"Physical Memories" is a portrait series I imagined for years and finally completed during my senior year at UNC. I asked university students to tell me about an incident in which they had been touched without their consent in a way that made them feel unsafe. Then I gave them grey paint and asked them to use it to indicate where they had been touched.
I am incredibly thankful for the bravery and vulnerability of those who chose to participate in this project. We got to make something that I hope will help people grow, feel challenged, and/or feel understood and less alone.
Please note, some of the following stories describe instances of sexual assault.
Emily sits on her bed in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Nov. 28, 2016. She was visiting her boyfriend in Washington, D.C., when a stranger approached them to raise money for a cause, and he put his arm around her waist. When Emily expressed that the gesture made her uncomfortable, the man looked to her boyfriend and asked “That was alright, right?” Reckard said she thinks the interaction is a result of a culture in which men assume they have a right to touch women’s bodies. “It’s...little things that normalize a culture of violence against women and...make these attitudes of ‘oh, I’m male and I’m entitled and can do whatever I want and it will be ok, even if it makes women uncomfortable. It made me upset. Why does he think this is ok? It’s not, and it shouldn’t be.”
Lydia sits at her desk in Carrboro, N.C., on Nov 19, 2016. A stranger on a bus watched her and moved seats to sit by her, then repeatedly touched her knee in an attempt to get her attention. “I felt unsafe because I didn't feel any connection to any sort of help....Even if there are so many people around, people can look the other way.” Eventually, the man started paying attention to another woman, who assertively told the man to stop. “It definitely taught me you have a voice, whether for yourself or for others.”
Cate sits on the floor of her room in Chapel Hill on Nov. 21, 2016. She was in the 4th grade when her P.E. teacher greeted her by pulling her aside and trying to kiss her. She thought he was trying to kiss her mouth, but she turned her head and he kissed the side of her face. “I think I feel embarrassed. But most of all I feel confused. I don't know why he did that. I almost hope he didn't do that for some gross reason on his part, but I can't imagine why he would think that would be ok to do, especially with someone who is so young, when not a lot of people are around.”
Connor stands in his kitchen in Carrboro on Nov. 20, 2016. He was still private about his sexual identity when he met another student on a dating app. He agreed to try having sex, but told him repeatedly to stop when it started to hurt. “He said, ‘It’s supposed to feel like that,’” he said. “I just remember feeling like trash, like literally used.” Connor said the event caused him to experience problems with intimacy for awhile, but that he feels like he has moved on from it. “I don't think about it on a daily basis. I don't feel like it defines me or anything. It's something that happened to me, and I think it's something that people need to hear, because I think all too often, people don't really speak up for a lot (because they) feel gross...or stupid.”
Brianna sits on her desk in her dorm in Chapel Hill on Dec. 2, 2016. She dated a young man while she was taking a gap year, but she became uncomfortable with the progression of their physical relationship, especially when he did not seem to be listening when she pushed him off of her and became quiet. “I knew that I didn’t like it, but I felt wrong, because that’s what I should have liked.” She said the incident changed her relationship with him. “I never felt a hundred percent safe with him again, because I always feared that I wouldn’t like something that he wanted to do.”
Carolina lies in her room in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Nov. 18, 2016. She was on a date with a man she met while studying abroad in Peru when he took her hand and forced her to touch him although she made it clear she only wanted to kiss. “Because of the way he was acting, I felt trapped and paralyzed. I felt like I wasn't making sense. I felt ashamed or stupid for getting myself in that situation.... I felt anger because he made me feel like I did something wrong, when I know I didn’t.”
Hope sits on the floor of her bathroom on Nov. 30, 2016. She was assaulted repeatedly by a fellow student in middle school. She said allowing the event to define her for awhile was an integral part to moving on from that part of her life. “Just allowing myself to feel it was the hardest thing, because for so long I just didn’t think about it, and couldn’t let myself think about it, so learning to let myself be in pain--and that was going to be better in the long run, because then I could kind of deal with it.”
Michael sits on his bed in Chapel Hill on Dec. 1, 2016. He developed a close friendship with a boy in high school, and the two would often sleep over at the boy’s house. It was not until years after the relationship disintegrated that Michael came to understand that his confusing memories were recollections of his friend abusing him in his sleep. “I guess I learned something about repression and about the impact these things can have, because for years I didn’t perceive what had happened to me as assault. I didn’t perceive what I had been in as an abusive relationship.... And suddenly it all made sense. Suddenly I understood why I had repeated waking nightmares.”
Izzy lies on the floor of her room in Chapel Hill on Dec. 3, 2016. Pinheiro has been assaulted multiple times by people she trusted. “I have a hope for the future that things will be better, be different. People have just showed me that love can be selfless, and you can be soft and be vulnerable and not have that be seen as weakness or something to take advantage of.”