought i was trash to because of what my father had already done. They probably really never thought they were wrong. and that sickens me.

    1. I wrote this post for people like you, who are people like me, because I knew that, if I feel it, others do too. There is so much written about sexual abuse and so very very little written about how it makes us feel about our bodies, about the sexual parts of our bodies. We need to write about it, talk about it, think about it... if we're ever to heal.

  6. I can't touch this subject. But I am so glad you did. Your use of the art and words moved me.

  7. This was so beautiful. It is difficult to read the horror you experienced and so profound that you are able to share it. You and your vagina are lovely - from the inside out - pun intended.

  8. Thank you so very much for sharing your story with us. I am so enraged by what these people did do you, and so heartbroken. Adults are supposed to take care of children, not hurt them. This happens so often and the world just turns its head. Especially in your situation, you don't fit the category people can even imagine this may happen in....as if it makes it better, that it somehow happens in only certain sectors. They put up a blind eye to you. My heart aches that this happened to you, and that no one saved you.

    The filth that did this to you cannot make you dirty. You are a beautiful being. You are a very special flower. Those creatures....monsters...who who did these horrific things to you are the dirty ones. That dirt cannon cling to the innocence of a child.

    My words are not coming out as I'd like them to.

    I'm so thrilled to hear you have found Beau to love and to be able to explore new boundaries with.

    I know this had to be very difficult to write. I wish I could write my story so eloquently. You are amazing!

  9. Thank you so much for sharing this private part of your life. I agree, you're amazing.

  10. It's always fascinating to see how we all view our own lives. You have been through hell and come out the other side a witness to how evil perpetuates itself against our most vulnerable. You are wise and have so much to offer. You are courageous to share your story and it will help others. You are so intelligent to be able to decipher all of this abuse and see it for what it is. Never take a back seat to anyone. It is those of us who have never been challenged with such evil who need to defer to you for your wisdom. Thanks so much and please take care of yourself.