Age 24, taken minutes into a photo-shoot when the photographer announced it was time for me to expose my breasts.
In the conversations leading up to the shoot, never once was nudity discussed let alone agreed upon.
I’ve been modeling for photographers since age 15. I’ve posed nude in a handful of shoots, before this one and after, for female and gay photographers. In those photos, I am happy, free, laughing, basking in the joy of being a woman.
Those photos are what consent looks like.
These ones are the look of fear.
Here’s the other reason this memory clings: When he said, “Okay. Arms to your side now. Let’s see those ‘girls’,” something hooked deep in my belly urged me to follow his directions. The voice of everything I had learned as a girl in this world told me that were I to say "No", I’d be misbehaving, impolite, tiresome, uncool, disobeying my lifelong education to forever acquiesce to the orders of men.
“C’mon, beautiful. Show me. It’s not that hard,” he insisted. I immediately filled with guilt over the fact that I didn’t want to do as he insisted.
The man who is tugging on your memory, perhaps he wasn’t a photographer. He is the boyfriend who says, grinning, “C’mon, baby.” although you already said, “No, I’m not ready.” He is the rapist who ignores your “No” and commits the crime. He is the teacher or professor whose eyes linger longer than the appropriate seconds. He is the colleague or “friend” who feigns ignorance when you tell him, “That’s inappropriate.”
He is the man who boasts, “I never take 'No' for an answer,” attributing it to his charm and success, who hounds, harasses, hunts until you give him what he wants.
Coerced consent is not consent. Coerced consent is akin to a forced and false confession. Coerced consent is like reaching down a singer’s throat to kidnap her gift.
The photographer kept trying. “C’mon, now. I don’t have all day. Be a good girl."
I filled with panic. Something flooded my mouth - adrenaline - mingling with the acrid taste of being here before. And this, the feeling that I had been here before, experiences marred with shadow, bolstered my voice:
“No. I did not agree to that." I put on my clothes and left.
Now at 34, when I think of my 24-year-old self, I wish I could travel back in time to speak through her to say, “I was not born for the pleasure, needs, demands, entertainment, or cruelty of men. I was born to fulfill an identity far grander than what you have in mind for me.”
Thankfully, my 24-year-old-self knew these words without carrying their fully fleshed form. And she instinctively knew the less she said the quicker she left thus the better. Furthermore, the grim reality is that most women, we gain our ability to articulate ourselves only over time, by crawling along the world’s floor, gathering Scrabble pieces to connect the sentences that, ultimately, keep us alive and help us rise.
Our duty then, now, is to launch these truths into the world so other women do not have to find them by scuttling in the dirt. To be able to instead pluck them from the air, fruit to nourish your soul, embolden your strength, inform your rise.
My love, these words are for you. You, born for a story so much bigger than what they said, what they did, what they want, how they made you feel. Your voice is a gift. Your body is a blessing. Your companionship is a privilege. Say Yes only to what aligns with your value. Say No boldly, loudly, consistently to anything less. You, fiery one, were born to light the night sky with a constellation uniquely yours.
I love you.